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.