Banning floor-crossing is silly.

Last November, Mathieu Ravignat (NDP-Pontiac) and Peter Stoffer (NDP-Sackville-Eastern Shore) introduced a Private Member’s Bill that would prevent MPs from switching parties (crossing the floor as it is called in our parliamentary tradition.) Some had speculated that since the NDP share many of their policy positions with the Bloc Québécois that they want to ban floor crossing to prevent a stampede of newly elected Quebec NDP MPs to the Bloc if the NDP’s fortunes change before the next election. However, this was actually the 5th time Peter Stoffer has introduced a bill to ban floor-crossings so, like pandering to Quebec on the issue of federalism, prohibiting floor-crossings is a long-held NDP policy position.

At the time this bill was introduced the NDP had an interim leader who was a member of the Bloc Québécois & Québec Solidaire before joining the NDP (the NDP then chose a leader who was a member of the Liberal Party of Quebec) and Mathieu Ravignat himself used to belong to the Communist Party before giving Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon the boot/the karate kick. The fact that the author of the bill, and the NDP’s two most recent leaders had switched parties, seems to contradict the external antipathy the New Democratic Party displays towards party switchers.

Although I am ambivalent to floor-crossing in the House of Commons, NDP efforts to ban this Parliamentary process – and their assumption that this process could be banned at all – can be considered misguided for several reasons:

  • Floor-crossing is part of our parliamentary tradition.
  • The more Members of Parliament can exercise their conscience the better INHO.* Unless the NDP wants to make every vote a whipped vote, they can’t really justify taking away MPs’ autonomy this way.
  • There isn’t really an epidemic of floor-crossings going on.

I asked Liberal MP Marc Garneau (Westmount—Ville-Marie) what his thoughts were on banning floor-crossing and his answer was quite reasonable:

When an MP is elected, he/she has a duty to party, to constituents, to the leader and if I may say, to himself or herself.

Having said that, if an MP, over time, becomes less and less comfortable with the positions of his/her party, he/she must be given the option of joining another party and, of course, paying the price (if his/her constituents choose not to re-elect him/her).

If an MP moves from being in government to being in opposition or from one opposition party to another opposition party, then I believe that they should be allowed to do so without having to resign and run in a by-election. In this case, they are moving either downwards or laterally and I believe such a move is probably principled.

If on the other hand, an opposition MP crosses the floor to join government, i.e. an upward move, then they should resign and run in a by-election because their motives are suspect, i.e. they may have accepted an inducement rather than because they no longer feel comfortable in their party.

Not being able to cross the floor gives too much power to the leader of a party and diminishes even further the status of an MP. This is not acceptable in my opinion.

Yes, I agree that an MP crossing the floor will result in an injustice to the constituents of that MP but you also can’t have an MP who is forced to stay in a party with which he/she no longer agrees.

My solution: A more productive Private Member’s bill for Mathieu Ravignat:

The NDP are always saying that they want to make parliament work. If Mr. Ravignat and the NDP actually did want to fix parliament they would start with question period. Ravignat could/should have worked with Conservative MP Michael Chong (Wellington—Halton Hills) and introduced his Motion 517 (which would fundamental change/improve QP) in the form of a private member’s bill. Motion 517 was killed when the last election was called. Mr. Chong’s motion would have:

  • Elevated decorum and fortify the use of discipline by the Speaker.
  • Lengthened the amount of time given for each question and answer;
  • Required that ministers respond to questions directed at them;
  • Allocated half the questions each day for backbench members;
  • Dedicated Wednesday exclusively for questions to the Prime Minister (Like in the U.K. If you haven’t watched David Cameron answer questions for an hour, without notes, you aren’t a true parliamentary geek.)
  • And dedicate the rest of the week for questions to ministers other than the Prime Minister.

The private member’s bill lottery gives MPs a rare opportunity to raise an issue or affect real change. The NDP had the chance to bring about real democratic reform but they chose to squander that opportunity with a useless process issue that is nothing compared to the cynical spectacle that Question Period has become.

With this bill the NDP proved that making Ottawa work isn’t one of their goals. They want parliament to be a dysfunctional mess so they can run against that mess in 2015 (just as Stephen Harper and the Conservatives did in the last two elections after making a point of contributing to that dysfunction.)

There is no urgent need to ban floor-crossing. I hope Michael Chong’s motion is passed the next  time he puts it forward in the House of Commons.

* In my handsome opinion.

3 responses to “Banning floor-crossing is silly.

  1. Great research Joseph. Very informative read.

  2. Like the position of prime minister, Canada’s political parties have no official recognition in the various Canadian constitutional acts. Formally, they don’t exist. It is by convention that both the prime minister and political parties do exist. In the case of political parties, they are associations of people who are like-minded in their political views. What would happen if one individual MP’s political views change? What would happen if the political views of a party changes over time? What would happen if two or more political parties decide to merge? Should every MP be required to resign and run in by-elections?

    I think that private member’s bills that ban floor-crossings is targetted at voters who are ignorant of Canada’s constitutional institutions. MPs who initiate such bills know that laws banning floor-crossings would likely be struck-down by the Supreme Court.

  3. I agree with the last commenter, I don’t think it’s even possible to ban floor crossing. It’s been part of our parliamentary traditions for 140 years, because we have a system based on the election of individuals, not parties.

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