Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Floor Crossing Is the Messy Part of Democracy, But It's Still Part of Democracy

In case you are living under a rock, former Tory MLA Karen Casey has left the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative caucus and joined the NS Liberal caucus. It's called floor crossing, though with the legislature in recess it's really walking down the street a few blocks from one office building to another.

Karen is a great and welcome addition to the Liberal team. I've respected Karen's work as an MLA for some time and for many HRM residents she's a folk hero as the minister who fired the Halifax Regional School Board a few years back.

Almost on cue, there were those who yelled loudly that floor crossing shouldn't be allowed. An affront to democracy some claimed. PC leader Jamie Baillie implied on CBC Television that floor crossing means a by-election must be called and he was heading to Cumberland North to find a candidate. Note to Mr. Baillie: floor crossing does not require a by-election.

Floor crossing is part of the democratic process. A messy part of democracy just like filibusters, bell ringing, and motions of confidence perhaps, but democracy nonetheless.

Sure, as a Liberal I was annoyed when MP David Emerson crossed the floor to the federal Conservatives shortly after being elected as a Liberal. But I still recognized it as part of the democratic process. Today many of the same people who heralded Emerson's floor crossing complain about Karen crossing because it did not benefit their party.

CBC says the first Canadian floor-crossing in Canada was in 1868 when Stewart Campbell left Nova Scotia's Anti-Confederation party to sit with the Liberal-Conservatives of John A. Macdonald. There have been many floor crossings since. Every major political party in Canada has had experience with floor crossing. In the Yukon for example, every party has lost and gained members to floor crossing. A 2006 CBC election report called floor crossing in that territory a sport because it happened so often that governments have changed mid-term and once a sitting party leader even crossed the floor.

Floor crossing is not unique to Canada. Democracies all over the world experience floor crossing as part of democracy. 

In writing this blog, my colleague Kelly Regan reminded me that across the pond Sir Winston Churchill crossed the floor in 1904 leaving the Conservative Party to join the Liberal Party. He crossed the floor again back to the Conservative Party in the 1920s.

South Africa tried to ban floor crossing in their 1996 because that country uses proportional representation. After a few years it was decided that clause needed to be changed. Legislation was introduced in 2002 to actually facilitate crossing the floor.

We live in a democracy where you vote for a person. While the person's name may sit next to a party name on a ballot your vote is for the person you want to stand up for you and your community. It's why elected members of all parties with strong constituency track records can often win in spite of the fortunes of their respective party. 

Karen wasn't the first to cross the floor in Canada and she won't be the last. Floor crossing is just another part of a democratic process that may be a bit messy but is intentionally designed to allow for as many options as possible to represent the people we're elected to serve.