In all of the ink that was spilled last week about Glenn Thibeault’s astonishing defection from the federal NDP to the Ontario Liberal Party, one question, to me, remained tantalizingly unasked: why would the MP for Sudbury suddenly bolt his party and cross the floor?
(Full disclosure: I recently switched my own political allegiance from the NDP to the Liberal party.)
CTV News reported Thibeault “didn’t like the direction the Party was taking” and then abruptly changed the subject. As with any party defection, Thibeault’s move was greeted with dismay, and no little personal vilification on social media, by the party faithful.
The NDP standard bearer for official response seemed to be Thibeault’s fellow Northern Ontario caucus member, Charlie Angus, the well-respected NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay (Thoughts on Glenn Thibeault Running for Liberals). Charlie’s sense of betrayal is both palpable and understandable. But I demur.
With all due respect to Charlie, a politician is not elected to represent solely the views of the party faithful – volunteers, campaign workers, and donors – who did the dog’s body work of getting him or her elected, but rather to represent the interests of ALL the electors in his or her constituency as she or he best sees fit. Show me where party allegiance is etched in stone, is some kind of lifetime deal. Angus bemoans Thibeault’s change of heart over a few months’ time, but things change. You could ask Joe Cimino, who decided, mere weeks after his election, that pressing family matters prevented him from fully and faithfully representing Sudbury electors as the NDP Member of the Provincial Parliament, and whose sudden resignation set in motion the daisy chain of events that concerns us now. (The NDP faithful have remained either supportive or non-judgmental on this abrupt shift in political career, I can’t help but notice.)
So, why did Glenn Thibeault desert his Party, his colleagues like the estimable Mr. Angus, and the hardworking Party rank-and-filers who helped elect, and re-elect, him? I decided to reach out to him myself and pose that question. What, exactly, was wrong with the direction he perceived the NDP to be headed? This is the response I received:
“The party, even though it is in Official Opposition status, has been in survival mode for too long… in my opinion… it seems it wants to be a relic of the past while trying to appeal to an electorate whose sights are set on the future. Even though the most extraordinary pace of change has dominated the last few elections – the NDP hasn’t been able to adapt while other progressive parties have managed to do so… one for me being the Ontario Liberal Party.
As I heard from one former NDP supporter: ‘The NDP has left me, so I have left the NDP.’ Quite simply Mick, this person had too much common sense that didn’t seem to match anymore with the NDP and where it wanted to go. New times have come, they [sic] way to deal with the economy, environment, retirement, supporting business and SME’s to create jobs – the list goes on – and many people felt like me… the NDP wasn’t evolving. [Emphasis added.]
While many NDP MPs would try to influence change, propose new ideas, bring ideas from stakeholders… if it didn’t match what the Leader and his office wanted, we were berated and brushed aside. For example – the NDP’s policy of Cap and Trade – most industrialized countries have moved past that idea on helping reduce greenhouse gases… but to try and even have a discussion about other policy – well, it was ridiculed and pushed aside by the Leader’s office. How can we act and adapt if it won’t even listen to any proposed new ideas? I was just tired of the lying and the deception that was coming out from people that I believed in… trusted. So, in good conscious [sic], I could no longer be part of the NDP. I do love to serve the public… and when the opportunity to stay involved, but now with a progressive party with a vision – a party that is in search of new ideas that help translate into practical, relevant, and attractive policy – well, I hope to be part of that… So I’m not uprooting principles – but happy to be part of a party with the courage to think.”
I have to say I share many of Thibeault’s reservations about the NDP. It was their then-Provincial Leader, after all, who infamously branded the members of Steelworkers’ Local 6500 “the Archie Bunkers of the Left” when they embarked on the seemingly hopeless endeavor of striking Inco in 1978 to win a progressive collective agreement – which they won.
Naturally, my own recent conversion to Liberalism has occasioned considerable criticism from the NDP fold, and, like Thibeault, I have been repeatedly struck by how half-hearted their own supporters really are. Just scratch the surface in any debate, and you find your NDP opponent giving ground, as in, “I didn’t really like the last campaign the Party ran provincially, but…” But they supported the party anyway. Or maybe not; I’ve been surprised how often rock-ribbed social democrats have confided, sheepishly, they voted Liberal in the last Ontario election.
Look, here’s the thing: we’re losing our country. The Harper Tories are crazy-making, and theirs is not the Canada I once knew and loved. Their ouster is essential, and time is of the essence. In Justin Trudeau I see some glimmer, a main chance, perhaps, to send the Torries packing. It’s true his policy pronouncements are devoid of specifics, but what, you didn’t get the memo on reproductive rights? No candidate or sitting Liberal member will presume to dictate to a woman what she chooses to do with her body. Full stop. End of policy. Rather like his description of then-Environment Minister Peter Kent as an “asshole” for his failure to endorse the Kyoto Accord on climate change, the brevity and boldness of it all fairly takes the breath away.
And you would do well not to underestimate young Mr. Trudeau’s abilities “on the stump,” as the Americans would say. Anyone who witnessed his singular – and, so far, single – visit to this city just two years ago might remember him strutting jauntily up Durham Street, flocks of admirers and television cameras in tow, before stepping into the ring for a sparring match with hard-punching female Sudbury boxer Amber Konikow, who connected with at least one haymaker right to the Trudeau jaw (the remarkable photo of that moment, taken by Arron Pickard, ran on the front page of a local Sudbury newspaper and, by all accounts, Trudeau gave as good as he got) and then hosting the boilerplate $150-a-plate dinner for Liberal faithful and would-be grant recipients at the Caruso Club; all of a single afternoon’s work, without breaking a sweat (outside the ring, anyway). It was a bravura performance, quite unmatched by any other visiting party leader I can remember in my forty years of covering Sudbury politics.
But Glenn Thibeault has hitched his wagon to Ontario Liberal Kathleen Wynne’s star, and I like her, too. Like that she’s a woman. Like that she’s an openly gay political leader, a rarity, so far, in all of North America. Like how that hardly seemed to matter in the last Ontario election, which she won handily in a come-from-behind victory that defied the pollsters.
But, make no mistake: the outcome is far from certain for Glenn Thibeault in a by-election that will be called, in Wynne’s words, “sooner than later.” The Sudbury Liberal Association is a shambles and their ability to muster an effective ground game is in question.
But Thibeault has decided “to put it all out there,” to let Sudbury voters, not party insiders, determine his political fate. Clearly, Wynne badly wants a Liberal victory in Sudbury. Good to know. For years it’s seemed like Ontario Premiers couldn’t find us with a map.
Whatever the outcome, Glenn Thibeault, I feel certain, will not fail to evolve.