Wednesday, January 6, 2010

drama at 10800 97 Avenue

Before discussing what has happened at the Alberta Legislature this week, I'd note to any interested readers that a funeral date for Sgt Miok is still uncertain. The problem is apparently that the coroner's office in Toronto is busy solving crime such that it is not clear when the remains of those who fell in Afghanistan will be released. 41 CER is busy drilling in preparation for a military funeral on Saturday but a postponement may be required.

What to say about Monday's news? When rumours of floor crossings first arose in late September, I wrote to a member of the Wildrose exec to give my opinion (which I am very generous in sharing) that
[the party] executive [the leader still being undetermined at this time] shouldn't just accept them without any conditions if it is going to create a backlash... We would arguably be better served going into the next general with 1 MLA and 100% credibility than 11 MLAs and an attack line. ...
The ideal situation would be for these people to announce, then run in byelections, and to run in open nominations for the WAP nod. But that would mean no concessions to any [MLAs putting out] feelers... If they are people opposed to Bill 44 s.9 and they are not all concentrated in Calgary it would be political gold.

What we ended up with isn't quite gold and I think I would be rightfully dismissed as a party mouthpiece if I tried to pass it off as such. That would in turn arguably do the party more harm than good because people looking for attack angles would associate my remarks with the party line, something they cannot fairly do when neutral observers are of the opinion that I comment from an independent (albeit ideologically sympathetic) perspective.

But neither is this just a lump of coal for either the Wildrose party or standards of political practice. That some have expressed outrage should be acknowledged. An Edmonton Wildrose organizer in a south side constituency got an angry call from a resident who had previously been an enthusiastic volunteer. Given that not one but two 41 CER men are the go-to organizers in northwest greater Edmonton, I was particularly uneasy about a Facebook note of displeasure I received from another senior NCO from the unit concerning the news. Bob Layton has wagged a finger. A letter writer to the Calgary Sun has deplored the "desecration of democracy." The Edmonton Journal has huffed about the "betrayal of voters' intentions" and Paula Simons has, predictably, jumped on the (supposed) opportunity to play up the menace of Calgary oil men with an alacrity that would impress any old Alberta Reformer given to regular warnings about nefarious eastern bankers.

I'd say methinks the lady doth protest too much but it appears that I am not the only one who suspects that Ms Simons has called wolf a time or two too many given some of the comments I've seen. To envision a crime against either Edmonton or democracy or both seems rather too conspiratorial. Consider this: you vote for a platform. Since you believe that individual candidates generally can only impact 10% at most of the platform that affects you and your constituency, generally you base 90% of your vote on the candidate's party affiliation. Suppose the platform you believed you voted for was simply fiscal conservatism. But the party turned away from that platform after some time in power. The candidate, however, wished to remain true to platform and crossed over to a new party that took the vacated place with respect to that platform. Would it not be a "betrayal of voters' intentions" to NOT cross the floor in this circumstance? So what if the labels are "conservative" or "liberal" when the substance is yesterday's conservative is today's liberal? If the Canadian Parliament went from 169 PC MPs and zero Reform MPs to, say, 160 PC MPs and 9 Reform MPs because of floor crossing in 1992, would continuing with 169 and 0 into 1993 truly have been more reflective of the electorate's desires given that after the election of October 93 it was 2 (yes, two) PC MPs and 52 Reform MPs?

Before Monday, the Alberta PC caucus outnumbered the Wildrose Alliance caucus by a 70 to 1 margin. Now, it is a 23 to 1 margin. The 2008 election result was less than an 8 to 1 margin. Where's the "desecration" again? "Ah, but you are looking at it from too broad a perspective," someone might say. "I'm talking about my backyard." Of this NIMBY view I would ask why not restrict your backyard to just your local polls or literally your backyard. 100% of the votes in my own backyard went Wildrose last election and this backyard didn't get the result its electorate wanted. The point being here that there is a continuum here and the point at which one makes the slice is more or less arbitrary. Too arbitrary to support much righteous indignation beyond tut-tutting.

Which brings me to what I think the real issue is here, and that's the internal consistency of a political party's view of what is democratic and what is not as opposed to whether a particular floor crossing is democratic or not in the absolute sense. There are no absolutes here. There is a rather a spectrum where at one end a party would accept into its caucus only those who had been elected under its party banner consequent to an open nomination. By-elections in 100% of cases where the caucus is enlarged outside of a general election, in other words.

Moving along the spectrum one would first find a caucus that was enlarged without a by-election but only after announcing the desire to cross the floor on a conditional basis, the condition being consultation of all of
- the constituency association of the party being left (with particular concern for those who put the most time and effort into campaigning for the candidate)
- the constituency association of the party being joined
- the membership of the party being left
- the membership of the party being joined
- the constituents in general

As an aside, if one were to contend that it is not the business of anyone outside the riding, then in my view consistency would demand that a constituency association or a candidate issuing their own press releases (to take an example) ought to similarly be considered no one else's business. If the party's view is that everybody wears it when a controversy erupts in a particular constituency, then I would think that there would be no carve-out for controversial floor crossings. Recall that Edmonton Wildrose people have received feedback about events related to Calgary-area constituencies this week.

To return from that aside, while there may be much gnashing of teeth during and post-consultation, the fact is that people had the opportunity to express their opinions in letters to newspapers, to friends, to party officials, etc. There are always going to be losers, just as there would be losers in a formal byelection, but losers in the byelection scenario accept it because they got their 2 cents in, and they would still get their input in (albeit to a rather lesser degree) were they are consulted in a more indirect and approximate way.

Moving further along the spectrum, the transparency and the breadth of the consultation and the conditionality of the floor crossing goes down, to the eventual point where the representative is not only crossing without any demands from the party that the crossing representative demonstrate that his action has the support of his constituents, but the representative makes demands of the party being crossed to and back room deals are cut to satisfy those demands.

Suppose a representative with all the perks of a front bench role and comfortable re-election prospects under the same party should cross to a party that is polling poorly, for an obscure role in the legislature and lower pay. Even if there were no transparency at all with respect to the decision to cross, the circumstances would suggest that there could not have been a back room deal of much significance. On the other hand, crossing to a party that is polling better than the party defected from suggests more constituents would support the move. Both of these mitigating elements exist with respect to the floor crossings that occurred this week, to the extent they can when they are more or less inversely related on the polling strength aspect. Also, if one is consistent in holding an uncompromising view about representatives acting with the approval of their constituents, then we ought to be having byelections every day on the each day's unique issues. The practical reality is that most democracies allow elected representatives to go against their constituents' desires as often as they like but for a maximum of 5 years. If the voters will be given an opportunity to render a verdict within 4 or so years on a floor crossing, one's outrage should accordingly be limited, and perhaps limited in proportion to the expected wait. What's so special about a floor crossing decision relative to other major policy decisions that a byelection is much more required for the former?

The safest thing is nonetheless to hew as close as possible to the byelection side of the spectrum. That's why I spoke of a byelection as an "ideal" back in September. But where one is beyond that depends more on consistency of philosophy than anything else. I don't believe in recall, referendums, or an elected senate, primarily because I see myself as a "conservative" cynic who looks through to the concrete result as opposed to a "liberal" type who idealizes some ambition in its unimplemented abstract. California is ground zero for recalls, referenda, etc and is also home to some of America's worst K-12 schools, net out-migration, and a fiscal disaster. I've seen Senate committees at work in person in Ottawa and I've come to the conclusion that most Senators, many of them accomplished individuals, conduct themselves with more dignity and less grandstanding than our elected Parliamentarians. So I am not uncomfortable with these floor crossings in and of themselves. Byelections here would be wastes of time and money, and having a Wildrose caucus that is 1/23rd the size of the PC caucus despite leading the PCs in the polls is hardly a situation that screams for an electoral review for possible oversize.

I could go on: freeing up the crossers to dissent and speak their minds is a net gain for transparency in this province. Advanced Education Minister Doug Horner's contention that "it takes integrity" to tow the party line instead of supporting what one really supports or saying what one really thinks strikes me as laughable. It takes loyalty, not integrity, to be a good soldier for Stelmach. When I question the Wildrose party I am presenting a true front instead of united front. Let's not pretend there isn't a trade-off.

I am concerned about a potential gap between what the powers-that-be in the Wildrose Alliance deem is OK for them and what is OK for others. Call me a concern troll but the deal here is that I'm a Kantian in that I think one has to universalize one's principles. That's why I think consultation with the constituency association being joined should be matched with consultation with the constituency association being left. If a floor crosser left my constituency association and I complained about it, I would expect to be given the same level of consideration as I was given when a floor crosser came to my constituency association. Why would my opinion count in the one case and not the other?

There is, of course, a need for political realism. Things get done because people make the compromises necessary to go with the team instead of one's own way. But if any of the three caucus members introduce a MLA recall bill I am going to have to ask myself whether there is any way to get what I would consider a glaring inconsistency ring fenced into a regrettable one-off incident. A recalled MLA isn't going to suffer "financial hardship" as a consequence, an excuse I've seen trotted out for not having a byelection? Taxpayers aren't going to have to foot the bill for a byelection consequent to a recall? Why are these justifications coming from the party and not from the floor crossers themselves if there were no quid pro quo that the party would help provide political cover? A Wildrose nomination is the hottest ticket in town and people ought to begging for one. If there is going to be a nomination sale everyone should have a chance at the same deal. It's not like the Alberta Altruist or Shawn Howard would have been unacceptable candidates such that s. 9 supporter had to be courted to represent Airdrie and area. Allow me to quote from a Tory insider who rightly perceived far more downside to a byelection for his party than for Wildrose, which raises the question of why so much as an inch was conceded on whether to demand one:
[The PCs should] stop calling for Forsyth and Anderson to step down and run in by-elections as Wildrose candidates. It’s a stupid idea. Let’s say they actually went ahead with the suggestion and DID step down to run again a-la Sheila Copps: what would that accomplish? If you’re the PCs, not a damn thing.

Not only would a pair of by-elections serve to draw attention (every day for an entire 28-day writ period) to the fact that two government MLAs left government to sit in opposition… they would both win their seats back - quite handily, too. A month of anti-government press (almost guaranteed in Calgary these days) capped off with a couple of Wildrose blowout victories will only legitimize the notion that the good ship Tory has already hit the iceberg and is on her way down in spectacular fashion.

And I say all three caucus members because even though one of them did not make such a significant decision so as to create more than a negligible expectation of a recall desire, this one has shown more enthusiasm for having MLAs elected under other banners come over and provide company than I was ever comfortable with. As far as I'm concerned, this should be a matter for the leader not the caucus, since the leader has the confidence of the full membership that caucus members do not. If the caucus does not defer to the leader, the party's greatest asset is going to be left unutilized. These crossings are a potential sign that the party has matured to the point of appreciating nuance and practical politics. To revert to populist moralizing going forward would be a serious regression.

Casual readers who haven't worked with me may not know that I am a notoriously unhappy camper. Due allowance for that means that folks ought to just move along since there really is nothing particularly new to see if Brian Dell has a beef. But I will say that an uncompromising defence of this floor crossing that I saw coming from a Wildroser who had previously condemned Belinda Stronach (who was re-elected by her constituents under the banner of the party she crossed to in the first subsequent general election) as "treacherous" and a "traitor" created the biggest beef I have had yet, outside of operations management issues. A "waste of time" argument was scoffed at in 2005 yet now that the shoe is on another foot the same argument is being advanced to refuse to "go to the people" in Airdrie or Fish Creek. How about either a more dialed down denunciation of Belinda or, in the alternative, a more equivocal and tepid endorsement of this week's crossers? Or is partisanship just too hard to step back from? This person is not the leader, but as far as I'm concerned the attitude is either too widely held or too influential. Stop giving passes to federal Conservatives for engaging in the same high-handed behaviour that was so bitterly denounced with the Liberals did it. Why is Andrew Coyne the only prominent conservative to take issue with the federal government's spending spree? If a prime minister dodges a Parliamentary confidence vote it is not a violation of "the first and greatest commandment." It's a political maneuver that should be regretted but with a sigh instead of righteous indignation. I consider it the mark of an older, wiser individual to jump on a high horse only after much introspection. Crusading should be generally left to those with little experience of the world and the complexity of its demands. As the Calgary Sun responded to the letter writer, "politics is a blood sport." It's a response that concedes that corners were cut, and is accordingly the response that acknowledges the complainant while nonetheless disagreeing with him.


Anonymous said...

Good point about the feds. They are Liberal light, unlike the provincial PC's who are easily the most conservative government in the country. Too conservative for me - I'm voting Liberal.

Jonathan said...

Brian, since 2006 I think I have fairly consistent with my comments on this issue.

This guy had a lot to do with it...

Stephen Harper: My short answer is no. And I understand the voters' frustration. You can imagine I feel that frustration as much as anyone.

I was the victim of a number of the particular incidents that the voter is referring to, that Colleen's referring to, but the difficulty, Peter – I know that many members of Parliament have put forward various proposals that would restrict the right of MPs to cross the floor, force elections, or whatever.

I haven't seen one yet that convinces me that it would create anything other than a situation where party leaders have even more power over the individual members of Parliament. And, as you know, I've said that, of course, I've said that for a long time that I think our members of
Parliament need more authority, need to be able to represent their constituents' views, and they may make very bad decisions in crossing from a good party to a bad party or, more particularly, a winning party to a losing party.

But that all said, I haven't seen one yet that I'm convinced creates a bigger problem than it's actually trying to fix.