Parliamentarian party switching & media coverage in Canada
It means a lot for an elected official to cross the floor to another caucus. In Canada, controversy ranges
from debate over the member's freedom to deviate from constituents' wishes, to concerns about
motivations for doing so. Public discourse can be harsh, particularly towards women. How the media
frames party switching, and whether this incites calls for a by-election or some other legitimizing act,
plays an important role in weakening or strengthening government leadership and public trust in the
democratic process. The circumstances and stakes surrounding a politician's decision to cross the floor
strike to the core of aspects of Canadian parliamentary democracy, including representation, party
discipline, public confidence in elected officials and gender equality.
Our research will be the first study of media treatment of floor crossing in a parliamentary system, the
first to assess policy mechanisms in place to prevent party switching, and the first Canadian comparative research focusing on the subnational level. We will establish a novel theoretical and methodological framework to handle acts of party switching and illuminate how Canadian representatives explain their decisions, while providing evidence of whether the media presents floor crossing as a violation of core principles of electoral democracy. We ask: (1) What are the theoretical concerns about elected representatives switching political parties? (2) Why, when, and under what conditions do legislators change parties? (3) How does the news media frame a floor crossing event? (4) To what extent are floor crossers subjected to different media treatment on the basis of their demographic characteristics (e.g., women, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities)? (5) How are parliamentarians, party leaders, and political parties held to public account?
We hypothesize that a legislator changes parties for benefits of office (fame/power/influence),
policy/ideological reasons, or to secure votes and re-election. To explore our questions, we will identify
and compare party switchers in Canada since 1980; explain variances across provincial and territorial
jurisdictions; explore the motivations for switching; assess the effectiveness of policies designed to
enforce party discipline; analyze how the media frames these events; identify fall-out discussions about
democratic accountability; and synthesize our results to inform theory and methodology on party
switching and media coverage of political events with respect to Canadian political institutions and
We plan to use a mixed-method research design. We will administer 60 in-depth interviews in English
and French with former party switchers and party leaders. We will employ computer-assisted
scraping/harvesting techniques and manual coding of media data to identify potential and actual party
switchers across Canada in all 10 provinces and Yukon. We will examine media stories and policy
documents ranging from laws and regulations, to internal party constitutions and bylaws from legislative libraries. We will code the party switchers' motivations (policy, office and votes) to statistically estimate which conditions triggered the switch, and perform media content analysis to determine its public presentation. Our full dataset will be openly available online.
The data will allow us to assess the effect of party switching on party systems across Canada, how
associated media coverage influences perceptions of elected officials' legitimacy and accountability, and broaden theory about the strategic motivations of parliamentarians. We anticipate that our work will enhance the prospects for policy reform to improve representative democracy in Canada.
Dr. Alex Marland, Principal Investigator
Dr. Mireille Lalancette (UQTR)
Dr. Jared Wesley (Alberta)