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Emerson: The Power and the Tory

His betrayal, his perks and some context for the outrage.

Will McMartin 9 Feb
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[Editor's note: A petition to recall David Emerson and hold a by-election for the riding of Vancouver/Kingsway can be found here. ]

A rumour swirled around B.C. political circles in early January, as Paul Martin's Liberals were sliding downward in the public opinion polls, overtaken by Stephen Harper's Conservatives, who were on their way to an upset election victory.

Liberal campaign workers, it was said, were being pulled out of races across the Lower Mainland - from ridings in Vancouver, the North Shore, the Tri-Cities and elsewhere - and ordered to Vancouver-Kingsway, where cabinet minister David Emerson was desperately fighting to hold his seat. Whatever the fate of the Martin government, whatever the outcome of nearly a dozen close races in B.C., the Liberals were anxious to save Emerson, their west coast star.

The efforts of those many Liberal volunteers were rewarded on January 23 as Emerson won re-election. Indeed, where two years earlier he had eked out a narrow, 1,351-vote win over New Democrat Ian Waddell, his margin of victory in the latest tilt was nearly 4,600 votes against the same opponent.

Even better, Emerson's share of the popular vote between 2004 and 2006 rose from 40.4% to 43.5%, while the Liberal party's vote-share across B.C. dropped by a full percentage point to 27.6%.

For the Grits, it was a rare bright spot in an otherwise dreary evening. Martin's administration had been defeated after less than two years in office, and the prime minister wasted no time in announcing he would retire from politics. The Liberals, for the first time in more than 12 years, found themselves on the opposition benches.

But with just 124 of the House of Commons' 308 seats, the Conservatives' minority government is far from rock solid. The Liberals, with 103 seats and a new leader on the horizon, may be well-positioned in 18 or 24 months to challenge for their historical role as Canada's Natural Governing Party.

And those prospects must have looked even better to Liberal stalwarts with a re-elected David Emerson leading the fight against the Tories in the House of Commons, while at the same time, anchoring Liberal rebuilding efforts in British Columbia and Western Canada.

Too much to lose?

Of course, Emerson as an opposition MP would lose his ministerial salary of nearly $70,000 per annum (on top of $145,000 in annual parliamentary compensation). Gone, too, was his chauffeur-driven limousine - warmly-heated in Ottawa's bitingly-cold winters and comfortably air-conditioned in the capital's stifling, humid summers.

And no longer would Emerson have a plush executive suite in one of Ottawa's towering office buildings, with a dozen ministerial aides and hundreds of departmental functionaries eager to cater to his every whim. He now would have to toil away in a dingy office somewhere on Parliament Hill, working cheek-by-jowl with languorous assistants and lowly secretaries.

Important cabinet meetings, vital sit-downs with captains of industry and foreign dignitaries, speech invitations from universities, think-tanks and business groups, all would be in the past. Urgent inquiries from the Ottawa press gallery, and requests for interviews from national news-media organizations would be directed elsewhere, likely to new Conservative cabinet ministers from B.C., such as James Moore or Jay Hill.

For a once-powerful cabinet minister, the loss of prestige and influence in opposition might be felt even more keenly than the loss of pecuniary benefits and other perquisites.

But surely it would not be a burden too difficult for David Emerson to bear. Just as all of those party workers and volunteers had trekked across the Lower Mainland to Vancouver-Kingsway in January - to work the phones, to knock on doors, to pound signs into the ground, to scrutineer on election day, to drive voters to the polls - surely Emerson would now be happy to return the favour, to toil on their behalf, to make a personal sacrifice for a year or two so that the Liberals might be restored to power.

$70,000 more pay and a limo

We now know differently. Mere days after his re-election to parliament through the efforts of hundreds of die-hard Grit supporters, and with ballots from more than 20,000 Kingsway voters, David Emerson turned his back on them all, quit his party and joined Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

And not just to become a mere parliamentary secretary, or committee chair, or caucus whip. No, those un-exalted, relatively-insignificant positions, evidently, are suitable only for less-worthy mortals, such as the aforementioned Moore and Hill, both of whom were left out of the small, 27-member Harper cabinet, even as room was found for a Liberal turncoat.

Harper restored the Grit defector to the privy council with the appropriately grandiose title of 'Minister of International Trade and Minister for the Pacific Gateway and the Vancouver-Whistler Olympics.'

Also restored to Emerson was his $70,000 in annual ministerial compensation (bringing his total taxpayer-financed salary to about $215,000 per annum, not including benefits), the chauffeur-driven limousine, the executive office suite and the army of public servants and political staffers anxious to do his bidding.

"I've come to the conclusion that I'm better off to be part of a government..." Emerson told the news media after the cabinet swearing-in ceremony, "and I think I can be most effective and have the highest impact in that role."

Of course. And what is the role of the 280 members of parliament who do not seat at the cabinet table - the 97 Conservative backbenchers, the 182 MPs sitting with the three opposition parties, and the one independent? Why, they'll just have to accept the appellation used three decades ago by former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau: they're "nobodies."

Edmund Burke's view

Emerson's stunning decision to bolt his party less than two weeks after winning re-election under the Liberal banner brings into focus the question of what should be the paramount consideration that guides the conduct and decisions of our parliamentary and legislative representatives.

Should it be the wishes of their constituents? The dictats of their party? Their own judgement?

Arguably, the best description was offered by Edmund Burke, in a famous speech to Bristol voters in 1774 when he was seeking election to the British House of Commons. "To deliver an opinion is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear, and which he ought always most seriously to consider."

He then added: "But authoritative instructions, mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgement and conscience; these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenour of our constitution."

Parliamentarians, Burke argued, should be sensitive to the concerns of their constituents, but ought not be bound by mere local interests. Rather, they were to use their own best judgement, working in concert with other representatives doing the same, to do what was best for the national interest.

It is somewhat ironic that even as he advocated independent thought by members of parliament, Burke also was instrumental in the re-emergence and later dominance of the party system in British politics. "Party is a body of men united, for promoting by the joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed," he wrote in a pamphlet published four years before his Bristol speech.

"Such a generous contention for power, on such manly and honourable maxims, will easily be distinguished from the mean and interested struggle for place and emolument."

And yet, as David Emerson so recently demonstrated, the 'struggle for place and emolument' may, for some MPs, be paramount to any 'particular principle' that they may once have espoused or shared with others.

Rise of the party

British Columbia and Canada generally followed the Burkean model until the latter part of the last century. That is, for much of our electoral history, an individual candidate's party affiliation was of less importance than their character and beliefs. Indeed, the predominence of party is fairly recent.

B.C.'s Legislative Assembly, for example, was established when the province joined Confederation in 1871, but political parties did not appear in the legislature until 1903. And it was not until 1921 that party affiliation accompanied a candidate's name on the ballot - and then only in Victoria and Vancouver. Finally, in 1939, legislation was enacted to have each candidate's party affiliation (or independent status) printed on voters' ballots in every electoral district.

On the federal scene, political parties evolved slowly from Confederation through to the general election of 1896, when the Conservatives and Liberals appeared as two truly national parties. Yet, it was not until 1972 that party affiliation appeared on federal ballots.

It seems likely that the character of individual candidates was of greater importance to voters at a time when only their names were printed on the ballot, without party affiliation.

Voting the party line

In recent years, however, that seems to have changed. Beginning in 1974, the National Election Study has asked Canadians participating in federal elections a series of questions on the relative importance of factors which led them to vote as they did, and identified three factors: (1) local candidates, (2) party leaders and (3) the party as a whole.

Taking the 1993 federal general election as an example, more than half (57%) of those interviewed said that 'party as a whole' was the most significant factor in their voting decision. By comparison, fewer than a quarter selected either 'party leaders' (22%) or 'local candidates' (21%).

In fact, the election studies have consistently found that 'party' has become the most important factor for Canadian voters.

This may explain why so many Canadians are outraged when prominent politicians - such as Belinda Stronach, who, last year, crossed the floor from the Conservatives to the Liberals and David Emerson who made the reverse trip - switch their allegiances after being elected to public office.

A concise definition

A final word on Emerson's conduct.

A, perhaps, apocryphal story is told of a conversation George Bernard Shaw once had with a young woman at a social reception. At some point, their discourse turned to sex and Shaw slyly asked her if she would sleep with him for 2,000 British pounds. She pondered the proposition briefly, and then said 'yes.'

Shaw offered a quick rejoinder: would she sleep with him for a mere two pounds? Of course not, she sniffed, what do you think I am? My dear, Shaw replied, we have already established what you are; now we're merely negotiating your price.

And so it is with David Emerson. British Columbians and Canadians now know what he is; and we know his price, too.

Will McMartin is a veteran political consultant and a columnist for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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