Elected officials leaving one political party to join another in the middle of their term, hence – literally – crossing the floor of the House of Commons or provincial legislature.
Crossing the floor is always controversial. The motivations can be myriad: from chafing politicians seeking greener pastures to frightened pre-election candidates abandoning a sinking ship to governing parties building up their electoral or parliamentary base.
Floor crossings are invariably portrayed negatively in the media. Exceptions can include those that are perceived as clearly motivated by policy or principle.
In recent years, some high profile floor crossings have included:
- The creation of the Bloc Quebecois by six PC MPs (including Mulroney minister Lucien Bouchard) and two Liberal MPs, all from Quebec, following the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990.
- The 2005 defection of MP and auto-parts scion Belinda Stronach from the Conservative Party to the governing Paul Martin Liberals. The move ensured the temporary survival of Martin’s minority government, but also garnered significant attention both because Stronach had been a recent candidate for the Conservative leadership, and was involved in a highly-public romance with another front-bench Conservative. She was defeated in the subsequent election.
- The surprise post-election switch of BC MP and Martin-era cabinet powerhouse David Emerson from the Liberals directly into Stephen Harper’s first cabinet. He did not run again in 2008.
In past eras, governing parties have welcomed floor-crossers to bolster their elected representation in certain regions. This has particularly been the case for the Liberals with Western Canada. In the 1960s, Liberal cabinets welcomed Saskatchewan’s Hazen Argue from the NDP and Alberta’s Bud Olson from the Socreds (Social Credit Party). In the 1970s, Alberta PC renegade Jack Horner joined the Trudeau cabinet. In the 1990s, Edmonton MP David Kilgore left the governing PCs to join the opposition Liberals. Of the four examples, he was the only MP who was re-elected under his new banner (not once but three times!).
Informal surveys show that floor-crossers generally fail to get re-elected with their new parties. This may reflect the overall opprobrium with which party defections are greeted: Bob Rae’s bid for the Liberal Party’s leadership in 2006, for example, was doomed by perceptions that he had been an NDPer until shortly before his candidacy.
What might be called the “Mother of All Floor-Crossings” was the defection of 11 Wildrose MLAs, including the party’s leader Danielle Smith, to the governing Alberta PCs in late 2014. The absorption of virtually an entire Official Opposition by a government caucus, outside of wartime or another extraordinary crisis, was unprecedented in the Westminster Parliamentary system. Smith and her MLAs claimed they defected to the PCs because that party’s new leader, Premier Jim Prentice, had adopted most of Wildrose’s key planks, particularly in fiscal areas.
While pundits at the time hailed the play as a masterstroke for Prentice, the move backfired badly. A number of the floor-crossers – including Smith – were defeated in their bids for PC nominations. Of the six who did run under the PC banner, each was defeated. Rather than being appreciated for its political dexterity, the mass defection became a symbol to voters of deep cynicism on the part of the long-reigning PC dynasty, and of Prentice in particular. Indeed the public revulsion with the floor-crossing was a major factor in the NDP election sweep – one of the great political upsets in Canadian history.
NDP MPs have for years proposed that MPs who switch parties should be compelled to resign altogether and submit to by-elections.
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