Changing Parties

Lise St-Denis, the Member of Parliament for Saint-Maurice – Champlain, has “crossed the floor”, joining the Liberal Party in the Canadian House of Commons.  She ran and won the last election as a New Democrat.

An editorial in my morning paper strongly urges St-Denis to resign her seat, and run again under her new party in a by-election.

Says the Windsor Star:

But what about the constituents who elected St-Denis on the basis she was running as a New Democrat and believed she would honour the party’s principles and policies?

If St-Denis had wanted to sit as an independent, arguably she still could have reflected the wishes of the voters who elected her. But crossing the floor, and joining another party with agendas that could be wildly at odds with those of her constituents, is a different matter. She needs their permission.

St-Denis received 39.1 percent of the vote last May.  Most of the voters preferred one of the other candidates.  39.2 percent of the eligible voters did not cast a ballot at all. Another 17,000 or so in the riding were either too young to vote or otherwise ineligible.

I’m under the impression that once a candidate is elected, they are expected to represent all of their constituents, not just those who voted for them.  Unlike some other countries, we choose people, not parties, although journalists and party leaders like to downplay that aspect of our democracy.

St-Denis believes that when she won, it was because she supported Jack Layton, the NDP leader, and not the party. Indeed that’s the general consensus, that the NDP’s surprising victories in Quebec were due to the charismatic cancer survivor. Now that he’s dead should all the MPs who ran under his banner step down? Of course not.

St-Denis says the NDP is in a state of disarray while she has been impressed by the Liberals under Bob Rae, himself a former New Democrat.  Whenever a politician changes his or her mind about a commitment they will have to defend themselves from criticism, and expect to be held accountable in the next election. But it’s silly to ask them to step down. Changing circumstances require judgement calls. Why should party affiliation be different from any other issue?  The parties certainly feel free to change their principles and policies regardless of what they told the electorate in previous elections.

In fact crossing the floor is one of the few ways our politicians have of challenging the party leaders, whose control here in Canada is much greater than in the US or the UK.

I wish St-Denis would have decided to sit as an independent, because I believe all MPs should do so. But I also believe MPs should be able to caucus among themselves as they see fit. So I have no problem with her joining the Liberal caucus, given the current organization of parliament.

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