When MHA Tom Osborne finally made his jump to the Liberal caucus, it marked the end of what had been a year-long journey across the floor of the House of Assembly.
After deciding to quit the Tories last September due to irreconcilable differences with the government’s leadership, Osborne sat as an independent in the House for almost 12 months while contemplating his options. Soul searching ensued over the course of the year as Osborne courted both opposition parties, until the lifelong Conservative, part of a well-known, historically Tory family, eventually joined the Grits “for the rest of (his) life.”
Crossing the floor, although not at all uncommon in Canadian politics, is a practice that has never sat well with me. For any MHA or MP elected under the platform and the leadership of a certain party to suddenly switch sides, yet somehow retain their constituency and the right to represent the constituents therein, has always struck me as undemocratic and opportunistic, and Osborne is no exception.
Last election, it may have been his same name on the ballot, but what Osborne represented to voters at that time was very much different from what he stands for today. Whether or not the primary factor behind voters’ decisions come election day, the party a candidate represents and, moreover, the leadership of that party, contribute mightily to the candidate’s success, and there’s no guarantee that Osborne, though a longtime MHA, would’ve made it to Confederation Building if he hadn’t been affiliated with the PCs at the time. Hot off the heels of the hugely popular Williams government, it’s conceivable that as a Liberal in 2011, Osborne’s fate may have been quite different.
That being said, regardless of whether he would’ve won as a Liberal or not, having discarded and replaced his political affiliation while a sitting MHA, Osborne’s office, as an elected official, loses significant legitimacy. He was elected under wholly different pretenses, irrespective of his popularity, and his current mandate, which he chose to alter without real, broad-based consent from the constituents he’s sworn to represent, is thus false.
Still, during an interview with CBC’s “Radio Noon” last Thursday, Osborne defended his decision, stating, “I took every opportunity to ask constituents which way they felt I should go” before choosing to join the official Opposition.
“I got a great deal of feedback,” he later added. “It’s not the first time in Newfoundland or Canadian politics that someone has switched parties. I believe to sit as an independent, there’s no doubt, I can still sit as a representative — but (with the Liberals) you have the resources of the party … the team aspect, you’re much better able to represent the district you serve — than as an independent.”
Osborne is right to point out that it isn’t as if he’s the first Canadian politician to switch sides, and he’s right in saying that as part of a seven-member party he probably has more power to effect change than as an independent MHA. But these are nevertheless weak substantiations for his actions, and they do nothing to quell the blatant fact that he, like all previous politicians to cross the floor, did so on what was largely his own prerogative, despite whatever he may say about constituent feedback. No matter what or how much they said, it was ultimately his decision, not his electorate’s, which brought him to the Liberal camp.
Osborne was elected as a Progressive Conservative, and so long as he serves his mandate in the House of Assembly he should so remain, as is his responsibility to the people who elected him. Otherwise, should he wish to remain an MHA but as a member of another party, his only choice should be to resign and run in a byelection. Only then could he be taken seriously and afforded respect and credibility as a valid representative for the people of his district.
As of now, all he shows is a blatant abuse of our electoral system and a righteous sense of entitlement.
Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception Bay South, is studying journalism at Carleton University. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org