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Prime Minister Jean Chétrien’s communications director Francoise Ducros talks on her cellphone before Newfoundland MP Bill Matthews announces his decision to abandon the Tories and join the Liberal Party on Aug 13, 1999 in Ottawa. (Tom Hanson/Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Jean Chétrien’s communications director Francoise Ducros talks on her cellphone before Newfoundland MP Bill Matthews announces his decision to abandon the Tories and join the Liberal Party on Aug 13, 1999 in Ottawa. (Tom Hanson/Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

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Late-'90s fisheries debate put political turncoats in NDP sights Add to ...

Lise St-Denis is the 18th MP to cross the floor since veteran New Democrat Peter Stoffer first crafted his bill in 1999 to stop the practice – one he believes sours Canadians on democracy.

Elected in May under the NDP banner in Jean Chétrien’s former riding of Saint-Maurice–Champlain, Ms. St-Denis made a shocking announcement Tuesday that she was joining Bob Rae and his Grits.

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The Liberals couldn’t be happier; New Democrats are fuming.

The NDP has been pushing for these defections to stop for more than a decade now. Most recently, a private members bill sponsored by rookie Quebec MP Mathieu Ravignat calls for a by-election to take place if an MP moves from one party to another.

Members of Parliament would resign, provoking a vote that would allow his or her constituents to decide if they agree with changing parties and loyalties. The proposal avoids the practice of an MP immediately going from one caucus to another without taking a breath.

It is exactly the same bill introduced by the Nova Scotia MP 13 years ago. Mr. Ravignat took up the cause because Mr. Stoffer had already used up his spot to introduce a private member’s bill to help veterans.

“I believe that this bill will help restore Canadians’ faith in our democracy,” Mr. Ravignat said during in the Commons last November. “This bill also reflects a fundamental objective of my party, which is to do politics differently in order to renew people’s trust in elected officials.”

Politicians do not score high on surveys ranking the most trusted professionals. “Politicians who crossed the floor in recent years only added fuel to the fire,” Mr. Ravignat added.

The impetus for the NDP bill was Bill Matthews, a former Progressive Conservative MP from Newfoundland and Labrador. Mr. Stoffer says he will never forget the day he was in the Commons fisheries committee with Mr. Matthews, who was giving the Liberals “s--t supreme over their fisheries policy.”

Mr. Stoffer was cheering him on: “And I said, ‘Right on buddy, go, go.’”

The next day, however, Mr. Matthews appeared at a news conference with a senior Liberal and announced he was crossing the floor to join them.

“I just went, ‘what?’” Mr. Stoffer then did some digging and found out all that was required to switch seats was a simple call to the leader of another party and their agreement. He decided that needed to be changed and he wrote his bill.

“If a person feels for whatever reason that they wish to represent their constituents under another banner that’s fine, just quit. Run in a by-election and let your constituents [decide] Mr. Stoffer told The Globe. “At the end of the day it’s not my seat, it doesn’t belong to Lise St. Denis, it doesn’t belong to Mr. Haprer, it belongs to the people of that area and they are the ones who should determine if they want to be represented by a Liberal, Conservative, Green, Bloc or what ever.”

And there have been some spectacular defections since that of Mr. Matthews. The most notorious, perhaps, was that of Belinda Stronach, who was elected under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives but crossed the floor to Paul Martin’s Liberals just before a budget vote that could have taken down his minority government. She helped save the day and immediately became a minister in Mr. Martin’s cabinet.

And no one can forget David Emerson’s defection. The former Liberal cabinet minister was re-elected in the 2006 election, which the Liberals lost. Mr. Emerson – not relishing the life of a backbencher – shocked the political world when he arrived at Rideau Hall to be sworn-in as a Conservative minister. There was much criticism of his move and he opted not to run in 2008, allowing the NDP’s Don Davies to take the seat.

The floor-crossing bill will be up for second reading debate next month. However, Mr. Stoffer said it does not appear to have the support of the government so its future is doubtful.

Happy birthday, Sir John A.

As part of putting more of a conservative spin on Canada’s history, Stephen Harper’s Tories are making sure the 197th anniversary of Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth is marked Wednesday.

In British Columbia, Heritage Minister James Moore will be at an event to celebrate what they are billing as the “legacy of Canada’s first prime minister.” In addition, the former Bank of Montreal, which sits across Wellington Street from Parliament Hill, is to be named in Sir John A’s honour.

The 1930s building is an example of Beaux-Arts architecture, is owned by the government and has been sitting empty for years. A local Tory MP, Pierre Poilievre, is to make the announcement.

In addition, the six living former prime ministers – Brian Mulroney, Joe Clark, Kim Campbell, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and John Turner – have agreed to encourage Canadians to support the upcoming 200th anniversary of Sir John A’s birth.

This initiative is being pushed by Arthur Milnes, the researcher on the Mulroney memoir and a journalist based in Kingston, where Canada’s first prime minister had strong roots. Mr. Milnes is the commissioner of the non-partisan, non-profit Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission.

“The fact that these former prime ministers come from both parties that have formed governments in our history is important. It attests to the respect of leaders of all political persuasions continue to have for the role Sir John A. played in Confederation in 1867,” Mr. Milnes said in a news release.

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