Lori Turnbull is an Associate Professor at the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University.
In a press conference on Monday, Canadians learned that long-time Conservative MP Eve Adams has crossed the floor to join the Liberal Party. Also, she will contest the Liberal nomination in a GTA riding in advance of the upcoming federal election. Needless to say, this announcement was unexpected. It is perhaps even more shocking than the time Liberal leader Justin Trudeau kicked the Senators out of caucus.
Floor crossings are almost always controversial. People are skeptical about the motivations behind them. There are two basic reasons why someone would leave one political party for another: principles or opportunism. These are not mutually exclusive, of course, but the public wants to know which of these two considerations was the primary catalyst.
"Principles" is the more defensible answer by far and so floor-crossers always use this narrative to justify their decision. No one – especially a politician seeking re-election – is going to admit to being driven by self-regarding opportunism. A number of considerations fall into the "principles" category, including questions of party leadership, ideology and values. Essentially, a floor crossing is principled to the extent that it is motivated not by considerations of personal political survival – at least, not primarily – but by a more noble, objective, and selfless reflection on political parties and their positions, tactics and platforms.
Ms. Adams offered a principles-based explanation for crossing the floor. She told us that the Conservative Party's policies, both fiscal and social, are out of step with her own thinking and, also, are inconsistent with the values and ideas that informed the Progressive Conservative Party, which she joined as a young woman.
However, no matter how convincingly a floor-crosser argues the principles, it is difficult to shake off accusations that, in reality, her decision is based on raw political calculation. At the press conference, seated next to Mr. Trudeau, Ms. Adams explained (repeatedly) that she supports Mr. Trudeau's leadership, she believes he should be the next prime minister of Canada, and she wants to distance herself from the leadership of the Conservative Party. She values Mr. Trudeau's defence of a woman's right to choose. This is all about principle. She confirmed that she approached the Liberal Party weeks ago to discuss the possibility of joining them. For his part, Mr. Trudeau said he was proud to bring someone so strong to the Liberal team.
But, on the question of optics, several commenters wondered why would Mr. Trudeau want Eve Adams?
She doesn't come without baggage. Last year, she failed to secure the Conservative nomination in Oakville North-Burlington and her fiancé, Dimitri Soudas, was pushed out of his executive position with the Conservative Party upon allegations that he tried to interfere in the nomination battle on her behalf. Mr. Trudeau is in a very strong position. He's got momentum on his side and has successfully recruited a number of strong star candidates. He hasn't won yet, but public opinion polls suggest a Liberal government is within reach. What does he need Eve Adams for?
Mr. Trudeau has to defend this decision as much as Ms. Adams does. When asked directly why he wanted to bring Ms. Adams on board, he referred to her strengths and experience as a municipal councilor, which suggests that her admission to caucus is based on merit and accomplishment. At the same time, he also discussed his motivations to grow the party and to attract voters who used to vote for other parties. This suggests confidence that Adams' entry into the Liberal caucus will garner more votes than it will cost them, notwithstanding potential voter disenchantment and resentment about floor crossings.
Some argue that there should be legislation to protect voters from self-interested floor crossing by forcing an aspiring floor-crosser to resign and run in a by election if she wishes to continue as the representative for the riding. This is understandable, but it is an attempt to legalize something that is inherently political. Voters will decide whether to accept Adams as a Liberal – that is, if she is able to secure a nomination under the party's banner in the GTA.