Laundry day at legislature turns nasty

Gary McRobb stood bewildered, his large hands raised in helplessness, clearly unhappy. Why? Well, the former New Democrat turned Liberal was about…

Gary McRobb stood bewildered, his large hands raised in helplessness, clearly unhappy.

Why?

Well, the former New Democrat turned Liberal was about to vote in favour of a party hopping bill he’d just argued against.

But the Liberals changed tacks mid-stream, and voted ensemble to further the debate.

“Agreed,” the Kluane MLA said, taking his lead from Opposition leader Arthur Mitchell as they voted in favour of the bill.

Bill 112 — dubbed, by McRobb, the sour grapes bill — was introduced by New Democrat leader Todd Hardy just before Easter.

It mimics a New Democrat bill tabled in Manitoba that would take the unprecedented step of forcing MLAs who cease to belong to a party caucus — through expulsion or of their own free will — to sit as independents for the remainder of a government’s mandate, or else resign and trigger a byelection.

“What it boils down to, very simply, is floor-crossing legislation and trying to get some kind of ethical standard around that or to prevent it, basically,” Hardy said Wednesday when he explained the bill.

“We should not be in here to try to enhance our own personal persona.”

Hardy drummed out McRobb and Mayo-Tatchun MLA Eric Fairclough from the NDP caucus in early March for flirting with the idea of joining Mitchell’s Liberals.

“It’s not about them,” Hardy said as McRobb and Fairclough looked on in snorting contempt.

“Eighty-one per cent (of Yukoners) thought political leaders do not tell the truth or keep their promises,” said Hardy, citing a recent national survey.

“(The bill) is an assurance that, if you have to move, you will come back to (the voters).

“If you don’t come back to them right away, at least you will sit as an independent so that you can represent them totally, without any party manoeuvering that happens.

“It will stop the leaders from offering incentives and preying upon the weakness of each and every member in here.”

McRobb joined the Liberals two weeks after his expulsion.

Fairclough joined Monday.

Both have criticized Hardy for taking the NDP “too far left,” and defended their own actions as “honourable.”

“What if the party to which an MLA is elected elects a new leader who takes a party in a different direction, one that was not campaigned on and one that does not have the support of the MLA’s constituents?” said McRobb.

“Would it be right, then, to banish the MLA into political purgatory for defending his constituents?

“The NDP members have lost 40 per cent of their caucus — their most experienced members, including their only member with cabinet experience.

“Instead of sulking over their loss and trying to legislate it from recurring, maybe the NDP should re-examine its own procedures.”

McRobb offered several reasons why the NDP bill was unacceptable and a six-month synopsis of events leading up to his expulsion from the party caucus, including informing Hardy of a desire to consider “political options.”

But McRobb’s version omitted the moment he and Fairclough contacted Mitchell to see if the Liberal door was open.

And Hardy may not have known that his caucus colleagues were considering a move, said Fairclough.

“He never questioned that, and that was part of the problem,” said Fairclough.

Hardy’s bill is a “sour-grapes bill” that has “no viable connection” to “recent events,” and it should be defeated because it’s “undemocratic” and “unfairly restricts options for those who choose to avoid tyranny,” said McRobb.

“Using a bill like this to point fingers is not right,” added Fairclough.

But when it came time to vote on whether to continue the debate in committee discussions, Mitchell changed his earlier stance and all four Liberals voted in favour, shoulder-to shoulder with the NDP and eight of nine Yukon Party MLAs.

“Liberals will change their principles by the afternoon,” quipped Lake Laberge MLA Brad Cathers.

Only Community Services minister Glenn Hart voted against the bill, saying that independent MLAs are too limited in their capacity to question the government, bring motions or introduce bills.

“It gives too much power to the leaders,” said Hart.

There’s nothing unusual about voting in favour of a bill you oppose, in order to further the debate, said McRobb.

“We didn’t hear much from the Yukon Party members at all, and it really smacks of some backroom agreement between them and the NDP on this bill.

“We’re interested to hear how the Yukon Party will deal with this in committee.”

So the bill passed second reading, and much dirty laundry about party hopping and floor crossing got a thorough airing-out, with the Liberals standing downwind.

All four Liberal MLAs held memberships in other parties before their conversions.

Mitchell was a cabinet spokesman for the Yukon Party under John Ostashek, and Porter Creek South MLA Pat Duncan was once a member of the federal Progressive Conservative Party.

Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie also switched teams in 2002, when he resigned from the NDP to run for the Yukon Party leadership.

But the Yukon Party wasn’t sitting in the hot seat on Wednesday.

“The issue is about ethics,” said Fentie, who was clearly loving every moment of strife within the opposition benches.

“Was there recruitment or enticement, were there offers, or are there IOUs out there to create a scenario where members of this house have made a decision to defect or join another party?”

Fentie was not the only MLA to use words like “enticement” and “IOU” and even “bribe” to describe what might have transpired within the Liberal ranks.

And there’s the rub: what, if anything, did Mitchell offer Fairclough and McRobb for their allegiance?

“I offered them the opportunity to sit as a Liberal,” said Mitchell.

“It has been the tradition of the Yukon Liberal Party not to force sitting members to face nomination.”

There was never an offer of prospective cabinet positions, he said.

“Comments have been made about inducements, offers, bribes and recruitments, which I find quite offensive.

“What personal gain did they receive? None, for there was none that we could give.”

The debate over bill 112 will conclude in two weeks.

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