Defectors damage democracy and their careers
The sudden slide of MPP Amanda Simard into the purgatory of “independent” MPP was sad to see — whether self-imposed or shoved. There are few roles more barren of meaning or consequence in our heavily whipped caucus management politics.
She avoided a worse choice, however — defecting. Those who cross the floor betraying their political tribe, do serious damage to their own reputation, and to democracy itself. Public claims that “my party left me, I didn’t leave it,” notwithstanding, defection is usually just tawdry frustrated ambition or fear of the voter.
Rumours this month that as many as three other Ontario Conservative MPPs were tempted to defect over Ford’s swingeing expenditure cuts are disquieting. Far better to go down fighting on a matter of principle, than to defect.
So, first, resign.
Then fight a byelection under your new banner and test your ability to persuade voters of your conviction.
It is usually Liberals who are best at trolling for the weak and vulnerable in other caucuses, but it typically does them little lasting good. Defectors of little consequence — David Ramsay and Tony Lupusella long ago or Eve Adams and Glenn Thibeault more recently — have fallen off the political radar soon after their defection, often to defeat in the next election. This year the Trudeau Liberals lost a little known MP to the Scheer team. She too will be a one day story, before her disappearance in the next campaign.
Some defectors are government and party-crippling in their impact, however. Belinda Stronach, David Emerson, Lucien Bouchard and Danielle Smith in Alberta, each seriously wounded the political fortunes of their former colleagues.
Why do these defectors matter?
Because they betray their voters’ trust. Despite the usual delusional political vanity, it was not their stature, their baby blues, or their basso profundo oratory that got them elected. It was their party and its leader who lifted them out of obscurity. Love him or detest him, Ontario’s voters were choosing Ford as premier. Selecting the name of Mr. or Ms. Unhappy Future MPP was merely the vehicle.
My friend and former colleague, Bob Rae, did his departure right. Deeply offended by his New Democratic Party colleagues, he retired, left politics and returned to law. Years later he ran as a Liberal, won a tough nomination, then a seat, and later guided his new party as interim leader at a fragile moment in its history. One may detest his defection, disbelieve his reasons for departure, and resent his subsequent choice. One cannot fault his conduct on that journey.
In less established democracies, political defections are greased with suitcases of U.S. dollars, and even public promises of political reward. It became such a gallingly corrupt and deceitful game in India recently that attempts to make it a criminal offence were tried.
In Canada, there may be a hint of future glory in the political recruiter’s seductive pitch, but it had better be a nod and wink and nothing more. Else you face the years of bad press and the whiff of scandal that the Wynne Liberals had to endure in Sudbury, only to lose the seat to the New Democrats, despite the elevation and coddling of their former NDP MP flag-bearer.
If those who are frustrated with the style of the Ontario premier and his increasingly controversial team of senior advisers — if they have come to recognize that the cause to which they rallied has turned out to be something very different than originally claimed — they have three choices: Quit, to “spend more time with their family,” sit as an independent and watch their own slide into irrelevance, or resign and fight a byelection under a different flag. There should be no other choices.
Political parties should publicly pledge a “no poaching” pact. Voters should not be shy about chastising those who refuse, with the unanswerable demand, “Why will you not promise never to cheat me of choice of MPP and party. Are you that disrespectful of the sanctity of my democratic choice!?!”
Robin V. Sears is a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and was an NDP strategist for 20 years. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robinvsears