Why One Liberal MP Joined Andrew Scheer’s Ranks

Critics say crossing the floor is a democratic betrayal. Politicians say it's the only way they can voice dissent

The Walrus/flickr

On September 17, 2018, Parliament’s first day back from summer break, Leona Alleslev, the Liberal MP from Aurora–Oak Ridges–Richmond Hill, rose in the House of Commons to announce her defection from the governing Liberal Party of Canada. “The government must be challenged openly and publicly. But for me to publicly criticize the government as a Liberal would undermine the government and, according to my code of conduct, be dishonourable,” she said. “After careful and deliberate consideration, I must withdraw from the government benches to take my seat among the ranks of my Conservative colleagues.”

New to politics when she was first elected in 2015, Alleslev is a hard-nosed and plain-spoken air force veteran. Before her dramatic exit, her time in office had been somewhat unexceptional, save for her early career appointment as parliamentary secretary to public-services and procurement minister Judy Foote—a notable promotion for a rookie MP. Still, she was, until she switched sides, little known outside of political and military circles.

The media immediately scoured her social media for signs of dissent but turned up nothing—no instances of serious disagreement with the party, no off-the-cuff clashes with Liberal colleagues, no pretension of sticking it to the man for the sake of her constituents. Rather, by all appearances, Alleslev had fallen in line with the party. Throughout her tenure, she offered reassurances that team Trudeau was on the right track. In July, two months before switching sides, she fawned over the prime minister, foreign-affairs minister Chrystia Freeland, and defence minister Harjit Sajjan in a private email, calling them “truly awesome.” Nine days later, she praised Trudeau’s leadership at a fundraising event.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer wasted no time taking advantage of her move. “For all those Canadians who supported Justin Trudeau in 2015 and are dissatisfied or even angry about the leadership that he’s been giving,” he told a room full of reporters, “the Conservative Party needs you.” He had apparently forgiven her previous anti-Conservative criticism. During a 2015 election debate in her riding, Alleslev lamented having watched the country under Stephen Harper “become something I barely recognize—socially, politically, economically, and internationally.” But the Trudeau government, in the end, apparently fared just as poorly in Alleslev’s eyes. Bidding adieu to her fellow caucus members, she referenced wide-ranging failures on tax reform, trade, foreign policy, defence, and security. She assured everyone who asked that it was never only one issue.

The act of switching teams requires a flexibility uncommon among twenty-first-century politicians. Alleslev considers herself among that rare breed of lawmaker. “As a member of Parliament, it’s my job to listen to everybody,” she told me. “I’m not sure that’s always the most widely held opinion.” She sees in modern politics a tendency to characterize all debate as conflict and worries about where that will lead. “If you look where we are, not only in Canada but in the world, where we’re becoming far more divided, far less able to have conversations with those that we have differing opinions with, we’re at risk of losing the value of debate.”

The resignations of two high-profile cabinet ministers over the Liberals’ mishandling of the SNC-Lavalin affair have since brought the question of debate within parties into greater focus. Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former justice minister and attorney general, and Jane Philpott, the former Treasury Board president, two of Trudeau’s most respected ministers, brazenly stood against the prime minister and his office and still remain in the Liberal caucus. Their actions lend credibility to Alleslev’s story while undermining the necessity of her departure. She chose to keep her quarrels with the party silent, she says, because dissenting openly would jeopardize its ability to govern.

But, in keeping quiet for so long, Alleslev has opened herself up to accusations of political opportunism. “Did you put your finger in the air to see which way the wind was blowing,” pressed CTV’s Don Martin, “and figure it was going to go Conservative in 2019, so you might as well join the parade?” If she hopes to regain her seat in 2019, Alleslev will need to prove those accusations wrong. She will need to convince her supporters that switching sides was more than simply self-interested politics, despite what the opposition says. And the Liberals will come armed with stories spun by former staffers and Liberal hard-liners with an incentive to discredit her. All voters have is her word. Whether she honestly acted in their interest or not, the fallout that ensued suggests intentions are moot. Few things are as politically isolating as crossing the floor.

Since Confederation, 340 MPs have changed party affiliation, willingly or not, between elections. Those who leave tend to opt for independence, with many soon switching again to join another party or to return to their former caucus. While some forty countries have laws pertaining to crossing the floor—in most cases, defecting legislators are forced to give up their seats—there’s no federal convention, legislation, or parliamentary rule regarding it in Canada. Manitoba and New Brunswick have enacted laws forcing outgoing caucus members to sit independently for the remainder of the term. But both the Liberals and Conservatives seem less keen to hamstring members’ freedom. In 2005, the federal government defeated a bill proposing that changes in party affiliation be followed by a by-election. Similar legislation has been introduced regularly in parliamentary sessions since; all have failed to pass first reading.

However, a series of ethics inquiries suggests floor crossers came under greater scrutiny beginning in the early 2000s, as crossing grew in popularity. Some forty-four MPs switched sides between 2001 and 2005, which, according to a 2006 study, outpaced the previous eighty-year average of twenty-three crossings per decade. In 2005, former ethics commissioner Bernard Shapiro was asked to determine whether a member had contravened the Conflict of Interest Code in switching parties. The following year, his attention turned to investigating Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In question was whether Harper had bribed Liberal MP David Emerson into leaving his party with the perks of a cabinet position with the Conservatives. Shapiro found no wrongdoing, but noted, “The discontent expressed by Canadians on this matter cannot be attributed merely to the machinations of partisan politics. Fairly or unfairly, this particular instance has given many citizens a sense that their vote—the cornerstone of our democratic system—was somehow devalued, if not betrayed.”

A number high-profile defections have been viewed as politically expedient, such as those of Belinda Stronach, in 2005, and Eve Adams, in 2015. Stronach left the Conservatives and was granted a cabinet seat with the Liberals, a move she made, some suspect, to help keep Paul Martin’s minority government in power ahead of two important budget votes. Adams deserted the Conservatives over their “mean-spirited leadership” six months after dropping out of a nomination-race in a new riding and was welcomed by Trudeau’s Liberals with open arms.

In Alleslev’s case, journalists and political pundits raised the possibility that she was reacting to the Ontario Liberal Party’s defeat in June 2018. During that provincial election, the riding of Aurora–Oak Ridges–Richmond Hill saw Conservative Michael Parsa win by more than twice as many votes as the Liberal runner-up. By comparison, in 2014, each of the predecessor districts that now make up the new riding—Newmarket-Aurora, Oak Ridges–Markham, and Richmond Hill—had voted Liberal. The losses are notable, but they offer little insight into the projected electoral outcome for the region in October. According to the CBC, the federal party that has won the most seats in Ontario has been different in 52 percent of elections from the one currently in power provincially.

At the federal level, the ethnically diverse riding of Aurora–Oak Ridges–Richmond Hill remains a toss-up between the reds and blues. It would be foolish to think Alleslev had special insight, more than one year out, into how the election will unfold. What we know is this: in Ontario, the parties have been neck and neck in the polls since early 2018, and an analysis of polling numbers by the website Calculated Politics, taken only weeks before Alleslev’s defection, projected the Conservatives were on par to win Aurora–Oak Ridges–Richmond Hill by a margin of just 2 percent.

What seems to set defectors apart is an ability to exploit the divisive nature of politics today to their own advantage. It’s a quality Alleslev seems to have put to work during her 2014 nomination race. Clayton Haluza, president of the federal Liberal riding association in Aurora–Oak Ridges–Richmond Hill, hadn’t the faintest idea who she was when she approached him at a fundraising event that year. Haluza found her straightforwardness refreshing for a political hopeful. But Alleslev had no ties to the Liberal party, hadn’t served in municipal politics, and wasn’t particularly involved in the community.

Alleslev’s aloofness was the result of having, as she says, “never, ever considered” a life in politics. Instead, she envisioned spending her entire career in the military—a calling she says teaches you to put country first. Her father retired as a two-star general from the Royal Canadian Air Force; his father had resisted the Nazis in Denmark as a member of the Danish underground. She came to believe that “serving one’s country is an honourable profession.” In 1991, she joined the Canadian military as a second lieutenant, logistics officer in Comox, BC, having studied history and political science at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. A decade later, following her retirement from the military, she worked as a consultant, at times within the federal government, and eventually landed in the private sector at IBM and Bombardier Aerospace.

Alleslev says it was Harper government that motivated her to join the Liberal Party in 2014. She thought their policies weren’t positioning Canada competitively and that, in contrast, the Liberals were making bold promises on everything from foreign policy to infrastructure spending, which she found appealing. Sitting in her Richmond Hill office late last year, she told me she began to sense, around four years ago, that “some pretty dramatic things” were unfolding at home and abroad. She was unsure about running for office, however, until she met Jason Cherniak, who was seeking the nomination. A lawyer based out of Richmond Hill, then in his midthirties, Cherniak was as faithful as they come: a card-carrying Liberal since high school, he went on to serve on the Young Liberals of Canada national executive and later as president of the Richmond Hill federal riding association and as president of the Liberal Party of Canada (Ontario) Central Region.

“Considering how significant the challenges facing the country and world are right now, I’m not sure he’s the right guy to represent me as a member of Parliament,” she said, thinking back. “Ah rats—I’m going to have to run.”

With existing ties to the Liberal Party, Cherniak was confident he had a shot at the nomination. But he began to suspect party upper brass were favouring Alleslev. “That part of it has been very difficult for me,” Cherniak says, “because after all these years of volunteering, I really thought that at the very least I had earned a chance at a fair race.” Alleslev had virtually no political experience, but she was a veteran and strong leader who stood in contrast to Conservative incumbent, Costas Menegakis. She played right into the optimistic, feminist narrative the Liberals were hoping to tell. As the Globe and Mail’s Adam Radwanski has noted, Trudeau “made a point of recruiting a diverse array of candidates who, despite impressive professional credentials, often did not have much partisan political experience.”

So intent was the party to win the riding that it overlooked what one former staffer now considers several “red flags.” Alleslev’s sister Caroline vied for the Conservative seat in Beaches–East York in 2008. And, throughout the nomination race, Alleslev could be found in tow of Greg Beros, a staunch Conservative and Richmond Hill city councillor. “You know that Leona’s a good, dear friend,” Beros would say when introducing her to members of local community groups. “While I can’t vote for her, because she’s with the Liberal Party, she is a great individual and would represent us well.” Beros recused himself from supporting her come the election. “Some people are candidate first, party second,” he says. “I’m always party first, candidate second.”

Alleslev succeeded at connecting with influential members of the riding’s Muslim community, whose support, both financial and otherwise, was “key to her getting the nomination,” says Haluza. She was later able to leverage constituents’ unhappiness with the Conservatives’ anti-immigrant rhetoric over “Canadian values” to garner widespread approval among members of the Muslim community. Without their support, many Liberals believe she would have lost in the general election. In the end, a combination of Alleslev’s own political abilities and the Conservatives’ hardline tactics helped mobilize the Muslim community at the polls, and she clinched the seat by fewer than 1,100 votes.

Following the win, a different picture of Alleslev began to emerge, one the Liberals could attempt to resuscitate during the upcoming election. In several instances, sources speaking on background say Alleslev was reluctant to credit the Muslim community for its role in her electoral success. This, they say, left some supporters feeling hurt and embittered. (In a request for comment, Alleslev apologized. “I like to think of myself as being sensitive,” she said. “So if I have been in any way insensitive, then I’m very sorry for that.”). According to the sources, that resentment was amplified by Alleslev’s decision to join the Conservatives, a party which has shown itself—most recently through its promise to withdraw Canada from the UN’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration—to be less open to refugees and immigrants. In 2019, Alleslev will have to grapple with having alienated a group that fervently supported her only four years ago.

“A political party is made up of the people who are in it at the time and must be judged by what the country needs at the time,” Alleslev has said, in explanation of her actions. By this, she appears to suggest that political parties aren’t monolithic entities but rather are born out of a particular time and place and defined by their caucuses, which presumably have voters’ best interests at heart. This logic enables Alleslev to argue it’s not her principles but rather the needs of Canadians that have changed since she first entered politics.

Her position reveals a grey area, rarely acknowledged in federal politics, that can be exploited by politicians willing to see beyond fervent partisanship. The Liberals and Conservatives may have the tendency to disagree, especially during election years, and their rhetoric may be different, but their track records suggest they’re more similar than they’re wont to admit. “To this day, if you go down line by line and look at what the Conservative and Liberal party stand for,” Haluza says, “at least on paper, it’s shades of grey.”

Alleslev seems to have leveraged this dynamic to her own advantage. Justifying her defection, she accused the Liberals of failing to meet the NATO target that members spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defence, even though Trudeau campaigned on maintaining previous spending levels. The truth is, no sitting government has met NATO’s targets since they were enacted in 2006. Alleslev also rebuked the Liberals’ diplomatic track record, citing tensions with Saudi Arabia, China, and India. This critique ignores the Conservatives’ own failings, such as in 2010, when Canada was forced to withdraw from pursuing a seat on the UN Security Council, a move interpreted by an article in OpenCanada as a “stinging rebuke of Harper’s anti-UN foreign policy.” (Trudeau has pledged to vie for a seat on the council in 2020). Their similarities extend to the economy, where both parties are quick to talk about more free-trade agreements and tax relief for the middle class.

But, if the parties are so alike, why would Alleslev leave one for the other? To the former colleagues who are quick to mention Alleslev’s ambition, it’s easy to craft a tale of opportunity. Alleslev’s political career was off to a strong start when, in late 2015, she was named Foote’s parliamentary secretary. The public-services minister’s mandate included replacing the country’s fleet of aging CF-18s and supporting a national shipbuilding procurement strategy—two areas that would seem to be of strong personal interest to Alleslev. As parliamentary secretary, she supported these files. But she also worked on Phoenix, the payment system for the federal civil service, the deployment of which has been riddled with complications.

According to a 2018 Senate finance committee report, more than half of the Canadian civil service has not been properly paid since Phoenix’s implementation in 2016. The report notes that the project will likely amass $2.2 billion in unplanned costs by 2023, making it an “international embarrassment.” When questioned about Phoenix on Foote’s behalf, Alleslev would assure legislators the system would soon be fixed. But the situation remained chaotic, and following a cabinet shuffle in January 2017, she was demoted from her role as parliamentary secretary. Historically, such appointments have been used to prepare (or rather to test the readiness of) future cabinet ministers. Alleslev would later cite the Liberals’ failure to resolve Phoenix as among her reasons for leaving the party.

Throwing herself in with the Conservatives has, conveniently, allowed her to regain lost momentum. National media attention has made her a familiar face and a champion of the Conservative cause. And, with Scheer swiftly appointing her shadow cabinet secretary for global security, she has reclaimed a prominent role in the House. It may prove to be an important career pick-me-up, given that she was ousted as chair of the Canadian NATO parliamentary association one month after defecting. Like the majority of floor-crossing MPs before her, Alleslev could have ridden out her term as an independent, thereby limiting speculation on her motives, but she says she decided against it, believing that the Canadian system is not “structured for independence.” Independent members rarely sit on committees, are not recognized as often during Question Period, and lose the support of a caucus. They are, in other words, less influential.

Alleslev has always been focused on maximizing her influence. She entered politics with her mind set on transforming the country and, after three years, came to believe she couldn’t do it as a Liberal. An early party switch meant trying to make the most of what could be her last year in office, she says, noting she had the support of her family and many constituents. But it also meant alienating supporters and staff who fought to get her elected and who now have reason to want to see her lose. Later this year, they will get their say on whether her actions were genuine and, above all, justified.

Justin Dallaire
Justin Dallaire is a journalist based in Toronto. His work has appeared in TVO and The UC Observer.