Lori Turnbull is the director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University and the deputy editor of Canadian Government Executive magazine.
Leona Alleslev just became Canada’s newest floor-crosser, giving federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer the best day he’s had since he won the leadership. A rookie MP representing Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill, Ms. Alleslev came out swinging hard against her former colleagues in the Liberal government, voicing her deep concern for the country and criticizing the government’s failure to deliver “fundamental changes on the things that matter.” Just over a year shy of the next federal election, just days after the Liberal caucus retreat, and on the first day of the fall sitting of Parliament, this is a stinging and impactful indictment.
Floor-crossings are motivated either by ideology or by opportunism (this is not to suggest that these are mutually exclusive; it’s possible for both factors to play a role simultaneously, although one tends to weigh more heavily than the other). When Scott Brison joined the Liberal Party following the merger of the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance to form the Conservative Party in 2003, he cited the dissonance between himself and the social conservative wing of the newly formed party. Although he had been a supporter of the unite-the-right campaign, he could not find a comfortable home within the entity that resulted. In 2004, as a member of Paul Martin’s Liberal government, Mr. Brison became the first openly gay cabinet minister in Canadian history.
In comparison, when Eve Adams crossed the floor from the Conservatives to the Liberals in February, 2015, the episode smacked of strategy (albeit not a great one). In an awkward joint press conference announcing the move, Ms. Adams referenced the “mean-spirited leadership” of the Conservative Party as a major reason for leaving the party she had supported since she was a teenager, although it was widely known that she had failed to secure a nomination as a Conservative candidate for the 2015 election. Despite her decision to cross the floor, she did not obtain a Liberal nomination either; she lost a high-profile nomination battle to Marco Mendicino, who is now the MP for Eglinton-Lawrence and parliamentary secretary for the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities.
On Twitter, Ms. Alleslev assures her constituents that she’s the same person they elected back in 2015. She does not seem to identify any specific events or issues that drove her to leave the party. Instead, she makes general claims, such as “the world has changed and Canada needs to change with it.” Her Twitter account offers inconvenient proof of her past life as a Liberal, complete with retweets of messages from the Prime Minister and other ministers, announcements of government investments in infrastructure, and photos from the Prime Minister’s visit to her riding. Given her self-proclaimed pride to be part of the Liberal team on the way to the 2019 election, it is not clear what drove Ms. Alleslev to switch jerseys; nor are we certain as to when her decision was made.
The situation is somewhat reminiscent of David Emerson’s floor-crossing back in 2006. In his victory speech in Vancouver Kingsway, the re-elected Liberal MP promised to be Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s “worst nightmare;” mere weeks later, he was sworn in as a Conservative minister. Nobody was more gobsmacked than his constituency association.
Since Mr. Emerson obtained a cabinet seat in the process of switching parties, his floor-crossing seemed more consequential then than Ms. Alleslev’s does now, and his choice of words on election night made his decision to switch alliances more baffling. But both incidents underscore the fleeting nature of party loyalty and the reality of retail politics. A floor-crosser is a risk-taker; unless the individual has a very strong case for the need to make a move due to irreconcilable ideological differences with the home team, she or he might come off as untrustworthy and strategic to a fault. Constituents – especially those who supported the individual under the previous party banner – are sure to question the motivations at play, and the fight for re-election will be plagued with doubts about whether the floor-crosser can keep his or her word in the future.
It goes without saying that there is nothing guaranteed about Ms. Alleslev’s political future. Her riding was created by the 2012 electoral boundaries redistribution, so she is actually its first MP. She defeated Costas Menegakis, the former Conservative MP from Richmond Hill, but only by just over 1,000 votes, or roughly two percentage points. Had it stayed Liberal, the Conservatives would have targeted this riding as a vulnerable one for the Liberals in 2019. Now they will be the ones having to defend it – not only from the Liberals, but perhaps also from a new contender representing Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada.
The 2019 election campaign is in full swing; Ms. Alleslev’s announcement confirms Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill as a riding to watch as the next 13 months unfold.