[Democracy Watch Logo] [Op-ed]

A letter-length version of the following op-ed, by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher, was published in the Globe and Mail on January 19, 2007.
The Globe and Mail refused to publish the op-ed set out below, despite the fact that the op-ed responded to a full-length op-ed by Tom Flanagan published by the newspaper on January 10, 2007, an op-ed that attacked a proposal made by Democracy Watch with false claims, speculative scenarios, and completely illogical points.

There's nothing wrong with restricting political defections

It is clear from Tom Flanagan's comment article that he has unfortunately based his criticism of Democracy Watch's proposal concerning party-switching politicians on a partial description of the proposal ("There's nothing wrong with political defections" -- Jan. 10).

Democracy Watch's proposal is not, as Mr. Flanagan claims, that all politicians who switch parties (or switch to sit as an independent) must be required to resign and run in a by-election.  Democracy Watch agrees with Mr. Flanagan that such a requirement would cause many problems (including giving party leaders too much control over their party's politicians).

Democracy Watch's actual proposal is that politicians should be allowed to switch between elections if they can prove clearly that their party has broken election promises, or switched directions on significant policies, or if their party leader does not resign after being found guilty of ethical or other legal violations.

This system would give politicians a clear (and important) right to defy their party leader and caucus, but only for justifiable reasons, not just because they have career ambitions such as recent party switchers Belinda Stronach and David Emerson (who both received Cabinet posts in return for switching to the ruling party).

As for politicians expelled from a party's caucus (which Flanagan suggests presents a problem that regulating party-switching cannot overcome), expulsion is not the politician's decision and as a result no resignation should be required.  However, to respect voter rights any politician expelled should be required to consult with voters in his or her riding about whether they should sit as an independent or join another party.

To ensure that justifiable reasons for a politician's switching decision are not abused as a convenient excuse (as they often have been in the past), Democracy Watch also proposes that each government's ethics watchdog be given the power to decide whether the switching is valid.

And if the reason a politician has been expelled from caucus is that politician has been found guilty of unethical or illegal behaviour, then the ethics commissioner should be given the power to penalize the politician with suspension or removal from Parliament.

Mr. Flanagan claims that politicians who wanted to switch parties would purposely criticize their party or leader, or reveal inside-party information, in order to be expelled from caucus.  Under Democracy Watch's proposed system, such a politician's criticism would have to be for good reasons, and if it wasn't they likely wouldn't be allowed to switch parties after expulsion and may be found guilty of unethical behaviour for slandering their party and/or party leader.

Mr. Flanagan also claims that requiring party-switchers to resign and run in a by-election is not necessary because federal elections are currently happening every couple of years so voters will soon get their chance to punish any party-switcher.

But again, Democracy Watch's proposed system allows for justified party switching, so few by-elections would be needed.  And just because currently federal elections are frequent doesn't mean they will occur more often than every four years in the future (as they did in the past).  Voters shouldn't have to wait that long to have approve or disapprove of a party-switcher's decision.

Mr. Flanagan's final argument is that British MP Winston Churchill switched parties twice and therefore Canadian MPs should be allowed to switch whenever they want.  I'm sorry, but I simply can't understand why he believes this is a good argument, or even remotely relevant or logical.

Overall, Mr. Flanagan completely ignores the question of how voters can make their voting choice (and the related question of why voters should vote) if after election day their choice can be disregarded by MPs?

He may respond by saying, as some do, that Canada's parliamentary democracy  is based upon Edmund Burke's premise that politicians are not elected to represent the will of the voters, they are elected to make decisions based on their self-determined conclusion as to what is in the public interest.  Therefore, politicians should be free to make all decisions as they like, including switching parties.

However, in every survey completed in the past 15 years a large majority of Canadians have said that they want their politicians to take directions from voters, to keep their promises, and that lack of honesty and accountability is a top concern.

While it is understandable that many politicians would resist changing a system that they have profited from for almost 140 years, they should realize (as some politicians have) that providing weak excuses and failing to increase their accountability has become unacceptable to most Canadians.

In a country such as Canada that calls itself a leading democracy, the fundamental rights of voters must be upheld more than the rights of the representatives they elect (especially given that being elected is a privilege based on the support of voters).

And whether or not you agree with Democracy Watch's proposal, regulating switching MPs in some way is one of many honesty-in-politics measures that (along with dozens of other long-overdue accountability changes) most voters are calling for to give them the ethical, open, representative and waste-preventing federal politicians they not only have a right to, they also deserve.

Democracy Watch's Honesty in Politics Campaign

Related to this op-ed is the op-ed by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher, Honesty-in-politics law needed to discourage and penalize political misleaders (January 12, 2007)

See also the Summary of the 85 Undemocratic and Accountability Loopholes in the Federal Government

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