Monday, February 27, 2006

In Support of a Floor Crossing Bill

David Emerson is in the news again, with his claim that he could win a by-election. With this one day story into week 4, I'd just like to voice my support for a law to force MPs to run in by-elections if they cross the floor.

I don't have a problem with an MP quitting their party over a decision of conscience. We've seen this with the likes of David Kilgour and Pat O'Brien who quit the Liberals to sit as independents (this marks the first, and only time, I will ever use Kilgour and/or Pat O'Brien as examples of honourable politicians). Parties change and the individual MP has a right to quit if he or she doesn't like the direction of the party.

However, when an MP joins another party in the manner that David Emerson or Belinda Stronach did, it really comes down to fraud. Fraud against the party and volunteers who helped elect them - but more importantly, against the voters of the riding. Voters have a right to get what they voted for and when 82% of the riding didn't want a Conservative, you can't have David Emerson decide that it's "better for his riding" to get a Cabinet Minister. Yes, politicians don't always deliver on their promises, but everyone expects politicians to lie. Just like when you buy fruit you're risking that it might not taste great, there's a buyer's risk involved in politicians breaking their promises. And we did see Sheila Copps run in a by-election for a major break of a direct promise.

But there isn't an expectation that a politician will switch parties. Because this goes above and beyond the usual broken promises and failed expectations, it's necessary for the constituents to validate the MP's decision in a by-election. Otherwise, you've violated the entire principle of representative democracy. In our system, voters vote for the party well above the individual MP. So if the MP switches parties, there needs to be some sort of accountability involved and some sort of approval by the voters of their MPs new affiliation.

Otherwise, we'll just see cynical voters feel that votes are being traded for Cabinet positions. Regardless of whether or not Emerson feels he could win a by-election, he should voluntarily run in one. Hopefully we'll see some legislation over the next few years making such a move mandatory.

30 Comments:

  • Maybe a petition online...
    http://www.petitiononline.com/

    By Blogger Bass, at 2:24 PM  

  • What's so wrong with a PM wanting highly qualified people in his/her Cabinet?

    To the best of my knowledge, David Emerson did not seek this post. He was asked if he would accept the job and he accepted.

    If Canada is going to see a long-period during which we will have minority governments, then we had better get used to politicians either crossing the floor to enter Cabinet or else devise a better way for members of the opposition to become Cabinet ministers. In my mind, it is very important that all regions of the country have a voice in Cabiet. If the party that forms government is not represented in all parts of the country, then the PM of the day has no choice but to look for innovative ways to identify potential Cabinet members.

    Moreover, if all of those in the NDP and elsewhere who so passionately want proportional rep type voting introduced, then they better get used to multi-party Cabinets or non-government members joining Cabinet.

    What PM Harper did may have been unconventional. But, if we continue to have minority governments without full regional representation, this certainly won't be the last time that a PM looks outside of his/her own party for a Cabinet minister.

    And while I'm at it. I see a huge difference between Stronach and Emerson. In Stronach's case, her decision to cross the floor affected the ability of the government to survive. In Emerson's case, it had zero impact on the life of the government. Therefore he was able to cross the floor in the knowledge that he was not betraying the intentions of those who had voted along party lines hoping that the Liberals would form government. And anyone who comes from BC knows that Emerson was known as coming from the wing of the BC Liberal Party that reflects mainstream views rather than the left wing of the party. Thus, it was not a surprise that he would be comfortable with the mainstream views of the CPC. Any voter in Vancouver-Kingsway who did his/her homework would have been aware of Emerson's general approach to most issues. As a member of the Harper Cabinet, he will be in a position to advocate exactly the same issues he did before, only with more clout. Sounds like a good trade off for his constituents to me.

    By accepting the PM's offer he did nothing that would have made a difference in enhancing the Liberal Party's prospects to form a governmment. That is significant and very different from the Stronach defection.

    By Anonymous Two Cents, at 2:27 PM  

  • Question:
    How would such a law really work?

    If I'm an MP and there's such a law in place, I'll just vote with the party I'd otherwise have joined, and remain an opposition member. Technically, I could even be named to cabinet while sitting on the opposition side of the house.

    Now let's say that my party leader expels me from caucus for doing that. Do I have to face a byelection for being expelled? And if I do, doesn't that mean that party leaders are able to force any member to face a byelection at any time?

    By Blogger JP, at 2:33 PM  

  • Such a law would put too much power into the hands of party leaders and make the system inherently undemocratic. Perhaps a more realistic solution would be a recall provision for voters in cases where they don't feel adequately represented.

    By Blogger Alberta Conservative, at 2:57 PM  

  • I partially agree with you, but can't think of a way that you can draft a piece of legislation that would work. What if, for example, a party changes names like the Conservatives did. Would the legislation make it illegal for the PC and CA to join?

    I agree that what Mr. Emerson did was wrong and hate that he did it. Would it not be better to do a better job communicating to voters that they're electing an individual and not a party?

    By Blogger Hangin to the left, at 3:12 PM  

  • Two cents
    I too see a big difference between Stonach and Emerson. Stonach came to a point where she could not work with and within her party. They were taking every opportunity to humiliate and berate her and she disageed with them on some fundamental principles. Emerson, he left a couple days after being elected as a Liberal. Stonach was reelected by her riding in the time frame that a byelection would have occured. I also think it is far to early to assume that Emerson did not cross the floor without any eye by Harper on the numbers in the house.
    Question: If Harper had won a majority (and assume he was still weak in Vancouver) would Emerson have got that offer?
    I really really doubt it.
    That vote might turn out to be very important, arguably much more important then Belinda's as Harper has a smaller minority so each vote is more important.
    I am against any floor crossing bill. I think MP's have to little power and I think they need the opportunity to stand up for their principles. I think the failure here is on the part of Canadians. We have to do a better job of being informed, we have to look at not just the party we elect but also the representative. We need to be better informed. In the vast majority of cases floor crossing is valid. Emerson is the exception that proves the rule.

    By Anonymous happeningfish, at 3:31 PM  

  • Re: Two Cents,

    Yes there was a slight difference in the Stronach and Emerson defections. Belinda Stronach would have won her Newmarket-Aurora riding by a landslide as a Liberal (and subsequently has) has this is a traditionally liberal riding that she won by less than 700 votes as a Conservative.

    Vancouver Kingsway has voted Conservative exactly once, in 1958.

    Of course you can't have laws that would try to anticipate which way a riding would vote, and Stronach could have easily accomplished the same thing (defeating the confidence motion) as an independent.

    The other major difference is that Stronach, through a third party, contacted Martin with a request to join the Liberals. She was subsequently offered a junior cabinet position, but no quid pro quo.

    Emerson was approached on behalf of Harper by John Reynolds and directly offered a cabinet position. There was absolutely no consideration of him joining the Conservatives as a backbencher. Emerson's explanation that he felt he could serve British Columbians better in Cabinet pretty much confirms he was induced to cross with a cabinet offer. These sort of quid pro quo offers are the root of corruption.


    re: Joshp

    I believe the proposed law is structured so that those who resign from caucus to sit as independents would not have to face a bi-election. This would also apply to those expelled from caucus. This is fair, seems the likelyhood of an independent prevailing in an election against a well funded party is pretty low.

    Obviously it is possible to get around this by first sitting as an independent and then at some later date joining the opposing caucus. But all laws have loop holes and eventually the voters get to have their say.

    By Blogger CoteGauche, at 3:31 PM  

  • re: Recall.

    I lived in California through the recall debacle there. For those who don't know the details, Democratic Governor Grey Davis was recalled by a margin of 55.4% in favour to 44.6% against. Arnold Schwarzeneger was elected as governor with a plurality of 48.6%. In a head to head contest between Davis and Schwartzenegger it is not clear who would have been prefered by the voters.

    However it was feared, and almost came true that Davis could be recalled by 51%, and because he was not permitted to run on the replacement ballot, the replacement governor could win with a plurality of as low as 35%.

    Structuring a recall law where candidates are routinely elected with 35% or less of the popular vote, is rather tricky. The threshold for a recall has to be very high - say 65% to 70%, otherwise the losing candidates in each riding would immediately start a recall campaign.

    By Blogger CoteGauche, at 3:44 PM  

  • Floor crossings are a constant in politics and we will never see that change. The problem is that there have been 2 minority governments where floor crossings have had more of a detrimental effect. Now Josh has a good point, if you are going to cross the floor, you could always sit as an independent and vote for the party you wanted to defect to. Once you become an independent, you could then become a member of cabinet since you no longer have any party ties. Is that wrong, yes, is there anything we can do to solve the problem....not effectively. Forcing a by-election would give some of the power back to the people who elected the politician, but that can be circumvented by running as an independent, saying his views are the same, get re-elected, then join the other side as independents wouldn't be obligated to the same rules as a party or just vote for everything that the other side would want to.

    Now in terms of the whole Emerson thing, he should run in a by-election. Since the views of the Liberals and the Conservatives are very different from each other and show that the change was for political gain, not for the good of his constituency or any moral and ethical conflicts. Stronach's defection was a moral/ethical conflict as the Conservative platform was quite different the PC platform that she was in favor of. Now, two cents states that Emerson's defection has no impact on the life of the government....that is very wrong. With Emerson's defection, it allows the Conservatives & NDP to get a majority vote through the house. With this, Emerson has saved the Conservative government.

    By Blogger Milan Maligec, at 3:58 PM  

  • I have to agree with what a lot of others have said here. Any floor-crossing bill would have to be worded in such a way that it did not make MPs slaves of their respective parties.

    I didn't like the Stronach crossing, Brison crossing or the Emerson crossing. But I have trouble condemning Harper as heavily as Martin because it is not clear Harper's motivations (Martin's motivation to stay in power were very clear).

    All of them had excuses as to why they couldn't stay in their parties but all of them made crass political decisions.

    A better decision for Harper would have been to allow Emerson to continue sitting as a Liberal (and hence force the Liberals to expell him) or to have him sit as an independent for several months but keep him in cabinet. Either of these options would have been better. IMHO.

    By Blogger SouthernOntarioan, at 4:04 PM  

  • 1. Recall is stupid, before in Canada you can be elected with under 50% of the votes in your riding. And the recall law can be abused and is based on a small percentage of constituents wanting a recall election. So, all you need to do is mobilize your base and you can keep an MP away from his or her duties in the house by having to go through a recall election (when they wouldn't even be allowed to sit as an MP to the best of my knowledge). So it doesn't work under a British Parliamentary system.

    2. The law wouldn't give too much power to party leaders because it would only force a byelection if the MP switched parties. If you sat as an independent, like Parrish, you wouldn't need to go to a byelection.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 4:14 PM  

  • Just bar the door to cabinet to floor crossers until they face a byelection or general election with their new party.

    This preserves the independance of MPs and has historical precedent in the Canadian Parliament.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:17 PM  

  • Dear God, CG. The list of reasons this post makes no sense is staggering:

    The whole matters of conscience thing is a red herring. Representing a province isn't a matter of conscience? Preventing the fall of a democratically elected government on the basis of electoral opportunism? Who gets to decide whether or not those are matters of conscience?

    No, the only difference between the cases you support and the cases you don't is that you don't support the cases in which people enhanced their personal power by switching to the government party and getting a cabinet post.

    "Voters have a right to get what they voted for and when 82% of the riding didn't want a Conservative"

    Look at that statement. You're saying that people have a right to get what they voted for, and then you immediately complain that they didn't not get what they didn't vote for. There's a difference. 100% of the voters in that riding didn't want a Martian representing them in the house of commons. Those voters should be satisfied, then?

    People don't vote against, they vote for. The valid complaint is not that X% did not vote in favour of the result and X is high, but that Y% voted in favour, and Y is too low. But did Emerson win the riding with a majority in the first place? I'd be surprised. Most don't. So even if he had stayed with the Liberal party you could make the same complaint. It has nothing to do with his having switched parties.

    "Otherwise you've violated the entire principle of representative democracy."

    Have we? Does the principle of representative democracy have the word "Party" in it? No, it doesn't. The idea is that people can rule themselves by electing representatives. Parties are an accident of democracy, not a fundamental aspect of it.

    Yes, people make their decisions on the basis of party, not candidate. But that's a result of a political system that makes the parties more important than the people. If anything, that system is, itself, anti-democratic.

    So it doesn't make sense to claim a defense of democracy, when what you're defending is a system that injures democracy.

    And this claim, too, is a red herring. Because what's the difference between a person switching parties, and a person simply voting against their own party? Not a hell of a lot. And yet do we have people arguing that there should be recalls for candidates that vote against their party a certain percentage of the time? No.

    The issue is not which party the member chooses to belong to. The issue is that people think these moves are not in the interests of the voters, but in the interests of the member.

    That argument is unsurprising, given the attitude most people have toward politicians.

    "everyone expects politicians to lie."

    But the fact that it's widely held doesn't mean it makes any goddamn sense. A guy like Emerson could make a bundle doing next to nothing in the private sector. What exactly is he gaining from being a Minister that he couldn't get easier some other way, except the opportunity to make his country better?

    The arguments in favour of floor-crossing laws are vacuous. They don't make any sense at all. Yes, people are pissed off. And yes, if people cross the floor purely for personal power, that would be wrong. Is that happening? There's no reason to believe so. Can it be prevented without also preventing things that we consider legitimate? No. So let's just deal with it like grown-ups, shall we?

    The thing that pisses me off most about this whole thing is that the side-effect of such a law would be to cement in the public mind the fact that they are voting for parties, and not for people. That idea alone has done and will do more damage to the accountability of our members of parliament than floor crossing ever has or ever will.

    The simple fact is, we can vote for whatever reasons we like. But the reasons we choose one thing over another do not determine what it is we get. We get what is being offered. What is being offered is people.

    If we accept that, we can start to make real changes that will make people accountable. As long as we complain about parties, we're just giving them more power they don't deserve.

    This is ridonkulous. Honest to gord, people, we need a more intelligent debate on this stuff.

    By Blogger Gauntlet, at 4:29 PM  

  • "Recall is stupid, before in Canada you can be elected with under 50% of the votes in your riding. And the recall law can be abused and is based on a small percentage of constituents wanting a recall election. So, all you need to do is mobilize your base and you can keep an MP away from his or her duties in the house by having to go through a recall election (when they wouldn't even be allowed to sit as an MP to the best of my knowledge). So it doesn't work under a British Parliamentary system."

    Bill C-383 tabled in the last session for instance proposed that a recall could take place with 50% approval of ALL eligible voters in a riding. It would be difficult to mobilize those numbers by a small partisan group. By the way, BC has a recall provision for MLAs that to date has been successful only in one instance (and a well justified one to boot) so abuse of a recall provision is not an issue. I would argue BC uses a British style electoral system.

    "The law wouldn't give too much power to party leaders because it would only force a byelection if the MP switched parties. If you sat as an independent, like Parrish, you wouldn't need to go to a byelection."

    So if Emerson quit the Liberals and sat as an independent in the Conservative cabinet, would that change anything besides the optics of the situation?

    By Blogger Alberta Conservative, at 4:39 PM  

  • Hey, I have met Kilgour once or twice and he was my MP when I lived in Edmonton. He struck me as a man of honour. Sure, he overstepped his bounds with Martin, but he still stuck to his principles.

    The idea of an MP who switches parties being forced to sit as an independant until elected as a member of a specific party has a great deal of appeal. On the other hand, anything that adds to the leaders power is alarming. I would think that one would need to make it illegal for a party leader to remove anyone from Caucus to make this work.

    I am not sure what the answer is, but I know that Emerson's actions were anything but democratic.

    By Blogger Psychols, at 6:30 PM  

  • Rule 1: Forbid floor crossing atleast 8 months after an election.

    Any political party is unlikely to change its direction so drastically in 8 months so as to make an MP 'uncomfortable' with the party.

    Rule 2: Cabinet positions go to MPs elected under the banner of the government.

    This would stop floor crossers from getting undue rewards.

    Rule 3: Have a recall option (with threshold of 60% after a floor crossing event).

    By Blogger mezba, at 6:44 PM  

  • Sure David Emerson could win in a by-election if he choose the right riding. All he has to do is get one of the Fraser Valley MPs or even better one of the Alberta MPs to step aside and he would win there since those ridings would vote Conservative even if the candidate was a monkey. Off course he would get his butt kicked if he ran as a Conservative in Vancouver-Kingsway. Anyways even though I don't support Emerson's decision to cross the floor, I don't think it should be prohibited. Parties change as do individuals so I think if an individual has a strong disagreement with the direction of their party as Belinda Stronach and Scott Brison did, then they should be able to defect. The problem with Emerson's defection is it wreaked of pure opportunism.

    By Blogger Miles Lunn, at 7:20 PM  

  • It sounds like a good idea in theory, but as the lessons from New Zealand's experience with this issue can teach us, it may not be tenable in practice.

    By Blogger Idealistic Pragmatist, at 7:24 PM  

  • Too complicated - how about a bill that makes people quit parties to sit as Independents til next election.

    (I really don't see the Emerson problem here - Harper (or Chretien) should be able to put who he wants into Cabinet. Can't an Ind. be chosen for Cabinet, though?)

    By Anonymous NBT, at 12:08 AM  

  • The Emerson saga has become a farce, and Emerson is the farce. What an unbelievable character he is.

    By Blogger John Murney, at 12:15 AM  

  • Very interesting discussion. It is the principle vs. power motivation of crossing over that concerns me. Some base it on principle, whether that be Brison or Stronach, yet principled or not, they have been rewarded and sat on the government side in power. It is the reward and convenience of these moves, whether personal or political gain, that is most troubling to many. Politicians who choose this course should be held to account for their actions and the mark it leaves on voter cyncism..we certainly don't need more of that.

    By Blogger Paula, at 12:28 AM  

  • Hey, this quote was taken from this blog. Any idea where I can find it?

    "I was one of those present at the Scott Brison reception at Christy Clark's house. Scott seems like a nice enough guy but his French skills are no match for Stephen Harpers. He's bot exactly the most dynamic speaker in English either. The real star of the evening was Christy's 4 year old son Hamish who kept entering the room and interupting Scott's speech, toy sword in hand. I noticed some people dozing off while Scott was talking. If there hadn't been so much wine and beer provided by the hostess, the evening would have been a total waste"

    By Anonymous Help, at 1:20 AM  

  • "Parties are an accident of democracy, not a fundamental aspect of it."

    Wrong. Parties are a fundamental aspect of a representative democracy, because each is the means by which a multiplicity of interests are reconciled and advanced. And in general the party weighs more heavily in the average voter's mind that does the particular individual who stands for that party.

    When a party enters a coalition with another party, its members have not
    "crossed the floor"; they are adhering to the collective decision of the party to which they belong. The same goes if a party formally merges with another party: its members have not betrayed their commitment to the party if they abide by its decision. David Emerson seems to be claiming that he was elected not as the representative of a particular party and its platform, but as a free agent, charged with getting the "best deal" for his constituents. This claim might have been credible if he had been elected as an independent. But he wasn't. The man is a charlatan and a swindler.

    By Anonymous mijnheer, at 2:00 AM  

  • I have to agree with Gauntlet that we need to grow up on this one.

    The way I see it, if you're an anti-conservative this is the worst thing in the world. If you're a conservative, there is no problem. The same happened when Stronach crossed the floor. If you're an NDP supporter than the rest of the world is just evil.

    The real problem with this post is the comment: (this marks the first, and only time, I will ever use Kilgour and/or Pat O'Brien as examples of honourable politicians). As someone who has had the opportunity to meet Mr. Kilgour on many occasions, I would have to say that you have no clue when it comes to this man's honour and integrity. Kilgour has always represented his riding well, despite it costing him cabinet posts or otherwise. He is a good example of a hard working politician, who it is easy for you to slag online, but I doubt you have as much honour as he has in his pinky finger. As for Pat O'Brien, I have no comments, but that's because I only make comments when I have something to base them on.

    By Anonymous Michael, at 5:24 AM  

  • Someone spoke of personal motivation - as in personal gain. Anyone who knows David Emerson knows that he considers his present situation as one of public service. If he were in this for personal gain, he'd quit tomorrow and return to the private sector where he would immediately receive a huge increase in pay.

    Too often armchair pundits ascribe base motives to politicians.

    For those of us in Ottawa who work with elected officials (of all parties) on a daily basis we are often pleasantly surprised at how many of our elected officials genuinely believe in good old fashioned public service and really do try to do what they believe is best for Canada.

    Not all succeed, but not for lack of effort.

    By Anonymous Two Cents, at 9:21 AM  

  • Re Belinda, "two cents" said as follows:

    Stonach came to a point where she could not work with and within her party. They were taking every opportunity to humiliate and berate her and she disageed with them on some fundamental principles.

    The whole "humiliation" line is a bit much to take, but even if we accept it as fact, perhaps someone could enlighten me as to why Belinda - that great bastion of integrity - was on her feet griping about and voting against the Libs the week before she joined, and was attending a CPC strategy meeting in Ottawa the bloody weekend before she crossed the floor?

    You know, it is possible to be unhappy with the Emerson thing without elevating Stronach to sainthood.

    By Blogger Jason Hickman, at 9:56 AM  

  • Whoops - that quote was from happeningfish, NOT 2cents.

    That'll teach me to post 1st thing in the morning. My apologies to both of you.

    By Blogger Jason Hickman, at 9:59 AM  

  • I don't think I am attempting to elevate Stonach to sainthood. I am personally not a huge stonach fan. I really just want to point out that arguably she had reasons to do waht she did and that those reasons jibed with what has up until now been the rational for floor crossing. She at least couched her floor crossing in the right terms and had SOME justification for it. I have heard many stories some of them from very creditable sources detailing the humiliations she received, important not sure, give context definatly. I have never implied Saint Belinda, nor would I. It was a politicaly timed move sure but I would suggest that for her to stay in politics it was an inevitable move as long as Harper and the neo cons controlled the CPC. Is it justification not really, it is an explanation, yes.
    Does Emerson have any shred of traditional justification, NO. Belinda is not Saint but Emerson is sure a sinner

    By Anonymous Happeningfish, at 10:54 AM  

  • Perhaps I'm off topic here but in my opinion David Emerson DID NOT CROSS THE FLOOR. Once his mandate was up for the previous parliament he had to be sworn in as a meber of parliamnet after he was declared a winner in V-Kingsway the second time. He was NEVER SWORN IN as a LIBERAL the second time therefore he did not cross the floor. He was directly sworn in as a Conservative after the election. So in my opinion David Emerson pulled a "bait and switch" operation during the election. If Safeway pulled such a stunt they'd be in court.

    By Blogger except for one thing..., at 3:53 PM  

  • Just f**king amazing. All these years the libs were in power and not a peep despite various floor corssing.

    BUT, let the tables turn and with a single crossing to the CPC and suddenly there is this overwhelming desire to change the system

    The libs should quit whining.

    BTW, looks good on you guys. Suck it up!

    Horny Toad

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:53 AM  

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