NDPWatch: Why suddenly so concerned about floor crossing, Official Opposition?


Note: The following meanderings originally appeared on twitter, but have been tweaked, extended and edited for readability.

Enthusiastic party press releases to the contrary, the next NDP-backed private members’ bill headed for the floor of the House does not, in fact, “ban” floor crossing outright, but would trigger an automatic byelection when an MP “becomes a member of a registered party” that did not endorse his or her candidacy in the election.

First of all, it’s worth noting that as drafted, C-306 could conceivably be seen as a violation the privilege of an individual MP to sit and vote with whatever caucus he or she chooses, although an easy workaround would be for MPs to sit as Independents, but vote and caucus with their newly chosen party, which could even put them on committees if it wanted to do so.

In fact, depending on the interpretation of the bill, the anti-floor-crossing provision may be even easier to dodge: Join the caucus, but not the party. In the section dealing with “change of political affiliation,” the bill cites the Canada Elections Act in the reference to “registered party,” which, as I can tell, would mean that the MP in question would have to become a card-carrying member of the party itself, not simply a member of the parliamentary caucus, as the latter are not registered under the Act.

Those technical quibbles aside, however, as noted above, the question of how the bill wound up on the private members’ priority list is every bit as intriguing.

Before we get down to shameless speculation as to what may have motivated the move, a bit of background: the very first iteration of a bill to trigger byelections when an MP switches parties was introduced back in 1997 by Reform MP Mike Scott.

Since then, it has been introduced, amid varying degrees of fanfare, by various and sundry NDP MPs — in most cases, by veteran New Democrat Peter Stoffer, but occasionally under the name of one of his caucus colleague — on at least five different occasions.

But despite having had multiple opportunities to do so, on only one occasion has it been brought forward for second reading: in 2005, when Stoffer added it to the precedence list just weeks after Belinda Stronach abandoned the Conservative caucus to join then-Prime Minister Paul Martin’s cabinet on the eve of a critical confidence vote. (Not surprisingly, it was eventually defeated.)

A brief reminder on the rules that govern private members’ business: MPs fortunate enough to win a spot near the top of the priority list are free to bring forward any bill or motion on the Order Paper, including those introduced by another member — a caucus colleague, or even someone from a different party.

At no point since 2005 has either Stoffer, or a New Democrat colleague with a higher slot on the priority list, chosen to do so with one of the many anti-floor crossing bills that have been up for grabs.

Flash forward, then, to September, when the now Official Opposition apparently found itself sufficiently seized with the issue for newly elected Quebec MP Mathieu Ravignat to introduce, under his own name, a bill identical to one that had already been tabled by Stoffer in June — one which, by virtue of Ravignat’s enviable slot on the precedent list, will proceed to second reading later today.

It’s almost as if the NDP is suddenly concerned by the prospect of MPs leaving the party under which they were elected.

Imagine this scenario: a post-leadership split within the party results in a good chunk of its Quebec caucus — to pick one at random —  setting up shop under a new name and leader, much like the MPs who would become founding members of the Bloc Quebecois did in 1990.

Under the current rules, depending on its size, that new caucus might even be able to challenge the NDP for the title of Official Opposition. Even if it did not, the emergence of a new caucus could significantly alter the procedural landscape: at minimum, the NDP would likely have to give up a few QP slots to the newly minted Third Party, and committee seats would likely be reallocated as well.

Under the rules proposed by the NDP, however, if the anti-floor-crossing provision does, in fact, kick in when an MP chooses to sit with a caucus under the banner of which he or she was not originally elected, those seats would automatically be declared vacant, resulting in Quebec-wide byelections — and depending on the timeline, another party — even, perhaps, the currently dormant Bloc Quebecois — could challenge many of those byelections, and quite possibly win back at least a few of those lost to the NDP during the last election.

That would seem to be a pretty powerful way to discourage a rookie NDP MP from signing on as a founding member of a new caucus.In any case, it might be well worth tuning into the Chamber for private members’ hour later today, if only to see if any MPs raise the above possibility during debate.