The roots of voter cynicism

In 2011, 22,684 voters in Sudbury — fully half of those who cast a ballot — chose a New Democrat named Glenn Thibeault. They didn’t cast a ballot for a provincial Liberal, but that’s what they now have.

In 2011, 22,684 voters in Sudbury — fully half of those who cast a ballot — chose a New Democrat named Glenn Thibeault.

They didn’t cast a ballot for a provincial Liberal, but that’s what they now have.

In 2012, more than 442,000 Albertans — more than one in three — decided they wanted to be represented by Alberta’s Wildrose party led by Danielle Smith.

They didn’t vote for a gang that within three years would fold up their tent in adversity and realize they were really Progressive Conservatives after all, but that’s where they’re headed.

So, here’s congratulations to Thibeault, the new byelection candidate for Premier Kathleen Wynne in Sudbury, Ont., and Smith, pushing for a merger, surrender, mass floor-crossing, call it what you will, to the government of Jim Prentice.

Power is seductive.

Too bad about the people who voted for you.

Pursuit of power may not be the overriding motive for Ottawa defectors, but is it becoming too much to ask politicians at any level to try to tough it out and stay loyal to those that brought you to the dance?

There are many factors driving voter cynicism, but certainly elected MPs or provincial representatives turning their backs on voters and making self-interested moves must be near the top of the list.

Political musical chairs is not a new phenomenon but it is becoming depressingly common.

If principle propels you, go ahead and make your case.

But more often than not it is a matter of the politician deciding things will be better in another caucus, or sitting as a powerless independent, or taking their ball home because of a personal grievance, real or imagined.

Quebec NDP MP Lise St-Denis jumped to the Liberals in 2012, with her infamous summary that “Voters voted for Jack Layton. Jack Layton is dead.”

Bruce Hyer, a Thunder Bay-Superior North MP left the NDP, eventually joining the Green Party, saying, “I joined the Jack Layton party. It’s not the Jack Layton party anymore.’’

We get it — you don’t like Tom Mulcair and you didn’t back him for leader. But in 2011, almost 50 per cent of the riding voted for a New Democrat and 1,115 voted for the Green candidate. They now have a Green MP.

Another former New Democrat, Jean-François Larose, elected under the NDP banner in Repentigny, Que., in 2011, joined former Bloc Québécois MP Jean-François Fortin to announce the creation of Forces et Démocratie, known generically in Ottawa as the JF2 party.

So voters in two Quebec ridings are now represented by MPs under a banner that didn’t even exist in 2011.

One can discern principle in Claude Patry’s move from the NDP to become one of a pair of Bloc MPs because he disagreed with his party’s stand on the Clarity Act, and Quebec’s Maria Mourani, who was bounced by the Bloc for criticizing the Parti Québécois’ so-called Charter of Values, sat as an independent, and now has signed an NDP membership card and will run for the party in the next election (the NDP has a policy against floor crossers, forcing them to face the electorate before crossing).

On the government side, Edmonton MP Brent Rathgeber left the Conservative caucus on principle and can still be a thorn in its side with an occasional question in the Commons and a lively blog.

But it’s getting tougher to identify the players in the Commons without a program.

In Alberta, Smith has taken this to its logical conclusion, waving the white flag and pushing to take her entire remaining caucus of 14 to the PC tent.

Otherwise, apparently political death looms at the polls, so better to get a taste of power this way.

Forget the role of an Opposition leader holding a government to account.

Whatever the outcome of talks within Wildrose and a government PC caucus meeting Wednesday, a woman who at one point appeared poised to become Alberta premier has euthanized her party and brought Alberta back to the status quo.

In all cases, voters have different representation than what they voted for. Yes, Smith has political problems, and clearly so does Mulcair. The NDP leader has lost six MPs to defections since the 2011 election.

But those bent on saving their own skin have decided their careers are more important than the voters who entrusted them with their vote.

They are actually in the House of Commons or the Alberta legislature to serve the voters, not themselves.

Of course, voters could punish Thibeault in the byelection and refuse to vote for the Wildrose defectors in the next Alberta election.

But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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