Monday, February 6, 2006

Scuffing the floors of Parliament

Opposition leader Bill Graham today criticized Stephen Harper's appointment of Liberal defector David Emerson to the public works and government services ministry as hypocritical. From the CBC:

"I was in the House of Commons when Mr. Harper vigorously criticized Mr. Martin for including Ms. Stronach in the cabinet," Graham said. "And now, before he has even been appointed prime minister of Canada, he's already negotiated to have someone come over to his cabinet from the other side."
Graham is, of course, being excessively dramatic — can a hypocrite condemn hypocrisy? Graham admitted that neither he nor any Liberal had any idea that Emerson would be crossing the floor, so the suggestion that Emerson was enticed to join the Conservatives to consolidate their political power, as had been Belinda Stronach before him by the Liberals, was to him still a matter of conjecture — but for the purpose of effect, the Liberals apparently require no more than that the Conservatives are no better than themselves. According to Harper, "I asked David Emerson to join Canada's new government and he accepted."

However, whether Emerson was induced or not to cross the floor has no bearing on the practice of government itself or on policy — the question matters only to the the appearance of political propriety and the internal relations of members of the government and caucus. As for the latter, that is only the problem of the Conservatives. As for the former, crossing the floor and the political opportunism that, one assumes, typically accompanies the act has excited — in the past, and I expect renewal of — calls for official censure to be enacted in the form of effective bans or byelections. Legal policies to prevent floor crossings are the last things to be encouraged in a parliamentary democracy — they are in fact as completely arbitrary as an individual representative's decision to change parties, which, as Colby Cosh put it well,
have no constitutional standing at all in our system of government, and which are generally conceded to have acquired too much extraconstitutional authority in the actual function of our House of Commons.
And, one might add, as completely arbitrary as an individual's vote in favour of a particular representative. Voters who like to imagine that they are choosing an ephemeral and non-corporeal artifice such as a party for their representative would do well to abuse themselves of this notion.
Pretending to vote for parties is easy, but unless a couple of hundred years of parliamentary tradition has been turned on its head in the past day or so — a possibility I must admit — people are still in law and in practice voting for individual representatives. Party affiliation is a very useful instruction — or can be a less useful ornamentation — to the voter for gauging the compatibility of a candidate's interest with his own. But Voting-for-PartiesTM is lazy or negligent thinking and practice by citizens at best, and at worst an enfeebling meme that corrupts the traditions and ideals of that informed modern liberal parliamentary practice and helped to create and support the now-antique notions of subordination of representatives to independent citizens who used to reciprocate by demanding that deference.
These days, however, those independent citizens demand their representatives defer to brand names and coloured name tags. The relatively new parliamentary and opportunist tradition of ruling parties subjecting the House of Commons to confidence votes on subjects that have little or no bearing on the actual effectiveness of or confidence in the government has unfortunately accustomed much of the electorate to regarding their representative as no more than a cipher for a political emblem. Should we require no individual judgment on behalf of representatives, we may as well elect trained baboons — we could certainly and safely dispense with parliamentary debate, if not the representatives who must get up out of their seats at the sound of the trainer's whistle.

Confining our elected representatives' private affiliations to membership in one political club without regard to their individual consciences is the same as confining our own. The objection could be made that the representative is exchanging affiliations not for the sake of his conscience but for his own profit or opportunity, but — never minding that the same can be said of almost any voter who, by not standing for election, doesn't have to go to the trouble of being demonstrative about it — how are we to ascertain this? Politicians are practically in the business of misrepresenting their positions and reinventing their principles — why should party affiliation be the overriding criterion upon which the decision to call byelections is made? It would be the honourable thing for Emerson to resign his seat and ask the voters of his riding for their permission to represent them under a different party banner — but that only presumes that the voters of Vancouver-Kingsway invested him with that kind of integrity in the first place. In hindsight, it would appear not.