The neutral zone

It was looking grim. The Liberals were down 3, having turfed Carolyn Parrish for wanton toy destruction, losing Lawrence O’Brien to cancer, and Kilgour choosing to sit as an independent. Election juggernauts were stirring to life, and Mike Duffy was preparing for a rousing cry of, “Down goes Martin!” Then, the whole thing took a hairpin turn. Stronach crossed the floor, Parrish remained onside, Cadman delivered, and a by-election to replace O’Brien was won handily by Liberal Todd Russell. The Liberals had established a razor thin majority to maintain control of the House.

It is in such a situation, however, that the power of the individual Members becomes clear. As I commented last month (see Charles in Charge, May 13), each and every MP in the house has the power to change his or her vote. Each one holds the balance of power. It is a power that recent ex-Liberal Pat O’Brien has chosen to exercise, choosing to sit as an independent. The issue is clear, the threat is veiled. Don’t fast-track same-sex marriage legislation, or don’t count on my support at the next confidence vote.

I was one of the defenders of Belinda Stronach’s decision to cross the floor to the Liberals. Given her politics, I think it is clear that the Liberals are a better fit, and she will be better able to represent her constituents in her new role. Likewise, I think O’Brien is to be commended for doing his job as an elected representative. His issues are clear, and that they override party loyalty is a good thing. It forces the Prime Minister to maintain, rather than demand, the support of his caucus.

A difference that will doubtless be endlessly repeated by the Conservatives is that O’Brien didn’t join an opposition party, while Stronach took a cabinet position upon crossing the floor. Yet if there is disloyalty or treachery in crossing the floor, how is becoming an independent any less of a betrayal? Like Stronach, O’Brien has abandoned the banner under which he was elected, saying he can no longer in good conscience support it. Whether he finds a new banner or not is immaterial to the morality of that decision. Whether one joins the opposition in name is much less important than whether one joins it in voting.

Doubtless, Stronach will continue to be demonized as an opportunist (though using less favourable terminology) by her former party, while O’Brien will be lauded. One can argue about Ms. Stronach’s internal motivation until the cows come home on Peter Mackay’s farm. In the end, Stronach and O’Brien are both exercising their power as elected representatives, and ultimately both will answer to their constituents, not to their current or former party leaders. And that’s the way it was supposed to be.

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