Socialist International
4 min

Some thoughts on the St-Denis situation

MP Lise St-Denis’s floor crossing last week
has me pondering a few things, given some of the statements that have been
made, both from her and the NDP. This was an unusual defection in that it
wasn’t touched off by any one incident, which is what often happens in these
kinds of instances. I was struck by the calm with which
St-Denis approached this
decision and explained things without any particular acrimony. While one might
joke about what it says about the state of the NDP that she wasn’t even willing
to wait out the results of the leadership race before deciding to
jump ship, the culture of the party was certainly at play in the decision,
based on statements she made.

In an interview with CBC radio, St-Denis
spoke about how the NDP is too dogmatic in Parliament and is too focused
on opposition instead of proposing solutions. Funny, it was usually the New Democrats who touted themselves as being “in proposition, not opposition, and yet that
wasn’t how St-Denis felt. She said that she feels there is more substance and
experience in the Liberal benches, citing the number of former cabinet
ministers present in caucus. One can certainly imagine that the NDP caucus,
being largely made up of rookies and with their strongest players out of the
running while they focus on their leadership campaigns, would be somewhat
frustrating. I’ve certainly heard the frustration from some NDP MPs about the
way in which the party's been slow to react to certain things or had
to reverse positions shortly after making them. As well, St-Denis was one of
the MPs who wasn’t given any kind of portfolio or profile, which certainly
could have been motivation to make a move to where she felt she could make more of an impact and have a more visible presence.

All of this aside, there was one phrase
that St-Denis, who worked with the NDP for 10 years before getting
elected, said during the press conference that really struck me: “Life here is
completely different,” she said of Ottawa. “I didn’t imagine it would be what
it was,” she added later. This strikes me because of the attacks
the NDP have made against the Conservatives during members’
statements in the fall sitting. Casting back to the days of the Reform
Party, when members were first elected back in 1993, they came to Ottawa full of
scorn and disdain for everything and promised to change things. They were going
to stay in cheap hotels to prove they weren’t getting too comfy, there was to be no
special treatment for the leader on the front bench, and they would have
clusters of critics so that lots of people would get turns to speak, and so on. And
little by little, they became more mainstream, until they became the party they
are today (not without doing some lasting damage, and Don Newman attributes the
rise in personal acrimony to some of the changes the Reform Party brought with
them). And so what do New Democrats charge them with daily now? “They came to
Ottawa to change it, but Ottawa changed them,” they taunt. As though they are
more pious and pure and such a thing would never happen to them.

Never mind that the realities of Ottawa
have already started changing the NDP. Under Layton, the New Democrats did begin a slow
slide away from ideological orthodoxy into something a little more palatable
for the average Canadian voter, and they did see increases in their seats as a
result. According to St-Denis, after being here on the inside of things, she saw that
reality doesn’t necessarily match the perception, and her beliefs changed.
These things happen, and considering the gross lack of civic literacy in this
country, I’m almost surprised that it doesn’t happen more often (but that would
require a bit more independent thought from more MPs). People say that
floor crossings like these contribute to the cynicism people feel around
politics, but I have to wonder if the cynicism isn’t really a by-product of the
ignorance.

And then there was the NDP response. There
have been the hypocritical robo-calls and the petition demanding that if
St-Denis “respects democracy” she needs to resign and run again under the
Liberal banner. But here’s the thing: whether it’s what people are thinking in
the ballot box or not (and St-Denis has said point blank that people were
voting for Jack and he’s dead now), we’re voting for the MP, and we empower
them to make their own decisions. If we don’t like those decisions, well, we
get to hold them to account at the next election. That’s the way
democracy works.

More disturbingly, Turmel made a big show
of appointing Ruth Ellen Brosseau and Robert Aubin to “step in” and represent
St-Denis’s constituents on her behalf in the Commons, as though St-Denis isn’t
capable of representing all of her constituents, no matter which party she
belongs to. You know, like an MP is supposed to. Do Brosseau and Aubin (and
Turmel herself) not represent people who voted for other parties? So
why should St-Denis be any different? This is disturbing because it
smacks of the very same tactic of “shadow MPs” that the Conservatives are now
employing, where they give defeated candidates in high-profile ridings a job
that entails representing their would-be riding’s concerns to the government. If
they’re concerned that NDP voters in the riding are being “abandoned,” there should
be a riding association for that kind of thing, but again, this kind of tactic trades on the civic illiteracy of the general public.

Say what you will about St-Denis’s
defection, the New Democrat’s response hasn’t exactly burnished their own convictions
around their political purity.

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