The Commons: Lise St. Denis' day

'I wasn't an NDP member, I was a member elected to represent all people in my riding'

“This decision,” she explained at the outset, “has been made serenely.”

And so Lise St. Denis, dressed here in black and white, elected as a New Democrat some eight months ago, slipped from one party to the other. To her left sat Denis Coderre, beaming. To her right, Bob Rae listened intently. Both men had helped her with her chair when she arrived at the table. When she finished, the interim Liberal leader patted her on the back. She and they seemed reasonably happy with this little moment.

However serene the undertaking, however justifiable this business of euphemistically crossing the proverbial floor, it was not so easily explained.

Maybe it was something to do with Quebec. “This change in my political life is above all the continuity of my thought process on Canada’s future,” she said, reading from her prepared statement, “and the place that must be taken in our institutions by Quebecois and francophones from all over the country.”

Maybe it was something to do with the “difficulties linked to the globalisation of national economies.” “The decision that I have made is motivated by the challenges that people in my riding will face,” she explained.

Maybe it was something to do with female empowerment. “The choice that I have made today is that of a woman free to express her opinion,” she added.

Pressed by reporters she identified three issues on which she and the New Democratic Party of Canada parted ways: an extension of the mission in Libya, the funding formula for the Champlain Bridge and the future of the Senate. (On Libya, there was some confusion and eventually it fell to Mr. Rae to explain. Apparently Ms. St. Denis had disagreed with the NDP’s decision to vote against an extension of the mission.) She acknowledged that the NDP’s preference for abolishment of the red chamber was in the party platform, but that individual opinions can evolve. She had apparently had time to sit in the House of Commons and listen to the speeches of MPs of different affiliations. And she had apparently come around to thinking that she belonged with the Liberals. So she had a chat with Mr. Rae in December and so, a few weeks later, here we were.

There was not much in the way of criticism of her former party, except as one might derive implied criticism from her praise for her new party’s experience and approach and manner. This was about “profound beliefs and convictions,” Denis Coderre clarified. “There are no attacks here,” he noted. “I don’t think anybody can say,” Mr. Rae mused, “that to leave the official opposition for the third party is an act of opportunism.”

Ms. St. Denis was though challenged several times to justify a switch after standing for election as a member of the New Democratic Party, an organization for which she’d worked for the last ten years. “Life here is completely different,” she said of Ottawa. “I didn’t imagine it would be what it was,” she added later. She said she would explain to her constituents that this was about “regional issues.” “I wasn’t an NDP member, I was a member elected to represent all people in my riding in Ottawa,” she posited. But, challenged on the circumstances of her election, she later allowed that the 18,628 people who marked an X beside her name probably hadn’t voted for her. “They voted for Jack Layton, who is now deceased,” she explained.

So there is maybe an interesting discussion here of the sort we usually have around these occasions about democracy and legitimacy and elected responsibility. That discussion, if it occurs, will probably be over by tomorrow morning and mostly forgotten by the weekend.

Otherwise, the Liberals now count 35 and the New Democrats number 101. And for now this seems not much more than a matter of simple math.

“It’s certainly not a day where we’re going to make some sort of exaggerated claim as to what trend does this represent,” Bob Rae allowed, momentarily breaking the fourth wall. “I have no idea.”

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