Floor Crossers

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With the fall election fast approaching, a number of MPs have announced they will not run. The most high profile of this group have been John Baird and Peter McKay, two senior Cabinet ministers in the Harper government. They clearly think they have achieved the pinnacle of political success. They may have dreams of returning later though the recent lesson of Jim Prentice in Alberta may give them second thoughts.

This is all part of the usual political churn – necessary for some to leave so that others may enter Parliament, hopefully with fresh voices and perspectives. Meanwhile, others face a more complicated choice. Several MPs will try for re-election under different political banners than they followed in the last election. Bruce Hyer, a New Democrat who was expelled from the party for failing to follow a whipped vote, has been sitting as a Green and will contest his seat for that party. Eve Adams, a former Conservative who fell afoul of the party for being too aggressive in her nomination battle, has switched parties and ridings and hopes to run as a Liberal against Finance Minister Joe Oliver. Brent Rathgeber in Edmonton who left the Conservative caucus in a dispute over the heavy handed nature of the PMO will run as an independent.

All of these floor crossers feel justified in the stances they have taken. All, to a greater or lesser extent, have objected to the strict allegiance their parties have demanded of them. Some people argue that floor crossing should not be allowed, that MPs who leave their party for whatever reason should sit as independents or better yet, resign and run in a by-election. Support for this position may depend on which party you support — those losing MPs or those gaining them.

What lies at the heart of this dispute is a divide over how people view the electoral process in Canada. Are MPs elected as individuals – with specific and personal moral and political consciences – to represent their constituents or are they representatives of their party and only advocates of those who support that party’s platform and ideology. If the former, floor crossing is not such a great sin; they remain their voters’ representative and do not compromise their principles. Indeed, for those who advocate for more independent MPs, it is a virtue. If the latter is true, however, then of course they have no right to sit with another party.

Of course, MPs are both. Our traditions demand that we consider our MPs as our personal representative to the Crown. In the constitution – both written and unwritten, parties do not exist. However, the reality of political life is quite different. Political analysis of voter intention show that party affiliation accounts for about 60% of voter decision making; the party leader another 30% and the individual MP only about 10%. In smaller, more rural ridings, the local MP may account for a bit more and the party a bit less but in general when people go to the polls, it is the party that matters. Though which party they support may change (though not as much as you might think), identification with a party’s platform is critical.

In the end, voters will decide if the MPs decision was the right one. While sometimes the voters may agree – Belinda Stronach was re-elected initially after she became a Liberal – more often they revert back to their former allegiances or punish both the floor crosser and the party who took them as in Alberta last month.

But that’s ten minutes. Thanks to Michael Kalnay for the idea.

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