“Crossing the Floor”

In Alberta, two formerly Tory M.L.A.s have left the P.C. caucus to sit as members of the Wild Rose Alliance Party.  They are Mr. Rob Anderson and Ms. Heather Forsyth.

The story is really three stories.  At the end of the day the three stories raise more questions than they answer about the Wild Rose Alliance.

1.  One of the hallmarks of the caucus system is the confidentiality of what is said in caucus.

In the course of leaving, and to explain his actions, Mr. Anderson has breached caucus confidentiality.  He has told the world that social pressure was exerted, in caucus, to ensure delegates loyal to Premier Stelmach would attend the Party’s last A.G.M. and vote in support of the Leader on the question of the Leadership Review.

Part of me is happy to hear his comments, and it is easy to overlook this breach, for at least four reasons.  First, because he has bloodied the nose of the arrogant and unloved P.C. caucus.  Second, many of us want in on secrets, especially when they expose feet of clay.  Third, he confirms why we have lost faith in the caucus system as a whole.  Fourth, the breach is not being presented in order to challenge the ugly side of caucus secrecy; it is being presented as justification for his having turned coat.

My own opinion is that the P.C. Party in Alberta has carried caucus confidentiality to indefensible and anti-democratic extremes.  The sooner their practices are reined in the better.  But two wrongs don’t make a right.  We should be asking ourselves about Mr. Anderson’s integrity if he will bare confidences in order to justify his own actions.  Should constituents worry about what they may say to Mr. Anderson in confidence?  What if it turns out that he doesn’t like them, or their circumstances?  Should his new caucus worry about what he might say if he ever undertakes another leaving taking?

At the time the social pressure was exerted, Mr. Anderson apparently didn’t find it so objectionable that he felt compelled to leave the caucus.  There is no evidence that he went to the Premier at that time and objected and demanded an end to the social pressure.  It is interesting that the issue of such perverse social pressure, if it is true, did not lead to Mr. Anderson’s departure or determine the timing of his departure.  It was merely useful to him as part of the rationalization for his own decision.

2.  The Wild Rose Party leaves us confused about the value, and the cost, of democracy, and for whom.

We are told that Mr. Anderson and Ms. Forsyth should not resign and stand in a by-election, for three reasons.

First, we are told, by-elections are expensive for the province, and it would be wrong for them to subject the public to the cost of two by-elections.  There are two reasonable rebuttals to make.  The first is that the financial cost of two by-elections is nothing compared to many other costs we accept for preserving democracy.  138 Canadian men and women have died in Afganistan for the idea of democracy.  I doubt that any one of them would look at us in Alberta and say the money cost of by-elections was more than the worth of democracy.  Second, if the W.A.P thinks that the cost of these two by-elections is insufferable, they have undermined their support for recall legislation.  A successful recall would necessitate a by- election.  How can the W.A.P. support a policy which in its general application would cost money if by-elections are a costly exercise to be avoided.

Second, we are told that there should be no by-election because the interim period might cause financial hardship for Mr. Anderson and Ms. Forsyth:  they would have to spend some time without the benefit of their various M.L.A. stipends.  Do we really want to make decisions about what nurtures strong democracy primarily on the basis of whether incumbent M.L.A.s may (perhaps) experience some temporary financial discomfort?  The next thing you know a party will be making important public policy decisions primarily on the basis of whether corporate leaders may (perhaps) experience some temporary financial discomfort.

Third, we are told that Mr. Anderson and Ms. Forsyth were both elected in their respective constituencies as individuals, not as representatives of the Progressive Conservative Party.  Their (then) party affiliation was printed beside their name.  They were elected as representatives of the P.C. party.

3.  The Wild Rose Party leaves us confused about the relationship of the Leader and M.L.A.s to the grassroots, the relationship of the caucus to the membership.  Does the WAP favour recall legislation and, if so, would recall be followed by a by-election to fill the vacancy, regardless of the cost of the by-election?  Does the WAP believe that M.L.A.s who leave a caucus should make a transition by sitting as independent members, until the local WAP constituency association decides whether it wants to accept the M.L.A. as a member?  Does the local WAP constituency association have any voice?  It is interesting to note that the announcement of the floor crossing was not made by the President of the local WAP constituency association; it was made by the Leader of the Party.  In fact, the Presidents of the respective constituency associations were not even noted as being present.

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3 Responses to ““Crossing the Floor””

  1. Joe Albertan Says:

    If the Wildrose is principled, there will be no caucus confidentiality at all and every member can represent his constituents regardless of party policy. That is true democracy.

  2. Alvin Finkel Says:

    Dave, I think that you point out many of the concerns that democrats should have about the floor-crossings.

    But your defence of caucus secrecy, which likely makes sense to you as a former member of a government caucus, makes little sense to most citizens, and certainly very little to me. Caucus secrecy, especially in the context of what has been for many years a one-party state, contributes to the view that the citizen’s vote is irrelevant and the constituency MLA a non-entity.

    I realize that, in the end, an MLA is expected to vote with their party, at least on matters that the government has decided are essential to its mandate. That has become an essential part of the parliamentary system, and it is my view as an historian that we would be as mired in the corruption of lobbyists as the Americans are and as without a decent medical care system as they are if we did not have party caucuses voting as a block on key issues. So I am not against the notion of parties or of caucus solidarity.

    But I am against the notion of caucuses meeting in secret and leaving we citizens in the dark as to how each member has represented us on particular issues. As a citizen, I want my MLA or MP, regardless of party, to be at least willing to listen to my point of view on a subject. My experience has been that some don’t even pretend to be, and that’s fine: I know what to expect from them. But when my Tory MLA claims to agree with me and even to ask me to elaborate on arguments that might help him in caucus on a subject (that has happened to me as well), I would like some way of knowing that he is not having me on. Why should I take his word that he argued such and such a way in caucus or even that he attended the caucus meeting if everything about caucus meetings is privileged information? Why should I not assume that he merely says what he thinks the head honchos of the government and party want to hear so that he can advance his political career?

    What Forsyth and Anderson revealed about the current Tory caucus is what some commentators have suggested before: it is largely kept submissive and does not serve as a forum in which a variety of views are expressed and debated. Instead it is kept on a short leash by the government. That’s the impression one has as well about the federal Tory caucus.

    There is not much point in electing local MLAs–or in a PR system, concerning oneself about who sits in what position on a party list–if the premier and his advisors make all the real decisions, and the caucus’s role is simply to cheer the chief.

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