Recently, a Canadian Member of Parliament elected as a member of the New Democratic Party (NDP) from the province of Quebec announced that she was crossing the floor to join the Liberal Party. The MP, Ms. St-Denis, explained that she found herself increasingly disagreeing with the positions the NDP were espousing in the House of Commons, and more in agreement with the positions taken by the Liberals.
In this instance, no one can accuse Ms. St-Denis of political opportunism. The NDP is currently the Official Opposition in Ottawa, while the Liberals, historically Canada’s most successful political party, were reduced to third party status in the last federal election. Ms. St-Denis joining their caucus increases the party’s seat total to 35.
More interesting, perhaps, was the reaction on various blogs, Twitter and other online forums. NDP bloggers immediately dismissed her as a “nobody” joining a dying party – good riddance. Many also decried her actions as “undemocratic”, a betrayal of what her constituents wanted and had voted for, and challenged her to resign her seat and seek re-election as a Liberal. Others called for a ban on floor-crossing.
However, as Graham Fox, the President of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, noted on Twitter:
“The logic behind banning floor-crossing would also mean that leaders should not have the power to throw MPs out of caucus.
If we don’t want MPs to have the ability to “violate the voters’ decisions”, why would we allo party leaders to have that power?”
He added in French (translation mine):
“Bien que chocantes, les defections politiques ne sont pas necessairement anti-demo, et rappellent que les partis ne comptent pas pour tout.” (While upsetting, political defections aren’t always undemocratic and remind us that political parties don’t count for everything.)
In response to that, @jesse_helmer replied:
“I have trouble squaring calls for reform that would weaken part [sic] discipline with opposition to switching parties.”
These are important points. If you support the idea that MPs should have more independence – for example, if you would prefer to see fewer whipped votes in the Canadian House of Commons (almost all votes are whipped), if you would like to see an end to scripted questions during Question Period, and MPs, especially backbenchers, free to ask whatever questions they want, even if it embarrasses their party, if you would like to see an end to party whips controlling who sits on committees, etc., then it makes little sense to support banning floor-crossing, which is probably the ultimate freedom an MP has to voice his or her disagreement with the direction in which their party is moving.
Similarly, if you argue that it is “undemocratic” for an MP to cross the floor because he or she was elected as a member of that particular party, then it is equally undemocratic for a party leader to kick an MP out of caucus and force them to sit as an independent, since that would also be going against what voters had voted for.
I have previously written about some of the main arguments for and against floor crossing, and so I won’t repeat myself in detail here. The question you have to ask yourself is what is the role of an MP? Is it simply someone who toes the party line no matter what and votes as they are told to vote on every given issue, or do we want MPs to use their own judgement, analyze each issue and vote as they see best, even if that includes deciding that they no longer agree with their party, or that their party’s positions aren’t in the best interest of their constituents?
There is another issue at play here, however, one that has been largely overlooked. The last election, the one which saw Ms. St-Denis elected, happened only recently, in May 2011. In a column from La Presse, Vincent Marissal writes that Ms. St-Denis is apparently one of four new NDP MPs from Quebec who aren’t entirely happy being NDP MPs, but whether the other three will quit the party may depend on the outcome of the current NDP Leadership contest:
Pourrait-il y avoir d’autres défections? C’est douteux pour le moment mais, à Ottawa, des néo-démocrates ont laissé entendre que Mme St-Denis «était l’une des quatre députés» susceptibles de quitter le bateau. À suivre, surtout si Thomas Mulcair mord la poussière dans la course à la direction. (translation: “Could there be more defections? It’s doubtful at the moment, but in Ottawa, the New Democrats hinted that Ms. St-Denis “was one of four MPs” susceptible of jumping ship. This is to follow, especially if Thomas Mulcair bites the dust in the leadership race.”)
Many people have been asking why she ran for the NDP in the first place, when she clearly seems to be more of a Liberal in terms of policy positions. Ms. St-Denis admits that she ran not expecting to be elected, which was a safe-enough assumption on her part. Historically, the NDP has never won more than a few seats at any one time in the province of Quebec, and the party didn’t have much of an organization (or many members) in that province. However, the May 2011 election saw some seismic changes in Canada’s political landscape, most notably the demise of the pro-independence Bloc Québécois (reduced from 47 seats to 4 seats). The BQ’s support largely went to the NDP, which had gone into that election with one MP from Quebec and emerged after the election with 59 of the province’s 75 seats.
Because, historically, the NDP never expected to win many seats in Quebec, they often ran placeholder candidates in many of the ridings. These candidates are often chosen at the last minute, and may not be very well vetted since the party is mostly focused on being able to say they are running a full slate of candidates. The NDP isn’t the only party to do this, of course, and most of the time, there’s no chance that these candidates will win. But sometimes they do win, and the party finds itself with new MPs who may not be fully committed to the party and its policies.
Another factor is that there is strong evidence that a lot of the former BQ voters in Quebec who turned to the NDP weren’t really voting for the party per se, but for its leader, Jack Layton, who passed away this summer. Mr. Layton was extremely popular and quite well known in Quebec – more popular and better known than his party and its policies, it’s probably fair to say. Ms. St-Denis acknowledged that, saying people in her riding had voted not for the NDP but for Jack Layton, and Layton was dead, implying that her move from the NDP to the Liberals didn’t really matter because voters hadn’t really voted for the NDP and its policies.
And it’s also fair to say that the NDP’s policies never really received much media attention. Since 1993, the NDP has been the 4th party in the House of Commons, which meant that media attention was largely focused on the parties (and policies of the parties) which had a real chance of forming the government: the Liberals and Reform/Canadian Alliance/Conservatives. That they finished second in the May 2011 election, becoming the Official Opposition for the first time in the party’s history, caught almost everyone off-guard. Late in the election campaign, when it became increasingly clear that something was going on, both the media and the other parties were left scrambling – the media trying to figure what the NDP stood for, and the other parties what to attack them on. Therefore it really shouldn’t come as a surprise if some of the people who ran for the NDP in Quebec, never expecting to win, weren’t that familiar with what the party actually stood for – some of them didn’t even campaign at all in the ridings in which they were candidates.
As I have written repeatedly, in various posts, the Canadian House of Commons is already extremely whipped, with MPs already quite subservient to their party leadership (particularly in contrast with MPs from the UK). Party discipline does not need to be strengthened in the Canadian House of Commons, if anything, anyone interested in political reform should be looking at ways of weakening the power of party whips and party leadership, and giving MPs more freedom to carry out their roles and obligations as individual Members. Banning floor crossing runs counter to increasing MP independence. More attention should also be given to candidate selection. Parties should focus less on trying to run full slates and more on the quality of their candidates. Perhaps the phasing out of the vote subsidy will force some parties at least to do just this because they won’t have the financial resources to run a full slate, and there won’t be any financial incentive to have a warm body on every ballot. In the end, perhaps that will be a good thing.