In the wake of the defection to the Liberals yesterday of Quebec MP Lise St-Denis, elected last spring as a New Democrat, we can expect a minor upswell in the off-and-on national debate over the ethics of floor crossing.
By my rough calculations, there have been fifteen cases of sitting MPs changing parties since 2000 (not counting those who sought an electoral mandate before doing so or those who chose to sit as and remain independents). In ten of those cases, the individuals moved from the opposition benches to the governing party, and in only two cases did they go in the opposite direction. These numbers belie the commonly voiced claim by floor crossers that their actions represent a sincere change of heart or a principled matter of conscience and integrity, and confirm the sneaking suspicion felt by many Canadians that they instead exemplify the lust for power and political opportunism that define Ottawa.
Admittedly, St-Denis cannot be accused of such nefarious motives, having jumped ship from a large opposition party to a smaller one (O, how our beloved “natural governing party” has fallen!). But her move still amounts to a betrayal of voters. According to a NANOS poll last year, 78 percent of Canadians are most influenced by party or party leader when deciding how to vote, while only 12 percent are most influenced by the local candidate. And who can blame them? For better or for worse (for worse, in my opinion), individual MPs are virtually powerless in the web of slavish party discipline that suffocates the House of Commons. To vote on the basis of the local candidate, more often than not, is to waste one’s vote. And for an elected representative to switch parties after the election is in effect to tell voters: “You know that party whose whip I told you I would be bound by? Well, I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve decided to let all my Parliamentary votes be dictated by another party whose candidate you didn’t vote for.”
For these reasons, the NDP’s longstanding call for a ban on floor crossing (except for those who choose to sit as independents) makes sense to me. While I favour a reduction in this country’s draconian party discipline, it is one thing to alter an MP’s power in relation to the party leader, and another thing altogether to alter it in relation to voters. To require our Parliamentarians to seek approval in a by-election before changing parties is simply a matter of respecting voters’ wishes, and is integral to the very logic of democracy.