When MPs cross the floor, it's democracy in action

MP Wajid Khan may not have been wise to switch from the Liberals to the Tories. But he was perfectly within his rights to do it. Parliament in Canada is not a subordinate appendage of political parties. It is the locus of self-government, and the independence of MPs is a precious, hard-won safeguard of our freedom. As Andrew Coyne wrote last summer: “We’ve got to get over this idea that any time MPs use their brain cells unchaperoned it is some sort of constitutional crisis.” Certainly we shouldn’t grumble endlessly about partisanship then, when an MP bucks a party, grumble that there oughta be a law against it

Literally. Jeffrey Simpson in Tuesday’s Globe and Mail said “If the Conservatives were genuinely committed to democracy and accountability, they would have put Mr. Khan’s decision on hold and introduced legislation requiring MPs to seek their electorate’s approval of switching parties.”

I don’t even see how you’d do such a thing. There’s no point forcing MPs to keep sitting with their former colleagues while letting them vote with the other guys. But if the proposal is for MPs to be told how to vote, who’s meant to do it? Surely not the party leader, since Mr. Simpson’s 2001 book The Friendly Dictatorship, said party leaders already have too much power. Alas, he gave no answer.

In Wednesday’s Citizen Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch did. But it was way too weird. He started by calling Mr. Khan’s defection (you knew it was coming) a violation of the Charter, specifically its provision that “every citizen has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly.” Mr. Conacher says “this right has no meaning if candidates can be dishonest” during elections, or “if the members elected can do whatever they want” afterward.

Bosh. Rights have no meaning when we don’t exercise them with due diligence. So we should try harder to elect honest people. But apparently Mr. Conacher’s new and improved form of democracy doesn’t trust the public. Instead, “politicians must be required to resign and run in byelections if they want to switch parties between elections; party leaders must be required to pay very large fines if they break election promises; and all politicians and government officials must be required to pay very large fines if they lie to voters at any time.” Required by whom? Why, “the ethics enforcement officers in all governments.”

So we should let an unelected official control how elected officials vote. Though presumably politicians will appoint this person. Or rather, the majority will. OK, the prime minister. So letting the PM’s lackey tell opposition MPs how they must vote enhances democracy. And some people think I’m strange.

I don’t know what Jean Chrétien’s hand-picked ethics officer would have done about the GST or NAFTA. But I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have let Paul Martin’s supporters threaten a non-confidence vote in the House. And I can’t imagine Stephen Harper’s appointee forcing John Baird not to endorse Kyoto, even though the Tories clearly didn’t campaign on it.

Mr. Conacher concedes that MPs should be allowed to switch “if a ruling party broke all of its election promises.” But an ethics czar isn’t likely to let a PM break all his promises, then turn around and let his caucus defect over it. I could also ridicule Mr. Conacher’s further admission that “promise-breaking should be allowed if an unforeseeable situation arises.”

Given what our politicians already can’t foresee, I’m in no hurry to give them legal reasons to become still more obtuse. But these are details.

The key point is that the right of those we elect to speak, act and vote as they think best is the primary safeguard of our democratic freedom, and any proposal to legislate it away is an attack on self-government. That it is ignorant rather than malicious is a poor excuse. Especially coming from people who think for a living.

Democracy is by no means perfect. Humans are flawed and power corrupts, so it is very hard to create a government strong enough to protect you but not so strong as to oppress you. Over a thousand years our parliamentary system made the legislature a check on the executive and made voters a check on the legislature. It works pretty well.

If we don’t do the hard work required of citizens the system rapidly descends through farce into tragedy. But fixing it by outlawing human frailty, and bypassing voters while you’re at it, isn’t political philosophy. It’s foolishness.

I cannot say how Mr. Khan will get along as a Tory. But so far, as an MP, he’s doing just fine.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson