Monday, June 20, 2011

Banning floor crossing is a bad idea

I think Peter Stoffer is coming from a good place and I think his intentions are pure, but I feel strongly that banning floor crossing is a bad idea that, rather than improving parliamentary representation and responsibility to constituents, will only further tighten the yoke of party discipline.

A stalwart New Democrat is hoping to ban his colleagues from crossing the floor of the House of Commons without asking voters if they can change parties first.

Peter Stoffer, the New Democrat critic for Veterans Affairs, tabled his private member's bill Monday.

"If I pick up the phone right now and call Mr. Harper's office and if they're in agreement, within an hour I can become a Conservative member of Parliament," Stoffer said Monday. "I don't have to go to my constituents, I don't have to tell my party, I could just sit tomorrow as a Conservative MP.

That's wrong on every count."

I know I was as pissed off as any Liberal when David Emerson crossed the floor from the Liberals to the Conservatives mere days after the 2006 election. Obviously my emotions were somewhat different when Belinda Stronach left the Conservatives to join Paul Martin’s Liberal cabinet. (Mainly stunned disbelief, actually)

I still wouldn’t ban floor crossing though, because it plays into a general ignorance amongst the population, one exploited by the Conservatives during the coalition drama, about how our parliamentary democracy works.

Yes, it’s true that most voters make their decisions based on national party platforms and leaders. The influence of the local candidate in the voting decision is important, but generally minimal in the wider scheme. In a tight race, it can make a difference (many of the Liberals that hung on in May were good constituency people). But generally, the local name on the ballot is secondary (see the NDP in Quebec).

While many may think we vote for Prime Minister, in fact we don’t. And we don’t vote for a party either. We vote for a Member of Parliament to represent us in Ottawa. We send 308 members of parliament to Ottawa and, from their ranks, the governor general calls on one to form a government and test the confidence of the House of Commons.

Whatever people may base their voting decision on, the fact is we’re electing a person to represent us. If they change parties, or do something else that we disagree with, then we can defeat them when and if they run for re-election. But taking away their legitimate right to change party affiliations only serves to further re-enforce this fundamental mis-understanding of our political system and further dilute the role and responsibility of individual members of parliament.

Stoffer’s bill would also have another un-intended effect: further tying MPs under the suffocating yoke of party discipline. You shouldn’t need to risk your job to stand against your party. The system of party discipline has already reduced MPs of all parties to little more than trained seals loyally parroting the party line, so it’s little wonder most Canadians see themselves voting more for a party than an individual representative. Banning floor crossing will only further exacerbate this by giving party bosses even more power and control over MPs that may stray from the flock.

I agree with the spirit of Stoffer’s motion, but it’s a bad idea for so many reasons. It’s cheap populism masking horrible policy. Punish floor crossers at the ballot box, and in the interim let’s bring more relevance to the role of Member of Parliament, not less.

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13 comments:

Dr.Dawg said...

Nice bit of self-contradiction. Most people vote for the party, but you'd still allow this process and preference to be traduced.

Not on.

I don't agree with a lot Stoffer stands for, but he's dead right on this, and it should be a Parliamentary rule. Change parties? Sure--but check back with the electors first.

Otherwise the only thread connecting the voter to what passes for a legislature of representatives is snapped.

Jeff Jedras said...

Actually no, there is no contradiction at all. I take great pains to say:

a) most people vote for the party/the leader
b) that is not how our system is designed to work

It's a fairly simple point really: there is a fundamental misunderstanding amongst the populace about how our system of government works. Our system is designed to elect 308 members of parliament, not a president.

Harper has sought to confuse Canadians about our system of governance and exploit it for his own ends: witness the confusion he deliberately sowed among Canadians during the so-called coalition crisis.

Stoffer's bill plays into this ignorance. If you want a system where the name on the ballot is irrelevant, where we just vote the party and party bosses put names on a list to fill he seats, then fine, propose that electoral "reform." More trained seals!

Until then, we elect Members of Parliament to represent us, not empty suits beholden to party bosses. This bill doesn't fix anything, it just makes it worse.

Dr.Dawg said...

So the people are at fault.

Look, if we want a system without parties, that would be my Utopian ideal as well. But right now people happen to vote, in the main, for a party that expresses their ideological/cultural position.

Given that undeniable fact, having people voted in because of what they allegedly espouse crossing the floor to join with those whose values the electors abhor is nothing less than fraud.

Surely it's not asking so much, if an individual MP has a Damascene conversion of some kind (or is just bought off with perks like a Cabinet portfolio), that the electors be consulted? What, too democratic for you?

Jeff Jedras said...

So the people are at fault.

Can I make up things and attribute them to you too, or is that just your thing?

But moving on, I would rather try to empower and strengthen the role of the member of parliament and make it more relevant, more independent, and more free of party discipline.

What you and Peter propose makes the problem worse. It's throwing gasoline on the fire. It perpetuates the very ignorance that the HarperCons exploit. It's not democracy, it's cheap populism masking really bad policy. It's Reform 101, but I thought we were supposed to know better.

If you want to make MPs (even more) irrelevant and powerless, mere trained seals answerable only to party bosses, than by all means, go ahead with this. But don't piss on my leg and call it democracy.

Dr.Dawg said...

Make things up? Sadly, no:

I take great pains to say:

a) most people vote for the party/the leader
b) that is not how our system is designed to work


So the people are out of synch with the system. Simple: choose a new people, to paraphrase Bertold Brecht. The present ones have some dumb idea that they are voting for a set of values and polices with which they agree, and that the fellow in their riding claiming to stand for them will carry through once comfortably seated in the House of Commons.

Time to disabuse them of that notion. If their representative has in effect deceived them, tough noogies--they get to wait a whole four years or so to do anything about it. They should know better, somehow ignoring party politics and voting for the person. That's how the system is supposed to work, after all.

And checking with the electorate to see if everything's OK--that would certainly distinguish party voters from "person" voters in a hurry--is somehow supposed to make MPs even more subject to ruthless party discipline.

What utter nonsense. In fact it subjects a would-be turncoat MP to the only discipline that counts--one imposed by the electorate who placed him or her in the Commons to begin with.

Jeff Jedras said...

Yes, I said people were dumb. I'm done now.

sharonapple88 said...

The present ones have some dumb idea that they are voting for a set of values and polices with which they agree, and that the fellow in their riding claiming to stand for them will carry through once comfortably seated in the House of Commons.

The average voter probably doesn't agree with every policy their candidate's party supports. Party loyalists probably worry more about an MP toeing the party line about this than the average voter.

Major digression here, but the whole point about voting for a "set of values and polices" makes me think of what's happening in New York with Republican State Senator Roy McDonald. Instead of toeing the Republican party line, he's decided to support gay marriage. His reasons?

"You get to the point where you evolve in your life where everything isn't black and white, good and bad, and you try to do the right thing. You might not like that. You might be very cynical about that. Well, f--k it. I don't care what you think. I'm trying to do the right thing.

"I'm tired of Republican-Democrat politics. They can take the job and shove it. I come from a blue-collar background. I'm trying to do the right thing, and that's where I'm going with this."

This isn't why people voted for him.

At the sametime, I can't help but cheer and think we need more people to take the position McDonald has in all political parties. Screw party politics -- do the right thing. :D

What utter nonsense. In fact it subjects a would-be turncoat MP to the only discipline that counts--one imposed by the electorate who placed him or her in the Commons to begin with.

MPs are elected by their constitutents. The parties help the process along by helping candidates run campaigns, but unlike Senators, MPs aren't appointed to their position by parties.

JF said...

Banning floor crossing is silly.

What does it accomplish. What would the bill seek to do... Ban someone from voting against party policy? Ban them from sitting in a room with opposing parties (AKA Caucus Meetings)? Ban anyone not of the government party of the day from serving in cabinet?

Really... it would basically be a bill preventing someone from changing where they sit in the HoC. Waste of Time.

Rick Barnes said...

I like Stoffer's bill. Oddly enough, this is a time when the NDP might actually gain MP's through floor crossing.

The situation you described with Belinda could still have happened if she decided to sit as an independent. Heck the Liberals could even invite her to sit in caucus, and the PM is not restricted to his own party for cabinet positions.

If you vote for an MP they should have to remain with the party they were elected with or sit as an independent. Run again if you want to switch political parties.

The Liberal from BC that joined the Conservatives was in fact the recipient of NDP and Green voter support during the election, to stop the political party he ended up switching too.

JF said...

Banning floor crossing is silly.

What does it accomplish. What would the bill seek to do... Ban someone from voting against party policy? Ban them from sitting in a room with/by invitation from opposing party member (AKA Attend Caucus Meetings)? Ban anyone not of the government party of the day from serving in cabinet?

Really... it would basically be a bill preventing someone from changing where they sit in the chamber.

Waste of time.

sharonapple88 said...

Seeing how frequently floor-crossers get re-elected, I suspect the issue of floor-crossing is more of a concern among party faithful than the public at large.

Mark said...

Great post.

And contrary to Dr. Dawg's comments, this has nothing to do with the "stupidy" of people.

People vote differently than they did a century ago for a whole host of reasons. Most Canadians had no idea what John A MacDonald or Wilfrid Laurier looked like. As technology has evolved, so has voters' ability to follow, identify with, and make decisions about national parties and leaders. All politics isn't local anymore. We're more transient than ever before, and we're able to participate directly in national decisions (i.e. party leadership races) than was conceivable a century ago. The notion that individuals would choose Prime Minister was foreign to the Westminster system as recently as the Thatcher/Major transition.

Jeff is right. Our system is premised on the idea that voters choose one local representative, who, in turn, makes decisions on our behalf. One of those decisions is to which party or caucus to support s/he will belong.

It's unrealistic to think that things are going to go back to those ways, but for the time being, that is how our system is designed.

Before television and the internet, it was impossible to run national campaigns based on party brands and leadership appeal. Even in the early days of TV, political broadcast time was more usefully divided up by local candidates than by party leaders.

If we wanted to turn back the clock, here are a few things that might restore some importance to the concept of local representation:

1. Remove party affiliation from the ballot. (that's the way it used to be)

2. Forbid or limit financial transfers from parties to candidates.

3. Provide greater incentive through the tax system for local contributions than for national ones.

I;m not saying I agree with any of these - just that if you wanted to return some balance to our system (i.e. local vs. party) that's how you might conceivably do it.

I dislike Stoffer's bill because it just makes MPs that much less independent. They can always say they had to support as the law would have made them quit otherwise. It's lame, and it accomplishes very little.

For what it's worth, I'm also unconvinced that Stoffer held these views so dearly after the 2000 election.

Mike-rra said...

Hi Jeff,
I noticed your blog has gone dead. I hope it's due to summer vacation, and not because you're retiring from blogging.
A question unrelated to this blog post I've had for a while is as follows: if the Liberals find themselves ahead in the polls (at least in 2nd place, let's say) at around the time a leader is to be chosen, would it really be wise, or even fair, to boot Rae from the leadership and vote in someone else? Wouldn't it be partly due to Rae's efforts that the party has risen in the polls? Is it fair to force him to resign, and deny him from running for permanent leader? I believe this is probably one of the reasons why leadership races only last a few months, rather than being delayed or dragged on for years, as the Liberals have currently decided.
Anyway, just wanted to get your thoughts on this. I'm surprised not many bloggers are talking about this valid (IMO) point.
Cheers.