Anyone who says a leopard can’t change its spots has never met an Alberta provincial politician. Over the years the spot-changing has included Liberal MLAs who “crossed the floor” to become Conservatives, a New Democrat who became a Conservative, a Conservative who became a New Democrat, Conservatives who became Wildrosers, and, in the infamous stampede of 2014, 11 Wildrosers who became Conservatives.
We even have the record-setting, three-timing Rob Anderson from Airdrie, a Conservative who became a Wildroser in 2010 only to change his spots back to the Conservatives in 2014.
You’d think floor-crossings in Alberta would be a thing of the past, or at least unimaginable in today’s highly polarized, post-election Legislative Assembly. The UCP government and NDP Opposition are so far apart on issues they practically need binoculars to see each other. And yet, amazingly enough, the two parties spent time this summer hotly debating floor-crossing. Or, more precisely, debating a non-binding government “motion” to dissuade future floor-crossings.
Government Motion 10 read: “Be it resolved that the Legislative Assembly express its opposition to the practice of members changing their caucus affiliation unless that member is to sit as an independent or has resigned and been returned to the Assembly after being re-elected in a by-election under the new affiliation.”
In other words, the only way an MLA should be able to join another party is by resigning their seat, triggering a by-election, and winning re-election under that party’s banner.
In debate on July 2 Kenney said he had no problem with a disgruntled MLA sitting as an independent, but any who crosses the floor to another party “raises a deep concern about violating the trust between the representative and their electors.”
But here’s the rub. As much as he’d like to, Kenney cannot outlaw floor-crossing. He knows this. Manitoba has a law on the books ostensibly banning floor-crossing, but as Kenney said during debate, “I have my doubts about the enforceability of that statute or, for that matter, its constitutionality.”
MLAs might run under a party banner during an election campaign, but they are elected as an individual. The party does not own them. It’s a tenet of our parliamentary system that elected politicians are free to align themselves with whatever party, or no party, as they see fit.
Ironically, floor crossings only became an issue in Alberta thanks to “The Exodus”—when a majority of Wildrose MLAs, including leader Danielle Smith, crossed the floor to the Progressive Conservatives in 2014 (two in November and nine in December). The ensuing public outrage contributed to the PC government’s defeat in 2015. Indeed, rather than actions of Liberal or New Democrat MLAs over the years sensitizing Albertans to floor-crossings, the manoeuvring of the United Conservatives’ two legacy parties caused all the trouble.
Kenney, in fact, pointed to this, saying that 2014’s massive floor-crossing “represented a kind of cynical backroom deal-making done without any degree of transparency or consultation or democratic consent.” But Kenney talked about the Wildrose and PCs as if they were alien species rather than the political parents of his own UCP.
This cognitive dissonance at the heart of Government Motion 10 wasn’t lost on NDP leader Rachel Notley. “It’s ironic that the party whose genesis is nothing but floor crossing is now attempting to bring in a motion to ban floor crossing, a motion that actually is technically and legally incapable of banning floor crossing,” she said during the debate.
She also pointed to the irony of the Wildrose and PC MLAs crossing the floor, in a manner of speaking, to the UCP when they established a new political entity in 2017.
It’s also interesting that even though Kenney believes any law to stop floor crossing may be unconstitutional, he nonetheless urged his MLAs to support the motion to stop floor crossing. (It eventually passed with 29 UCP votes to 12 NDP.) For the premier, this wasn’t really about banning floor crossing. When it comes to political theatre, Kenney is a veritable one-man Fringe Festival. With great political flourishes he has promised to stop the federal carbon tax, defeat Bills C-48 and C-69 in court, and use a referendum to prompt changes to federal equalization.
He’s promising the moon—but legal experts say he’ll be lucky to clear the launch pad.
For Kenney it doesn’t matter. These issues helped him win the election. He can always blame the courts and the Liberal government if he fails to deliver.
And you’d have to think there’s no longer any real danger of any MLA jumping to another ship. We’re arguably living in the most divisive, combative and polarized time in Alberta politics. We have two packs of leopards at each other’s throats—and nobody is changing their spots.
Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.