Floor crossing isn’t a black and white issue

Eve Adams' switch from the governing Conservatives to the third-party Liberals has set off more hand-wringing about the propriety of floor crossing. We've all seen this episode before.

Eve Adams’ switch from the governing Conservatives to the third-party Liberals has set off more hand-wringing about the propriety of floor crossing. We’ve all seen this episode before.

Since we lack the necessary mind-reading equipment to say with certainty why Ms. Adams and many others before her decided to switch parties, we are left to infer motivations from the circumstances. And politics being politics, floor crossings will always be spun along party lines.

Floor-crossers and their recipient parties will always cite the support of constituents and spin the transition in a principled and idealistic light. They will emphasize that the switch was driven by the practical failings or ideological drift of the former party, or the “strong leadership” and “good governance” of the new one. In Adams’ case, it was the fact that Stephen Harper is a big meanie – as if that is news to anyone – that purportedly drove away this MP who very recently was lauding his policies.

The embittered dumped party, meanwhile, will invariably highlight the member’s betrayal of his or her constituents, and portray the decision as a cynical move to gain power and a bigger salary.

Floor crossing certainly hits a raw nerve for many Canadians who see it as a betrayal of the legislator’s constituents.

The NDP has historically been the most critical of floor crossing – no doubt because it has not been a regular recipient of disgruntled legislators from other parties.

In the Yukon, MLA Kate White went so far as to introduce a bill in 2013 that would force an MLA who wants to change parties to either sit as an Independent or step down and run in a byelection.

I prefer a more nuanced approach. What we should think of a particular instance of floor crossing really depends on the circumstances.

Most floor crossings don’t affect the balance of power and ultimately have very little impact on the business of governance. When Darius Elias left the Yukon Liberal Party to join the Yukon Party, for example, he merely strengthened what was already a majority government. He wasn’t offered a cabinet job, and even with the sought-after title of House leader is still paid as a regular MLA.

Floor crossing is decidedly less savoury when there is a perception that the person who switched party stood to gain personally. It is even worse when the switch affects the balance of power in favour of the recipient party.

Belinda Stronach’s floor crossing back in 2005 was one of the more questionable of crossings – but ultimately favourable if you are a progressive who wanted to see same-sex marriage passed before Canadians tossed the Liberals in favour of the Conservatives over the sponsorship scandal.

When Belinda Stronach crossed the floor from the Conservatives in 2005 she immediately received a cabinet position and helped save the then Liberal minority government from a vote of non-confidence on an amendment to the budget bill. In fairness to the moderate Stronach, she was always an awkward fit in the Harper-led Conservative party and not out of place with a Liberal Party led by the small-“c” conservative Paul Martin. But the optics still stunk.

At the end of the day I do not support a legislated ban on floor crossing as proposed by the Yukon NDP.

Voters will ultimately have the opportunity to weigh in on the decision to cross the floor and it is rare for a floor crossing to actually have any bearing on the business of government, even here with our small legislative assembly in the Yukon. It is hard to think of many parallels to Stronach’s floor crossing, which had as significant an impact on the political power balance.

For Eve Adams, it still remains to be seen if she will even win the nomination for the Liberals. Nor is it clear to me how accepting this former parliamentary secretary – whose claim to fame is having flipped out at an Ottawa gas station over a $6 car wash – into caucus actually benefits her new party or harms her former one.

But the most important reason to allow MPs to remain free agents, as our system of government has traditionally allowed them to be, is to prevent a further consolidation of power in the hands of party leaders.

In an era when party leaders already wield far too much power over their caucus, the threat of having to endure the lonely and ineffective life of an independent member or face the expense and disruption of a by-election is one more tool to maintain party discipline that today’s leader simply does not need.

Telling legislators that their only options are to continue caucusing with a party they have become disgruntled with or spend some period of time alone in the political wilderness is, perhaps ironically, just one more disincentive towards independent thought.

For us voters, being forced to occasionally witness the sad spectacle of a legislator who on one day is a loyal and obedient member of one party and a next sharp-tonged critic the next is a small price to pay for this check on the authority of leaders.

Kyle Carruthers is a born and raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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