Yesterday the NDP had second reading debate
on a bill that would attempt to ban MPs from “crossing the floor” to other
parties. Mathieu Ravignat, the bill’s sponsor (though the same bill has been
introduced repeatedly by Peter Stoffer but never actually debated), said he
felt the bill would somehow restore Canadians’ faith in our democracy.
“This bill also reflects a fundamental
objective of my party, which is to do politics differently in order to renew
people's trust in elected officials,” Ravignat said in debate.
And of course, he brought up David Emerson
and Belinda Stronach as examples of people who supposedly traded
away principle for power. Except that people forget that Stronach actually had
legitimate reasons to cross the floor: the iron-fisted discipline that was imposed from above, that resisted her attempts to bring cultural change
from within, that used human rights – and especially gay rights – as tactical
wedge issues, and that marginalized her from the discussions despite giving
her a relatively high-profile critic position. But hey, she crossed the floor
just for a cabinet seat! She must have been grasping for power! Except that the
government could have toppled the very next day, which was something she was
fully prepared to accept.
Nobody mentions that Scott Brison crossed the
floor in debate. Unwilling to become the token gay poster boy for the
“tolerance” of the new Conservative Party, Brison found a party that respected
his fiscal conservatism and social progressiveness (seeing, of course, that his
former party, the Progressive Conservatives, ceased to exist). But do the
defenders of this bill bring him up? No, of course not.
And, of course, what David Emerson did was
reprehensible, no matter that he justified it as being in the best
interests of his constituents to have a representative in cabinet. Nobody
denies that. But he also knew the consequences of his actions and didn’t run
again. At the same time, voters in the ridings held by Stronach, Brison and
others who crossed the floor returned their MPs to Parliament, obviously
feeling that their reasons were sufficient.
The bill itself has a number of technical
flaws and loopholes and is aimed at forcing MPs who want to leave their parties
to sit as independents, then resign and hold by-elections before becoming members of other parties. Never mind that
they could simply vote with the party they wished to cross to until the next
election and run then. They could even join the caucus and simply not pay their
$5 membership fee to become an official party member until such time as the
next election, when they’d have to face a nomination race anyway (which they
may not win – such things have happened to floor-crossers in the past).
But technical flaws aside, the bill doesn’t
actually do anything substantive to address Canadians’ faith in politics or renew
trust in elected officials. In fact, what it does is say that MPs should no
longer exercise their own judgment and independence, and that they must in
fact submit themselves to the tyranny of their parties.
“According to the Library of Parliament,
there have been approximately 194 floor-crossings since Confederation,” said
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel in speaking out against the bill. “The floor-crossing tradition reflects the importance of preserving the independence and
mobility of members of Parliament to vote with their feet when they feel it is
in the best interests of their constituents or the country to do so.”
And that is exactly the point – sometimes MPs need to vote with their feet. Party leaders can become drunk with power or
abusive. Party cultures can change around them despite their best efforts. And
it also gives primacy to the party and not individual MPs, even though our
entire system is predicated on the role of the individual. We vote for
individual MPs – not a party slate. As such, we are placing our faith in the
judgment of those MPs. If their conscience demands that they walk out of a
party that they can no longer stand with, we have given them the authority to
do so with the proviso that when the next election comes around, we must hold
them to account for that decision.
This bill affirms that MPs cannot be
trusted to exercise their own judgment on the basis of one bad apple and
attacks made on the character of a select few others, which don’t necessarily
reflect the reality of their situation. This is a sad statement for sitting
MPs to make because it admits that they themselves cannot be trusted. It also
seeks to capitalize on any voter anger of the “betrayal” of a floor-crossing
while tempers are still hot, which serves nobody’s best interests. Knee-jerk
reactions are not the means by which we should hold our elected officials
A gimmick like this bill doesn’t serve to
restore trust – it just reaffirms cynicism. And that’s the last thing that we
need right now.