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What does it really mean to cross the floor?

In a country where the common person likely has a very low opinion of our nation’s politicians, the recent spat of floor-crossing does very little to assuage those concerns. Cue Eve Adams.

Adams, a Conservative MP, recently crossed the floor to the federal Liberals, amidst her stated unhappiness with the “mean-spirited” leadership of the federal Tories. Of course, Adams made no mention of her inability to secure the federal Conservative nomination in Oakville Burlington-North. She also made no mention of her use of ugly political tactics in that nomination race, which led the Conservative Party to put the entire nomination process on hold. That was left out in Adams’ Liberal love-in, where she sang the praises of Justin Trudeau.

Adams’ floor-crossing occurred just after another high-profile defection in Ontario provincial politics, in my own hometown of Sudbury, Ontario. Our provincial MP, Glenn Thibeault, decided not only to jump levels of government, from federal to provincial, but also to jump parties, from the NDP to the Liberals. Thibeault had been an MP since 2008, and was caucus chair for the NDP. He defected, he said, because of his dissatisfaction with the NDP; in his mind, it wasn’t the party of Jack Layton anymore (this coming from the man who flirted with a similar defection to the Ignatieff federal Liberals just a few years ago when Jack was still with us). The Thibeault affair is a lot worse, though; he was appointed without a nomination contest by Premier Wynne, pushing aside Andrew Olivier, who was the party’s candidate in the last election and a true-red Liberal. Allegedly, agents of the Premier offered Olivier a job or appointment to voluntarily step down from the nomination contest. Olivier balked and shared these revelations with the media. Now, the OPP is investigating the incident as possible bribery for the purposes of the Criminal Code.

Taking these two incidents in isolation, one can see how floor-crossing can serve to undermine the public’s belief in the political process.  But there is no consensus on this point. Recently, Steve Paikin, (host of TVO’s The Agenda), argued in an article that the “electoral market,” corrects floor crossings; in other words, there is no reason to get angry about floor crossings because the public can weigh in and pass judgment on the matter. Take the example of Thibeault: voters in a recent Sudbury byelection recently “endorsed” Thibeault’s move, giving him the victory in the riding with 42 PER CENT of the vote. For this reason, Paikin argues, there is no need to lose our cool over a floor crossing.

I take a different view. Floor-crossing, yes, is a virtual tradition in our parliamentary democracy. Before Confederation, when parties were just loose organizations of similar-minded people, there was no consistency in party membership or voting. In the modern era, however, that has changed. Parties are now essentially political conventions, operating in the public’s eye as homes for belief systems. Many people, for better or for worse, vote along party lines because these parties reflect their beliefs as much as is possible. Many people, for this reason, take it to be a betrayal of their trust when their representatives cross the floor to another party, ostensibly abandoning the very beliefs they once championed in the Legislature or the House of Commons.

I believe Paikin’s comfort with floor-crossing really only makes sense where there are legitimate cases of a change of heart; where it is the case that an individual has done some thoughtful reflection and actually changed their mind about what their core beliefs are. I have no doubt, for example, that Bob Rae (former NDP Premier of Ontario turned Liberal MP), had a true change of heart about his party, over the course of many years of reflection.

Rae is easily contrasted with Thibeault and Adams. Adams is clearly only upset about her lack of ability to secure the nomination; had she actually secured it, does anyone reasonably believe she would have crossed the floor? Thibeault is in a similar boat. His repeated attempts to cross the floor to the Liberals only demonstrates either that he made a wrong choice to begin with (based on a fundamental confusion about what the NDP actually believes), or a frustration with the NDP’s distance from the halls of power (this especially makes sense, since he is likely now in line for a provincial Cabinet post).

Unfortunately, there is no law or legislative scheme that could reasonably ban floor crossings that are disingenuous. Nor would it make sense to ban floor crossings outright, because it would preclude a legitimate and thoughtful change of heart on the part of our representatives.

Ultimately, Paikin may have a point: the public must be able to see through the floor-crossings that are legitimate and those that are not. Otherwise, a lack of public confidence in our political system may simply be a product of our own choosing.


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