As breathtakingly audacious as David Emerson’s defection to the Conservatives was, it was hardly without precedent. In fact it was no less an esteemed parliamentarian than Sir Winston Churchill who in Britain crossed the floor from the Liberals to the Conservatives. It was also Churchill who once summed up the political journey many of us make when he stated, “anyone who isn’t a socialist by 20 doesn’t have a heart and anyone who isn’t a conservative by 30 doesn’t have a brain.”
The Liberal Party of Canada is certainly in no position to criticize Emerson’s defection. First of all when they recruited him as a star candidate they knew he was a small “c” conservative. The Liberals were also not shy about recruiting Tory MP Scott Brison, Reform/Alliance MP Keith Martin and former BC NDP Premier Ujjal Dosanjh. But of course the most breathtaking recruitment was that of high profile Conservative leadership candidate Belinda Stronach.
It is also worth noting that all four of these political floor crossers were re-elected in the last federal election and both Brison and Stronach have even been talked about as potential Liberal leadership contenders. Although the federal NDP has been the shrillest in attacking Emerson this is nothing more than political opportunism.
Emerson’s riding is Vancouver-Kingway a riding that for years was represented by perennial NDP politician Ian Waddell. The federal NDP know that if Emerson were to resign that the riding would almost certainly go to the NDP in a by-election.
The NDP are also the most reticent of the major political parties to accept people who cross the floor. After losing her nomination, former Liberal Sheila Copps tried to do just that but was rebuffed by the local party faithful despite the expressed wishes of NDP Leader Jack Layton who knew the political cachet having a former Deputy Prime Minister would bring to his caucus.
I would argue that the NDP’s puritanical approach has hurt rather than helped them by cultivating an image of a party made up of true believers who do not accept anyone who dared to once break bread with another political organization. It not only limits the NDP’s talent pool it also sends the message that unless you have always believed in the NDP’s tax and spend agenda you will never be truly welcome in their party.
For those who place partisan consideration above everything else, Emerson’s defection was indeed unseemly or even traumatic. But it was actually good for BC and good for Canada. It was good for Canada in that it has provided some cabinet continuity in a time of short lived minority governments, and it is good for BC in that it has helped give us a strong voice at the cabinet table.
I also want to respond to those who slammed Harper for appointing Emerson. The fact is that Harper listened to those who clucked about the fact the Conservatives had no representation in Canada’s three largest urban centers. In recruiting Emerson he received representation in Vancouver, and in appointing a Senator who is based in Montreal he has helped ensure that city is represented at the cabinet table as well. Rather than being slammed for this Harper should have been congratulated for trying to ensure all areas of Canada feel represented in his government.
Last but not least when Emerson was recruited out of the private sector, it was not to warm his seat on the opposition benches, but to bring his years of experience as a senior government official and industry CEO to the cabinet table. In the end Prime Minister Stephen Harper recruited him for exactly the same reasons former Prime Minister Paul Martin did and we as Canadians and British Columbians are the better for it.
Michael Geoghegan is a Victoria based political consultant.