The House: The meaning of Lise St-Denis

by Aaron Wherry

Once more to our periodic series on the House of Commons.

Lise St-Denis’ constituents are anecdotally displeased.

“It is completely ridiculous,” said Pierre Huot, director of the student association at Collège Shawinigan. “If she wants to join the Liberals, she should run in a by-election.”

Mr. Huot apparently voted for the Bloc Quebecois last time around.

The Liberal result in Saint-Maurice-Champlain was rather dismal in May—Yves Tousignant finished fourth with just 11.9% of the vote. Not since 2004 has the Liberal candidate in the riding finished better than third.

All of which, once again, raises all those questions about who and what one votes for when one marks one’s ballot. A lot of the same questions that were raised, for different reasons, by the election of Ruth Ellen Brosseau.

The case of Ms. Brosseau was obviously more straightforward. Her name was on the ballot, a sufficient number of citizens cast a vote for her and thus she was entitled to take a seat in the House of Commons. Ms. St-Denis can’t—by her own admission—claim much more credit for her election than Ms. Brosseau can claim for hers, but now she has gone and actually dumped the party affiliation that is mostly responsible for the 18,628 votes she received in May.

In timing (relatively soon after an election) and circumstance (she concedes the public didn’t vote for her) and for the lack of an unexpected crisis that motivated her to change, hers is thus something like a worst case scenario. The people of Saint-Maurice-Champlain voted for a New Democrat and, eight months later, they got a Liberal. It will likely be more than three years before they can hope to really do anything about that.

So what to do about this? She could, if such a requirement was legislated, be compelled to sit as an independent and then made to face a by-election. Only with the blessing of constituents would she then be allowed to sit with her new party. In theory, I think this might make a lot of sense.

But what about other situations in which an MP becomes estranged from the party they represented at the last election? What if an MP is expelled from caucus? What if that MP was expelled from caucus because he or she refused to retreat from or contradict a promise made in the party’s election platform? What if an MP is expelled because he or she decides to side with the majority view of constituents instead of party discipline? What if an MP simply decides that he or she no longer wishes to belong to the party for which they were elected and, as a result, resigns from the caucus?

Conceivably, the MP in these cases could choose to sit as an independent MP. And you could argue that that is different from actually switching allegiance from one party to another. But if a plurality of voters in a riding choose a Conservative MP are they thus entitled to expect that they will have a member of the Conservative party representing them until the next election? If so, does any break between candidate and party represent a break with voters? Does it matter how and why the break occurred or only that it happened?

There are plenty of question marks here, but I think there are two basic questions: What do voters bestow in voting? And what are voters owed as a result?




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The House: The meaning of Lise St-Denis

  1. Or more simply, and more correctly, they should stop printing the name of the political parties on the ballots.  That so many people now believe that we vote for parties – that more than 50% of Canadians polled in 2008 believed that we elect a prime minister – is a sinister reminder that political parties are private cliques that should not replace the freewill of our deputees.  We give our MPs complete freedom of speech, and in the HoC a freedom that is not afforded elsewhere in society.  It’s scary to observe that so many Canadians think that it would be a democratic improvement if members of parliament were the chattels of political parties rather than the representatives of their constituents. 

  2. “All of which, once again, raises all those questions about who and what one votes for when one marks one’s ballot.”

    Indeed, which is why I’m surprised — or maybe I shouldn’t be — that there’s no mention of coalitions in this “discussion” too.

    Some of the same people who bemoan a floor crossing didn’t hesitate two seconds to glorify an unelected coalition. I’ve raised this issue before on numerous occasions and the best I’ve gotten in response is rationalized mumbo jumbo.

    For the record, I generally support the principle behind both floor crossings and coalitions. That’s how our parliamentary system is set up. However, that certainly doesn’t mean all floor crossings and coalitions are worthy of praise or even democratic (something can be legal and undemocratic, of course).

  3. I’m also prone to agree that sitting as an Independent probably doesn’t have a great deal of meaning. There’s no reason why an MP who leaves a party cannot be given any perqs as a member of the party they wish to join or run for in the next election as an Independent, other than just not wearing that label officially.

    In the run of affairs, the constituents elected that person to represent them, albeit for a set of policy they no longer represent when they leave the original party caucus. Eventually, another election will come along and the people will get their opportunity to voice their displeasure over the switch, should they choose.

  4. I doubt if St-Denis has any philosophical or principled reasons to become a member of the Liberals. I suppose it puts her name in the papers for a short time in the slow days of January but I suspect she will become as irrelevant and backbench as a Liberal as she was as an NDP.

    This will quickly become a nothing story for the LPC—and in politics when you`re nothing—well, that`s not good.

    Some folks have made the comparison with the David Emerson switch from Liberal to Conservative in 2006. I don`t see the connection. Emerson could just as easily been a Conservative as Liberal in the ambiguous nature of B.C. politics. His history seems to have been more Conservative then Liberal.

    The 12% who voted for the Liberal candidate in Chretien old riding may feel they are being better represented these days, but it`s going to be difficult for the Liberals to defend democracy with those kind of numbers.

  5. And then there’s the question “what SHOULD people vote for?”  Should they vote for a mouth-piece that can be trusted to spout the party line and have no independent thoughts (your average Conservative) or an intelligent person who they believe has the electorate’s best interests in mind?

    • You know, you might have had a half decent post there until your obvious partisanship showed. The Conservatives certainly didn’t invent the concept of toeing the party line, and they’re certainly not the only party that practices it.

      I think media coverage is one of the reasons why there is so little MP independence. Every time anyone says something even remotely independent they become the top news story for the next week.

      As much as Canadians like to think we have a superior political system, maverick legislators in the U.S. actually win their party’s nominations for president. You can look up John McCain in Wikipedia if you don’t believe me.

      • John McCain had stopped being all “Mavericky” precisely so he could win the nomination.

        • In Canada, he would have been booted from caucus to toil in obscurity forever thereafter (a la Garth Turner). A shot at the prime ministership? Forget about it.

          John McCain is only one example. Another example is Obama barely passing a very watered-down version of his health care bill because not enough Democrats in the Senate were on board. They have the independence down there to vote according to the desires of their constituencies, or their consciences — as McCain often did — and not the party bosses.

    • If the campaign to get David Emerson to do the same didn’t work, and Canada’s entire left-wing kept hollering about that one, then I doubt this current effort will work out much better — however noble the cause.

      • We won’t know unless we give it a try..

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