“Emerson shuffle” is distasteful, but so is banning it

David Emerson’s spectacular defection right into the Conservative cabinet hurts. Especially because the obvious solution won’t work. But at the risk of switching suddenly to the optimists, I do offer some hope. To their credit, their own partisan coup stings for a lot of Tories. They were genuinely outraged after Scott Brison, then Belinda Stronach, left their party for Liberal cabinet jobs (first a parliamentary secretaryship for Mr. Brison), in part because, like Reformers since 1993, they prided themselves on being less partisan than their opponents. But the essence of partisanship is the conviction that our policies and ethics are better because we’re us and they’re them, basing principles on identity instead of the other way around. It hurts to discover how easy it is to slide into this kind of thinking, even for us.

The Liberals also feel hurt. As soon as Mr. Emerson executed his somersault with half twist, people asked how a man could call the Tories “heartless,” “angry” and “uncomfortable with ethnic minorities,” stand next to the prime minister of Canada and say Stephen Harper favoured a country where “the strong survive and the weak die” – and then go join up. The question is not unreasonable. Perhaps Mr. Emerson never meant these as criticisms. But I would be more sympathetic if Liberals had been less visibly smug over Mr. Brison and Ms. Stronach.

I’d also be more sympathetic, with Liberals and commentators, if either could explain how anyone could tolerate Mr. Emerson saying these things in the first place. They were a slur on Tory MPs, candidates and supporters so outrageous as to debase the political process. I’m no partisan of the Conservatives, whom I consider too left-wing. But they are not monsters, so anyone who voted for or endorsed Mr. Emerson after these public remarks is as ill-placed to complain subsequently that he lacks ethical standards as to claim they possess them.

For voters feeling betrayed by all this cabinet-post caucus-switching jiggery-pokery, I have sympathy. But also advice. Let’s not start thinking “there ought to be a law” against MPs switching parties without resigning and running in by-elections. I do not even see why we would condemn an MP for switching parties if theirs had broken a specific important promise (say, abolishing a national sales tax) or moved persistently in a direction the MP publicly opposed. In this regard, incidentally, I think Ms. Stronach fits better into the Liberal party, although the stridency of her previous condemnations of their morals is hard to square with her smile upon joining their number.

I have at least as much trouble seeing how we could outlaw party-switching. In a parliamentary system, it is not possible for those outside the House of Commons to issue binding instructions to MPs on voting, and not desirable for those inside to do so. Jeffrey Simpson in The Globe and Mail praised the New Zealand law (expired but due for re-enactment), and Ed Broadbent’s proposed reform package, because both required party-switchers to resign their seats, seek their new party’s nomination and win a byelection. Both measures, however, let an MP leave a caucus to sit as an independent.

How could they not? And if they do, what can possibly stop an “independent” MP from voting with the government, following its House leader on procedure, even sitting in cabinet? We now have a minister who isn’t even an MP. It may be offensive, but not because it’s illegal. In our system, unlike the American one, the government is that group that can reliably pass money bills. What law can, or should, stop an MP voting for a budget written by a Senator, a journalist, or someone in a different caucus?

Remember: Someone is a member of a caucus because he or she votes with its leaders, not the other way around. A political party is not constitutionally superior to Parliament, and cannot reach through the doors, seize MPs by the collar and drag them about the House. Nor would it enhance our democracy if they could, so that MPs answered to their party activists, not their constituents.

As for imposing “no-switching” rules from within, the House of Commons has virtually untrammelled authority over its internal procedures. MPs could theoretically expel members for how they voted, who they conferred with, or wearing ugly ties. But long experience has led the House to interfere sparingly with MPs’ liberty, lest some unscrupulous parliamentary majority deprive the public of its right to hear the government effectively opposed. Let us not tamper with this tradition, especially on the ephemeral grounds that we are now as incensed when MPs don’t toe the party line as we were a decade ago if they did.

Now for the hope. Despite current frustrations, our system leaves voters anything but helpless. We possess the mighty safeguard of our determination to elect men and women of character, who will not switch parties except on grounds of principle. Dismiss the laughter of cynics, and resolve instead to be at least as offended by shallow or abusive statements from your side as the other.

It is, I concede, a painful duty. But other things hurt more.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson