Bruce Hyer and the case against floor-crossing

Person and party or person above party?


Thomas Mulcair was rather unimpressed with Bruce Hyer’s decision to become a Green MP and, on Friday, NDP MP Don Davies posted the following note on Facebook.

Today, another MP (Bruce Hyer) crossed the floor to sit with a political party caucus that he was not elected to represent.

Here are my thoughts.

In a democracy, voters elect the law-makers they want to represent them. A key consideration of their choice is, of course, the particular principles and policies each candidate claims to hold. In most societies, political parties are formed of like-minded people who share policies and values in common. While not every party member agrees with every party policy, in general the party system allows people to make rational decisions about the direction they want their government to take.

That is why many – indeed most – voters in a democracy rely on political parties to reflect their general philosophical and policy preferences.

Voters can therefore cast their ballots in confidence that the candidate who espouses agreement with them will act consistently with those beliefs once elected. By this system, democracy is served as governments (and opposition) are formed based on the consent and agreement of the voters.

The problem with floor-crossing is that this action betrays the trust of the voters who placed their faith in the candidate. It tears at the fundamental basis of our electoral process. How can voters cast a meaningful ballot if the candidate who espoused certain policies at election time then repudiates those policies once elected? If a person is elected, say, as a Conservative, and people vote for him on that basis, what does it say about the value of their votes if the person subsequently decides to sit as a New Democrat? In truth, there is only one answer: it renders their votes ineffective and meaningless.

Many argue that elected officials must be free to leave parties with whom they develop a serious crisis of conscience or which acts in some oppressive manner. I agree that this must be allowed. I believe that an elected representative must have the freedom and power to stand against oppressive party practices or behaviour if that occurs. In that case, I think that the appropriate act is to leave the caucus and sit as an independent. By doing so, they can preserve their freedom and stand as a bulwark against an over-bearing party while doing as little damage as possible to the fundamental trust of the voters who elected them.

Crossing the floor to sit with another party, however, is a more concerning matter. This is because the policies and values that the candidate was elected to represent on behalf of their voters have now changed. The entire basis of that MP to sit in Parliament has been altered, as they no longer have the democratic mandate of their electors to do so.

Importantly, I do not think that crossing the floor to sit with another party should be prohibited. What I fervently believe, however, is that if an MP chooses this course then they should have the courage of their conviction and, more importantly, the respect for their voters and the democratic system, to resign their seat and put their decision to the test of their voters. If they believe that they have compelling reasons to substantiate their decision to sit with another party, then they should have no problem convincing their voters of this. The point is that they should and must seek a mandate to do so.

In a democracy, I passionately believe that the power to decide such an important question as to what party an MP represents on voters’ behalf is not the MP’s – it is ultimately the voters’.

So – if Bruce Hyer, or anyone else for that matter – wishes to alter the mandate he was given on election day by the voters of his constituency – he should be required to go back to those voters and seek their judgment. If we are truly a democracy, and if we truly respect the voters, this must be the case.

As previously noted, this is basically NDP policy—any MP who wishes to sit with a party other than the one with which he or she was elected, should have to resign and run in a by-election before doing so. Sitting as an independent without facing a by-election would remain an option. That would provide an option for those who felt they had to leave their party caucus or were made to do so. (Though perhaps, as an extension of this discussion, we might look at how, say, fundraising rules advantage those who are in parties and whether anything can or should be done in that regard.)

There are rather good arguments against such a stipulation. For one thing, it would seem to reduce the relevancy of the individual elected if we assume that a change in party affiliation somehow moots that individual’s election. As Elizabeth May argues, we don’t elect parties, we elect individuals who are aligned with parties. At least in theory.

At the same time, you might turn that around and wonder how many floor crossers could be re-elected under their new party banners if they were to run in a by-election. If the answer to that question is no, the theoretical distinction between person and party becomes a bit more difficult to draw. (Eric Grenier’s analysis has shown that about 65% of those floor-crossers who’ve faced re-election have been re-elected under their new party banners.)

You might also ask how often an MP is elected primarily on the strength of his or her own individual merits or abilities. That’s a difficult question to answer beyond supposition. Perhaps we should be aiming for a situation where the individual whose name is on the ballot is more relevant, but, at the same time, it would be silly to imagine that party allegiance should ever be of minor relevancy to the voter.


Bruce Hyer and the case against floor-crossing

  1. I find Mr. Davies arguments a bit rich on a couple points.

    “How can voters cast a meaningful ballot if the candidate who espoused certain policies at election time then repudiates those policies once elected?”

    I believe Mr Hyer campaigned in 2011 to abolish the long gun registry, and subsequently left the party because they punished him for upholding his campaign promise. Mr Davies would seem to prefer that he actually repudiate the promise he actually DID make.

    “Crossing the floor to sit with another party, however, is a more concerning matter. This is because the policies and values that the candidate was elected to represent on behalf of their voters have now changed.”

    Have they? I just read the Green’s 2011 platform, and aside from the cap-and-trade vs carbon tax debate, it reads like an NDP platform with less orange graphics. Perhaps Mr. Davies can elaborate on which NDP policies he feels Mr. Hyer has just repudiated.

  2. “As Elizabeth May argues, we don’t elect parties, we elect individuals who are aligned with parties. At least in theory.”

    Allow me to quibble, with the “At least in theory.” We elect individuals in practice, i.e. that is what we actually do.

    Most people may however be voting for a party. (<- this really is a theory!)

    Moreover I think this theory is often overstated. It is well known that other things being equal, an incumbent has a substantial advantage and that seats are more likely to change parties when the incumbent retires.

  3. “it would be silly to imagine that party allegiance should ever be of minor relevancy to the voter.”

    I wish those who hold this OPINION or personal belief would stop stating it as if it applies to everyone. I do not hold any enduring party allegiance. The huge changes in majorities over the course of many Canadian elections show that many Canadians do not vote on the lines of party allegiance – sometimes for the individual, sometimes against scandals, sometimes in protest, sometimes a platform or specific issue, and – yes – sometimes by current or past party allegiance.

    The assumption or assertion which is being used both against “floor crossing” and against the Reform Act that there is near-universal agreement or inclination among Canadians to a party-priority or party-allegiance system is not true.

  4. All the major parties are hypocrites on this issue, since they only complain when they’re the party who has been abandoned. Otherwise, being such high-minded champions of democracy, all the parties would unanimously support legislation decreeing that floor-crossers must resign their seats and run for re-election.

    In the meantime, shut up and stop whining when it comes your turn to be victimized.

  5. I believe that perhaps an addition should be made to the Reform Act and make MPs who leave their parties sit as independents until the subsequent election. It avoids the horse trading that we have seen over the last 10 years.

  6. I think critics of floor crossing might have a point when opportunism is the motivation, for instance when Emerson decided he’d rather be in cabinet instead of Opposition.

    But when a party makes continuing involvement in their caucus untenable, either because of the direction it decides to take, as with the concerns of Bill Casey over the Atlantic Accord, or Brent Rathberger and the Conservatives’ lack of transparency and accountability, they should be unsurprised that someone decides to find a new home.

    In this case, it’s absolutely absurd to expel someone and then expect them to somehow remain loyal, or to remain in the corner you sent them to, especially when your standard of loyalty is that everyone should think when you tell them to, and not when you don’t.

    What floor is Bruce Hyer crossing anyway? Memo to Mr. Mulcair: your party discipline doesn’t work on people you kick out.

    It’s the NDP leadership that was undemocratic for deciding that Hyer’s views were okay when he was running for election but not permitted after he was in caucus. What consultation did they have with the people of Superior North when they decided to banish him from caucus?

  7. Mr. Mulcair, the first flaw in your argument is the idea that the only voters who count are the ones who vote based on party principles, rather than those of the candidate.

    The second flaw in your argument is the idea that even those voters who vote based on party philosophies automatically think that a change in party means a change in the particular philosophies that matter to them. Or are you really going to argue that somebody who believes in Senate abolition shouldn’t vote NDP if they also believe in lower corporate taxes?

    The third flaw in your argument is that even if people vote based on party policy, and even if a change in party means a change in the particular philosophies that matter to them, then a candidate who resigns from a party is automatically repudiating at least a portion of the policies of the party. If not, they person wouldn’t have resigned correct? So according to your logic, this means that they are not fully representing the people who elected them based on the idea that only the complete set of party policies are acceptable. Which means that you’re a hypocrite, because you’re the one who said they should be able to leave parties even though it means the exact same thing to the people who voted for party policy as if they switch parties.

    Or in other words.. go pound sand.

  8. Parties, if they happened in any other sphere of life would be called gangs. But for some reason intimidation, lieing, bribery and conspiracy to do just about anything appear perfectly acceptable if it’s done in the name of politics.
    Parties have rigged the system so that they have fund raising advantages, advertising advantages, their party leaders get access to the media that an independent would never get and also let’s not forget the ability to intimidate members to vote en mass so discussion can be stifled and undemocratic bills rushed through.
    There is no accountability when parties rule and any idea of democracy becomes a joke because of it.

  9. The Green Party isn’t even considered a real party in House of Commons terms. In the end, whether the Greens have one MP or two, it is still not an official HoC party. And, since Hyer was already sitting as an independent, it seems rather rich for the NDP to insist that an Independent MP should not be allowed to have new friends. It makes me wonder whether they think that an MP should automatically resign and run for re-election when they leave, or are ejected from, a caucus. That would REALLY put too much power into a party leader’s hands.

  10. Ha! The Liberal’s can’t even manage to get an ex-Dipper to join them! Hilarious!

  11. Mulcair sat as a LIBERAL representative and then as a Liberal Minister in the QUEBEC Legislature from 1994. until 2007!