About Eve Adams and caucus reform
In Eve Adams’ floor-crossing, we see the crass opportunism of a career politician. We see among pundits the almost wholesale rejection of such politics. And yet, what did we expect Adams to do?
There are three principal objections to her floorcrossing. These go beyond the regular and in my view silly argument that floor-crossings should never occur.
First, Adams was until last week enthusiastically parroting the lines of the Conservative party. How could Justin Trudeau welcome into his ranks someone who so recently supported policies his party deeply opposes?
Second, there is some objection to Adams playing both sides at once.
Third, there is now objection to Adams’ plan to run in Eglinton-Lawrence. Among those objecting most strenuously to the parachuting of a Mississauga Tory into a Toronto riding is the local MPP. He happens to be a Liberal.
All three of these objections are grounds to dismiss Adams as an opportunist, perhaps even as a particularly crass example of a self-interested and self-obsessed politician. But doing so lets both Harper and Trudeau off the hook. It so happens that it also frees voters and pundits of some responsibility.
We should acknowledge that some degree of political ambition is healthy and desirable. If we believe this, then we have to accept that politicians will act according to incentives, occasionally constrained by their own sense of probity or ethics.
If we take this to be true, then we can find much less fault with Adams’ comportment. On the first objection of being a parrot for her party, what else do we expect? Our leaders exercise an iron grip over their caucuses, to be sure. But they are abetted in this by voters and especially the media. Any expression of discord is soon followed by some speculation over whether a leader is losing control, indeed, if they are much of a leader at all. The response of leaders is obvious: rapid and sometimes permanent demotion of dissenters. Why else would be expect a politician to parrot her lines right to the end? If there is fault here, it lies equally with a prime minister who was happy to leave in a Parliamentary Assistantship a person in whom he had lost confidence, provided she kept saying the right things.
How else would we expect Adams to conduct her floor crossing? She could, of course, choose to sit as an independent, and six months from now ask to enter the Liberal caucus. But then there is no coup for Trudeau and no early acquisition of her fiancé’s secrets. Leaders decide the composition of their caucuses. It is they who welcome in floor-crossers, whatever the wishes of their long-standing MPs. Trudeau, remember, was willing to fire half his caucus without noticeable consultation. What’s the big deal in admitting one MP?
Finally, why should we expect Adams to run again in a suburban riding? The Tory hold on these constituencies appears unweakened, and anyways good Liberals have already been nominated in many of them. If Trudeau has promised her an eased nomination process in an urban riding, she has every reason to believe him. His pledge to open nominations is little more than a fig leaf. What does it matter where you run if you merely intend to be an MP who will faithfully toe your party’s line?
It does not have to be this way, of course. We could ask our leaders to tolerate more dissent in their caucuses and to allow the occasional expression of these through free votes. We could follow the spirit of the Chong bill and the better parts of our history and allow caucuses, not leaders, to determine their membership. We could also demand that local party associations — and not the central brass of a party, whether Liberal or Conservative — dictate who can and cannot run. None of this will make our politics less messy, but it will do something to constrain the self-interested and obsessed.
It will also save us the embarrassment of regularly having to pretend to be shocked and appalled by our politicians.