The Lament of the Floor-Crosser


The NDP is kind of like the mafia.  You don’t get to just leave.

Regardless of why you left, the party couldn’t have that kind of disrespect.  Knives screech together in the NDP backrooms whenever a member tries to flee.

So when Hyer signed on with the Greens this week, and casually mentioned that Thomas Mulcair was destroying his former party, the New Democrats went ballistic.  Resign they demanded.  Resign!

Hyer marked the second of three departures for the party since their fateful 2011 election.  Logically, that spectacular result should have made them the great benefit of any opportunistic floor-crossing that occurred.  But no, they lost members to the Liberals, the Bloc and, now, the Greens.

The Greens, for crissakes.

What’s so terrible about the party?

The first loss for the party was Lise St-Denis.  The 73 year-old retired schoolteacher hadn’t exactly been the party’s rockstar since her election.  Talk to any Dipper Hill staffer and they can always draw up a few names of some of their own MPs that they’d rather see not run in the next election.  St-Denis always wound up on that list, if she could even be remembered.  Less out of spite, moreso out of sympathy — St-Denis was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma shortly after her election, and she could probably be better served by not being in the House.

St-Denis had previously run for the party in the off-island Montreal suburb of Longeuil. before being shuffled into a more Northern riding for the 2011 contest.  Now, it’s no secret that the NDP had a bit of work to do after their huge Quebec victory, in that few of their candidates lived in, around, or even near the ridings that they were now supposed to represent.  The party, in its traditionally ham-fisted behind-closed-doors tone, told its neophyte MPs that they better get packing.  Most did.

St-Denis, or so the rumour goes, didn’t.  The accidental MP, understandably, didn’t want to pick up and leave her doctors to live in a riding two hours North, where quality of care couldn’t be assured.  That’s how the story goes, anyway.  When the NDP wouldn’t budge, she called up the Liberals.  Do I have to living in my riding?  No?  Put on a pot of tea, I’ll be right over.

Bruce Hyer unceremoniously stumbled out of the party’s caucus in April 2012, supposedly sour about being whipped on the long gun registry vote that took place the month prior.  It would take a highly conspiratorial mind to figure that Hyer, whose purchase in the party declined greatly after the infusions of a bunch of young upstarts from Quebec, was a bit worried about re-election.  Looking back to when Hyer resigned, the expectation was that one Northern Ontario riding would be axed and reapportioned further South, as their population doesn’t merit the number of seats they have.  Hyer looked destined to have to either fight a nomination battle with one of three popular New Democrat MPs, all with prominent critic roles, or go up against the one Tory up North.  He seemed doomed to lose.  In this whacky conspiracy theory, leaving in protest over an issue that matters to his constituents seemed like a good as a hill to die on as any.  Of course when it was decided, months later, that Northern Ontario should keep all of its seats, Hyer signalled that he was interested in rejoining the NDP.  That never happened.

And then there’s Claude Patry.  Alas, a story no more interesting than the fact that he felt ignored and neglected in the farthest-reaches of the NDP backbenches, where recognizable faces go to die.  He also broke with his party, slamming the Clarity Act as too federalist, even as the federal crowd was bleating that it was borderline sovereigntist.  What’s more, he read the tealeaves — while the Bloc pulled a meagre 18 percent in his riding in 2011, the riding is predominantly sovereigntist and Patry probably has a better chance with the Bloc the next time out.  

There’s one episode of The Simpsons where Lisa gets bumped to the third grade, and finds the jump challenging.  Eventually, Principal Skinner asks her if she’d rather be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond.

“Big fish! Big fish!”

Patry is now a big fish in a small pond, whereas before he was a completely unrecognizable fish with no critic portfolio.

The NDP’s position is that St-Denis, Patry and Hyer should all resign and face their constituents in a byelection.  Those three, of course, refuse.

Their logic is a bit twisted.  They explained away their departure by waiving around their god-given rights as MPs.  They’re my constituents!  Mine!  They screamed, in their best Golum impression.  Yet, on the flip-side, they pointed out that those votes were for Jack Layton, not Thomas Mulcair.

In St-Denis and Patry’s cases specifically, that contradiction is ludicrous — did they vote for the party, the leader, or the MP?  I submit that if they voted for the latter, neither would have been elected.  If they voted for the former, and that leader died, that doesn’t make their vote somehow irrelevant.

So what do you do?

The NDP would like to legislate that any floor-crosser must step down and run in a byelection (not including those who leave to sit as independents.)  That’s problematic, as it does take away fundamental rights of an MP — but it is a great boon if your party is fond of having obsessive control over its members.  It would be the legislative equivalent of locking all your friends in your basement so that they may never stop being your friends.  If they want to leave, they’re going to have to win a bareknuckle boxing match in the backyard.  That’s just how is has to be.

There is the less-crazy option of giving voters in the constituency a period of time to collect signatures calling for a byelection.  That, of course, would be readily exploited by whichever party has the best shot of knocking off the floor-crosser.

A more diplomatic process could be to put the caucus-change operation to a plebiscite, and ask all voters in the riding to approve or reject the decision.  Yet, if you thought byelections had low voter turnout, this would be laughably neglected by comparison.

Perhaps the simplest solution could be this: ban floor-crossing.  If MPs want to sit as independents, they are well within their rights.  If they want to form their own caucus, they should do so (otherwise, party breakdowns wouldn’t be nearly as fun.)  But there really isn’t a tremendous democratic need to allow members to run out and shack up with another party.

Floor-crossing is done, almost ubiquitously, out of rational self-interest.

So lock the basement.


Other articles by Justin Ling

Liberal Flipcounters of a Third Kind

Boldly going where many political fundraisers have gone before

Stephen Harper – The Seeker

The Taming of the Prime Minister

Harper’s Lincoln Continental

The last MP out can turn off the light

Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling


Share this article