Voices of a generation: The independence of crossing the floor

By Ali Khan Lalani & Mark Small on February 5, 2009

It is always fun to watch when a politician crosses the floor. Whatever side is losing a member waves their arms at the injustice, the thwarting of democracy, the cynical self-interest that motivated the move, and whatever side is gaining the new member welcomes the new MP with open arms and speaks about sticking up for ones beliefs and the courage it takes to cross the floor.  

Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals can maintain a consistent position on floor crossing; their points of view depend entirely upon whether they are winning or losing. There is no doubt that party loyalists have reason to be upset when the drone they thought they were electing suddenly switches sides. Everyone else should take a moment to celebrate the fact that we still elect individuals to the House, and not all-powerful party leaders are mindless worker bees.  

Unless you are an absolute die-hard traditionalist, chances are that you do change your mind from time to time about which party’s policies are best. A party that you once loved can disappoint or outrage you. This was felt by then Conservative MP Belinda Stronarch who claimed that the Conservative party did not represent her particular views when on May 15, 2005 she crossed the floor joining the Liberal party and keeping it’s government afloat.   

Her actions were seen by many as cynical, and her rise to Minister was deemed  unethical by some. The Ethics Commissioner of Canada, Dr. Bernard Shapiro, refused to investigate her floor-crossing, citing that it was a constitutional right of a Prime Minister to appoint opposition members to Cabinet.   The same can easily be true for a Member of Parliament, especially a back-bencher with very little say in the direction of a party.  

If crossing the floor was not allowed, a member in those circumstances would be left with three options: continue to sit with a party but vote against their policies, sit as an independent, or resign and get another mandate.  None of these are practical options.

 Voting against your party consistently will get you out of caucus quick enough. Sitting as an independent would be great, but independents in our system are at a massive disadvantage. It is very difficult for an independent member to ask questions during Question Period, and they do not have access to the research staff or infrastructure that party members enjoy. Furthermore, your future as an independent is necessarily limited in terms of numbers.  An independent will probably never be part of a government, and never position themselves to have a real say in the way that the country is run.  Running again in a by-election is, at the very least, logistically difficult and potentially politically suicidal.  

First off, the Prime Minister decides when a by-election is held and they have the option of holding the seat open for many months.  Next, a member couldn’t really run for the other party in a snap by-election, they probably couldn’t even win a nomination.  Without sitting with a party for a while, and getting comfortable with their new members the party would have no reason to trust a recent defector; it would be smarter and safer for them just to run whoever they ran in the last election.  A member could run as an independent such as the late Chuck Cadman, but we know the problems independence entails and they are multiplied when trying to run without a party machine to back you up.   

Certainly there are cases where a floor crossing seems particularly cynical.  David Emerson is probably the most outrageous case of this, but the option to cross the floor needs to be kept open. It is the only way to preserve what little independence our members have against the power of the political party machine.  

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