Changing parties in mid-session challenges our democracy
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen January 26, 2004

The federal Liberal party recently released its rules for candidates and, to prevent the kind of embarrassment a defection by the likes of Sheila Copps might pose, it is asking prospective candidates to pledge support for the eventual nomination victor. Dubbed “the Sheila Copps Clause,’’ and hot on the heels of defections by Progressive Conservative MP Scott Brison and Canadian Alliance MP Keith Martin, it’s further evidence political parties hope to staunch voter disenchantment caused by opportunistic and unwieldy members of Parliament. As similar attempts by the Canadian Alliance and its predecessor the Reform party demonstrate, totalitarian contractual fixes do nothing to prevent errant behaviour. In fact, by signalling the party’s mistrust of the very people it expects voters to elect, they make matters worse. Better the rough but indisputable justice of grassroots democracy and the ballot box. A classic example is recent developments in Richmond, B.C.

Richmond is located in the southern part of the Greater Vancouver Regional District. Its major employer is the Vancouver Airport while fishing, light industry and agriculture (Ocean Spray cranberries grow here) employ most of the rest of a rapidly growing and ethnically diverse population. It is widely expected that Richmond hotels and other facilities will accommodate a number of Olympic athletes in the 2010 Games. Following a long run of Conservative incumbencies interrupted only by Raymond Chan’s Liberal win in the 1990s, the riding is again Liberal because Canadian Alliance MP Joe Peschisolido crossed over in January 2002.

A former young Liberal who ran unsuccessfully for the Reform party in Ontario, Peschisolido achieved some prominence when, on the platform of “bringing down the Trudeau legacy,’’ he flirted briefly with seeking the leadership of the newly formed Canadian Alliance. Then he met and married Monica and together they relocated to mainland B.C. There the first order of business was finding a winnable riding.

‘‘We welcomed Peschisolido to Richmond,’’ says Dr. Adrian Wade, a local businessman who nearly won the riding for Reform in 1997. “We thought we had a potential leader in the years to come.’’ Secure in the nomination, Peschisolido went on to beat Liberal incumbent Raymond Chan in the 2000 federal election.

It was no small victory for the soon-to-be-pilloried carpetbagger. In caucus, he was given the juicy HRDC critic’s role. Even so, impatient with Alliance growing pains and confident his luck would hold, he announced he was joining the Liberal caucus.“Could Richmond be in line for some political pork barreling as the Liberals welcome former Alliance MP Joe Peschisolido into their rank and file?’’ the Richmond News asked. But Richmond voters objected anyway. “He’s deceived his electorate and he took advantage of the democratic principles,’’ said one Alliance supporter. “I can't believe it,’’ said a Liberal supporter who saw no point in having a byelection.The local press described Peschisolido’s credibility as “zilch.’’

Adrian Wade organized. Defend Democracy Richmond, a group of businessmen of all political persuasions, manned the malls and knocked on doors to acquire some 4,000 signatures opposing Peschisolido’s action.

On Dec. 12, 2002, NDP MP Svend Robinson presented the DDR petition in the House of Commons. “The petitioners note that members of Parliament are elected by voters using a ballot which identifies each candidate by an official party designation (which) voters use ... in many cases to make their decisions. They point out their concerns about violating the intention of voters when a member of Parliament changes parties,’’ Robinson told the House. “The petitioners call upon Parliament to enact legislation which would require all members of Parliament who wish to change their official party designation in the House of Commons to resign and run in a byelection.’’

Replying to Defend Democracy Richmond, the Speaker wrote: “This matter has been a question of political discussion for many years. The House has recently appointed a special committee on modernization of its procedures and it would be quite appropriate for this committee to take up this question in the course of its deliberations.’’In addition, a private member’ s bill, C-211, calling for the same changes in legislation was presented on Oct. 4 by NDP defence critic Peter Stoffer. Dubbed by some “The Peschisolido Bill,’’ it is now due for its second reading. Any bets it won’t succeed?

Margret Kopala writes weekly on western perspectives.

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