Dude, where's my Liberal?

If there's one British Columbian who can understand the plight of David Emerson, it's former Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Gordon Wilson. In 1987, Wilson led the provincial Liberal party. After a love scandal, he formed his own party, the Progressive Democratic Alliance. Then, in 1997, he accepted a cabinet post with the provincial New Democratic Party.

"Emerson is not only dealing with the resentment of the Liberal types," Wilson told the Straight in a phone interview from Powell River, recalling his own insider experience, "but he has to contend with the people within the Conservative party, because he took precedent over them for a cabinet post. He's going to have an uneasy ride from both camps."

To Wilson, there's nothing inherently unethical about changing parties. He blames the hoopla over Emerson's defection on the timing: right after the election. But as Canadian history shows, federal politicians frequently end their terms with a different party than the ones they were elected with.

Famous and infamous federal party changers

» In September 1868, Jamaican-born Nova Scotia judge Stewart Campbell became Canada's first switcher-just 14 months after Confederation. He changed from Anti-Confederate to Liberal-Conservative.

» Joseph Henri Napolean Bourassa dropped the Liberal party and became an Independent in 1900 to protest Canada's role in the South African war.

» To protest conscription in the First World War, Honoré Achim crossed the floor from the Liberals to the Conservatives in 1917.

» George William Andrews dropped the Liberals and became an Independent over the party's handling of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, during which Mounties beat workers, killing two of them.

» In 1922, Progressive Joseph Binnet became a Liberal because he lacked confidence in his party.

» The first woman elected to the House of Commons, Agnes MacPhail, changed from the Progressive party to the United Farmers of Ontario- Labour in 1935.

» Gilles Duceppe changed from Independent to the Bloc Québécois-the party he now leads-four months after he was elected in 1990.

» Lucien Bouchard, onetime Bloc Québécois leader, switched from Progressive Conservative to Independent in 1990, then to the Bloc seven months later.

» Founding member of the Reform Party Deborah Grey left the Canadian Alliance in 2002 to sit as an Independent.

» Former prime minister Joe Clark changed from Conservative to Independent in February 2004.

» Belinda Stronach crossed the floor in 2005, from Conservative to Liberal.

Source: the Library of Parliament senators and members Web page (www.parl.gc.ca/information/about/people/house/HofCChange.asp?lang=E )

Since 1867, 243 members of Parliament have crossed the floor, been kicked out of their caucus, or changed parties. Since 2000, eight B.C. MPs have shuffled: Emerson; Chuck Cadman; Keith Martin; Jay Hill; Grant McNally; Val Meredith; Chuck Strahl; and Joe Peschisolido.

In Vancouver, COPE's Raymond Louie, Tim Stevenson, and Jim Green effectively created their own coalition in council last term and ran as Vision Vancouver candidates in November 2005.

But if this happens all the time, why the uproar?

Jean Barman, a UBC education professor, told the Straight that the NDP is "fuelling the fires". She also said that the way the British parliamentary system evolved, voters are confused about whether they're electing a person or a party.

"They're expected to be puppets," she said. "You could run a dog or a clown, as long as that dog voted a certain way. If you're voting for a person, there has to be some human allowance."

Barman pointed out that many voters and the media are assessing the move as a matter of principle. "But when you look at the history, those principles only exist when you need them. Those on the left want to forget about Buzz Hargrove," she said, referring to the long-time NDPer who urged Canadians to strategically vote Liberal in the January 23 election and who got suspended from the NDP as a result.

There's a subtext to all this talk about ethics, Richard Cavell, the director of the International Canadian Studies Centre at UBC, told the Straight. First, the voters do not just feel betrayed by Emerson, he said, they feel betrayed by the whole Canadian political system. Emerson's comment that the Liberals and Conservatives are moving closer and closer together upset voters because "he's put his finger on a horrible truth."

Voters, he noted, no longer know who to trust. In addition, unlike some floor crossers in Canadian history, Emerson did not defect to help his riding or follow his own principles, he said.

"He switched parties for power," Cavell said. "He's become the minister of international trade. What do the poor people of Kingsway have to do with international trade? They want to get the hookers off their streets and that thing [apartment complex] built at Kingsway and Knight so they can start cleaning up their neighbourhood."

Gordon Wilson summed up B.C. politics as a "blood sport".