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When Alberta Wildrose MLAs Kerry Towle and Ian Donovan crossed the floor to the long-governing Progressive Conservative party last week, they were criticized as betraying their constituents and acting only to increase their own chances of re-election. When two PC MLAs crossed to the Wildrose four years ago during one of the brief periods of electoral danger for the Tories, it prompted the same criticisms.

Are these accusations of self-interest justified? We can answer that by digging into the data. Since 1990, floor crossings (when an elected member of one party joins another) have occurred at least 83 times in federal and provincial legislatures in Canada. This count excludes the creation of the new Conservative Party by PC and Alliance MPs in 2003.

The first thing to notice is that only 34 per cent of floor-crossers join the governing party, which doesn't match a story of craven politicians madly grasping for power. In fact, almost half of floor-crossers join a third party, avoiding the government and the official opposition altogether.

Much of the floor crossing involving third parties has resulted in the creation of several new parties. In 1997, Saskatchewan Liberals and Progressive Conservative MLAs formed the Saskatchewan Party. Even the current federal Conservative Party emerged from a fusion of like-minded parties. Just recently a former Bloc Québécois MP and an NDP MP joined to create Forces et Démocratie. Creating a new party is an electorally risky manoeuvre, and the fact that MPs have done this so often suggests that a commitment to ideas is an important consideration for members when crossing the floor.

The re-election rate for floor-crossers isn't much different from the usual rate for other MPs. Research by political scientists Richard Matland and Donley Studlar measured the overall re-election rate for Canadian MPs in recent elections at 53 per cent. The data on federal and provincial floor crossings since 1990 suggests the re-election rate for floor crossers was 61 per cent. This figure excludes instances where the floor-crossing MPs didn't run again, and several where they failed to win their new party's nomination. All told, there isn't much of an electoral advantage to crossing the floor.

Floor crossing hasn't even been an effective way of joining a government-in-waiting. It is often spun as a sign of momentum for the party picking up new seats. According to federal data since 1990, in just 11 of the 29 ridings did the party gaining a member in a floor crossing go on to win the next election, making it an unreliable crystal ball.

Alberta provincial politics, though, differs from this nationwide pattern, as it does in many of its political habits. While there are cases of floor-crossers leaving the government for opposition parties, most notably current Liberal Leader Raj Sherman, who was first elected as a PC, most of the action has been in the other direction. In addition to the two recent Wildrose converts, the current PC caucus has two former Liberals, including current Speaker Gene Zwozdesky.

Ultimately, this suggests that the big-picture complaints about floor crossing are unfounded. If MPs are crossing the floor to gain a personal advantage, they're not going about it smartly, neither usually crossing to the governing side nor to parties that win the subsequent election. Their personal re-election rates are also no better than non-crossers. Alberta's difference in this regard might be the result of its peculiar habit of having only one dominant party at a time, making the choice of joining or forming a new party less appealing than usual.

Paul Fairie is a political scientist at the University of Calgary, where he studies voter behaviour.