Politics

Green MP Jenica Atwin crossing the floor to join the Liberals

Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin bolted from the Green party caucus today, crossing the floor of the House of Commons to join the governing Liberals.

A senior Liberal source said Atwin initiated the floor-crossing several weeks ago

MP Jenica Atwin speaks to the media in Fredericton on Tuesday, October 22, 2019. (Keith Minchin/The Canadian Press)

Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin bolted from the Green party caucus today, crossing the floor of the House of Commons to join the governing Liberals.

Atwin accomplished a historic breakthrough for the Greens in the last election, winning their first ever seat in Atlantic Canada when she defeated Liberal incumbent Matt DeCourcey in Fredericton. Atwin, along with Paul Manly and former leader Elizabeth May, gave the Greens three MPs and their largest caucus in history.

Atwin's departure is a setback for a party that has long sought more influence in Parliament — and a coup for the Liberals as they look to rally progressive voters around the party ahead of a possible fall election.

In announcing her shock move today, Atwin, a former teacher and community organizer in Oromocto, N.B., said there were too many "distractions" in the Green Party and she wanted to work in a more "supportive and collaborative" environment.

WATCH: MP Jenica Atwin leaves Greens to join Liberals

Jenica Atwin leaves Green Party to become new Liberal MP in New Brunswick

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9 days ago
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New Brunswick MP Jenica Atwin talks about crossing the floor to join the Liberal Party. 1:44

Recent party infighting over issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took her away from the issues that matter most to her constituents, Atwin said.

"It certainly played a role," she said, when asked whether a recent dispute over Green Party Leader Annamie Paul's public statements about the Middle Eastern conflict pushed her to join the Liberals. Paul has been accused of ignoring established party policy on Israel.

At a press conference alongside Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc today, Atwin said that while she'll stand for a different party in the coming election, "my priorities, my values remain the same."

She said she was never particularly partisan. "For me, it was always difficult to choose which party flag to fly over my head."

She vowed to continue her fight for aggressive climate action and to oppose fracking and projects like the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which the government is in the process of building after years of delays.

"I haven't changed my views," she said.

Atwin said the Liberals offered nothing in exchange for her floor-crossing and she was not promised a cabinet post.

"We haven't discussed anything like that," she said. "One step at a time."

A senior Liberal source said Atwin initiated the floor-crossing several weeks ago when she reached out to the governing party.

The source said Atwin expressed comfort with the Liberals' approach to core issues such as the environment and reconciliation. Atwin's husband Chris Atwin is a councillor with the Oromocto First Nation.

A fracture over the Middle East

Atwin's departure comes after the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exposed fault lines in the Green party ranks.

Atwin directly challenged Paul's position on the conflict, saying Paul's call for de-escalation and a return to dialogue between the two was "totally inadequate."

"I stand with Palestine and condemn the unthinkable airstrikes in Gaza. End Apartheid!" Atwin tweeted on May 11.

The day before, Manly tweeted that the removal of Palestinian families from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah "is ethnic cleansing."

More recently, the Green executive committee voted not to renew the contract of one of Paul's senior advisers.

The adviser, Noah Zatzman, had expressed solidarity with Israel in a May 14 social media post that accused many politicians, including unspecified Green MPs, of discrimination and antisemitism, sparking a letter-writing campaign calling for his removal.

After Atwin's tweet and pushback from Manly, Zatzman responded with a Facebook post stating that Greens "will work to defeat you and bring in progressive climate champions who are antifa and pro-LGBT and pro-Indigenous sovereignty and Zionists!!!!!"

Separately, two party executives recently announced they would step down early. One of them was John Kidder, a vice-president on the party's governing body and husband to MP and former leader Elizabeth May.

In a media statement, May and Manly said they were "heartbroken" by Atwin's decision — and that Zatzman was to blame.

"Unfortunately, the attack against Ms. Atwin by the Green Party leader's chief spokesperson on May 14th created the conditions that led to this crisis," the two said. The MPs added that, while they were frustrated, they have "no intention of leaving the Green Party of Canada."

Speaking to reporters later Thursday, Paul said she was blindsided by Atwin's departure and only learned about the floor-crossing from media reports.

Paul said that while the party supports cross-party cooperation and rejects excessive partisanship, she said there are "significant differences" between the Green and Liberal parties and called Atwin's floor-crossing a "disappointment."

Paul said a byelection should be called in Fredericton because voters there chose to elect a Green MP in the 2019 campaign and Atwin's flip has now denied them that representation.

Paul said she doesn't believe the internal squabbling over Israel was what pushed Atwin to switch sides. She said she understands Atwin was in talks with the Liberals for "numerous weeks," before the internal debate over Middle East issues flared up. She refused to say if Zatzman is still a member of her team.

In the 2019 campaign, Atwin said left-leaning voters felt "betrayed" when Trudeau broke a promise to reform the electoral system and said they were now looking at the Greens as a more genuine progressive choice.

"We think we're that option," she said. "We think we're the ones to look to for voters looking for change, and looking to get better outcomes than what we've seen in the last four years."

She also accused Trudeau of "fear-mongering" when he warned voters that a Liberal-Green vote split would help elect a federal Conservative government.

But she welcomed his promise during that campaign to pressure the New Brunswick provincial government of Premier Blaine Higgs to fund abortions at Fredericton's Clinic 554.

"It is interesting that he hasn't brought it up before, but support is support," she said at the time. "I want to see Clinic 554 stay open ... so I appreciate that he's now stepping forward. It would have been nice to see during the Gallant government as well."

Atwin criticized the government as recently as last month, saying the latest federal budget shows the governing party "lacks the courage required to lead this country into a bold, new future."

"This budget is just another example of symbolism over substance, where we maintain the status quo under the guise of transformation," she said, adding the government has not made meaningful progress on climate issues or reconciliation with Indigenous peoples during its nearly six years in office.

Atwin said Thursday a lot has changed since she made those criticisms of Trudeau in the 2019 campaign, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered the political dynamic.

"Canada is different. We're different," she said.

Asked about Atwin's past criticisms, LeBlanc said there's room for disagreement within the party. "All of my caucus colleagues don't have identical views on all of these issues all of the time," he said.

Wearing what he described as a "big smile," LeBlanc said Atwin's defection was a "very, very happy moment" for the Liberal Party. "We're convinced she'll make an enormous contribution to our government and the people of Canada," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Cochrane is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary bureau. He previously wrote for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.

With files from the Canadian Press

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