Kevin G asks
the question, "Is there any reason that an MP should not have to seek a re-validation from their constituents before crossing the floor?"
and Dean replies, "How about an MP who doesn't vote the way you like?
How about an MP who doesn't vote with his or her party?
How about an MP who campaigns on an explicit promise not to vote with the party, and then does so anyway?
How about changes in circumstance? Who decides what is material and what isn't?
How about a Party that fails to fulfill an election promise?"
An interesting initial question and some fair questions in return.
The truth is, I am not a big fan of having a law which mandates a by-election when an MP changes parties and I do see reasons why such a law would be a bad idea.
For starters, Dean's point about the difficulties of imposing party-centric rules on our individual-centric parliament. What if someone doesn't officially change parties but just chooses to vote against the party they ostensibly belong to, and with another party. What if the party wants to twist someone's arm and threatens to kick them out of the party just to force the candidate to go through a by-election? These are just a couple of examples of the games people could play with a rule forcing by-elections on floor crossers.
Last parliament there was a vote on this exact question and it was defeated 189 - 60
. If you look at who supported the bill, it was the people at the extremes, the NDP on the left, and the old Reformers on the right. This is not coincidence, because this sort of rule, which attempts to enforce simplicity on what is a complicated situation currently monitored by tradition and ethical considerations, is one of the hallmarks of the ideologue.
One reason why this tends to be the case is that by imposing such rules, one runs the risk of changing a situation where people try to stay within the spirit of what is morally accepted, to one where people feel that the ethics have been encoded in the rules and so any action which does not officially break the rules is now acceptable.
Beyond the complications caused by the party vs. individual question, a main reason that there is no rule requiring a by-election for floor-crossing is that there are situations in which floor-crossing is justified. Imagine someone in the last month of a parliament who has had a significant falling out with their party on an important issue and who has good reason to believe that their constituents are against their current party on this issue. If this person then switches parties to sit in the backbenches on the other side, I think calls for a by-election would be muted.
There are a number of factors which go into a decision as to how unethical any particular floor-crossing is. How long it has been since the election. Whether the crosser stands to achieve personal gain by the move. Whether there is some personal conflict between the member and their party. Whether there is a credible case that the constituents have a stance on an important issue which would require switching/voting against the party. To what extent the constituents typically support the party which is being switched to.
What all these different rules get back to, at root, is an acknowledgement that it is unethical for an MP to campaign under one platform and then switch to supporting another one unless that switch is reasonably supported by their constituents
. Each of the criteria mentioned above speaks to the issue of how likely it is that the constituents would support the switch.
Supporters of a rule forcing a by-election just want to formalize this process, since, after all, there is no better way to ensure the constituents support a switch than by getting them to specifically endorse it. Traditionalists, on the other hand, would argue that because of the complexities involved and the risks of trying to impose a one-size-fits-all rule, it is better to allow MP's freedom of action and rely on their ethical judgement (and fear of repercussions) not to take undue advantage of this freedom.
Recently, I have seen some people argue that, because Belinda Stronach, Scott Brison, John Nunziata and Keith Martin were all re-elected after switching parties, this proves that voters don't mind if an MP switches parties, so it is OK under all circumstances. I would turn that around and say that the high success rate of re-election for floor-crossers instead shows that MP's have shown respect for the tradition of only crossing the floor when there is a good case to be made that their constituents support it. With respect to the current situation, I would be very surprised if David Emerson ever again attempts to face his constituents at the polls.
Why do I say that? Well if we go back and look at the criteria for determining when a floor-crossing might be supported by the constituents, we see that Emerson has broken pretty much every one - in fact the Emerson case is almost as pure an example of a 'bad' floor-crossing as you can find. It effectively occurred one day after the election before a single parliamentary vote was held. It was made for significant personal gain. There was no personal conflict between Emerson and the Liberal party. And rather than sitting as an independent or switching to the party which came second in the riding, Emerson switched to a party that came a distant third and has very little traditional support in the riding.
I find it ironic that people defend Emerson's actions on the basis of respect for tradition ('because that is how our system works'), when it is the cynical, selfish abuse of this tradition by David Emerson (and Harper) which does far more to undermine it and to make the case for the imposition of a hard simple rule than anything I or anyone else could ever do. The only way to preserve tradition now is for Emerson to receive a punishment significant enough to deter anyone from following his tawdry example. So those who support Emerson on the basis of tradition are actually undermining the very tradition they seek to defend.
Let's consider the case of an impoverished man who marries a wealthy bride and then 2 days later files for divorce and walks away with half his wife's money. In response, many people naturally argue that this shows why we should never get married without a pre-nuptial agreement. But others say, no, a pre-nuptial agreement isn't needed, that is what the vow of 'till death do us part' is for. To which the only reply is, tell that to the groom, not me.
In my opinion, the wedding with a pre-nup is inferior to one that does without, because how can you expect a relationship to last forever when there is not even trust at the outset? Contractual rules are a poor substitute for lost trust. Similarly, I decry the need for a contract between voters and their representative to replace what has traditionally been accomplished through a mutual trust that one would not abuse the other. But unless Emerson and the Conservatives are forced to pay a heavy political price which will act as a deterrent for any future gold-digging, I see no choice but to push for legislation to protect voters from such cynical manipulation.