Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Now we're just haggling over the price

Others have rightly wondered whether the Wildrose Party's new promise to make floor-crossing MPs pay a price to the party will be enforceable at all. But it's also worth examining how it might affect MLAs' decision-making - with the result potentially being the exact opposite of what Brian Jean intends.

Previously, the bar to Wildrose MLAs crossing the floor was a moral one: the promise, to constituents and party alike, that MLAs would resist the temptation to join another party. And while that bar may have failed to stop Danielle Smith and others from breaking their promise, it certainly seems to have had an impact on the political prospects of those who made the switch.

In contrast, Jean has made floor-crossing into a financial issue. The sticker price tag to buy a Wildrose MLA is now being advertised publicly - and it's hardly inconceivable that the benefits of a cabinet position or a more secure seat would outweigh the financial incentive to stay even if it's otherwise enforceable.

Indeed, Jean may be setting up a political example of a familiar experiment in behavioural economics: just as a price on anti-social behaviour in the case of late daycare pickups actually increased violations by causing parents to think in economic rather than moral terms, so too might it allow MLAs to claim they owe constituents nothing more than to buy out their party status.

And the problem is expanded since Wildrose is also changing the question as to who's entitled to raise concerns about a violation of expectations. The new contract makes it explicit that it's the party, not constituents, which holds a duty of loyalty and which has the power to enforce an MLA's obligations. And by implication, the party will also have the power to decide an MLA isn't worth pursuing - no matter what voters may think.

Of course, as long as the surface financial deterrent helps to convince voters that Jean is more serious about sticking it out with Wildrose than Smith was, it will serve a political purpose. But for anybody who would prefer that the relationship among parties, candidates and voters be based on principles rather than dollar signs, it shifts MLAs' incentives in exactly the wrong direction.

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