The least predictable MP highlights a slightly unpredictable Parliament

When he stood recently to vote with the government, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith says some of his colleagues applauded. That a Liberal MP would vote with the Liberal government is predictable. But Erskine-Smith is so far the least predictable member of what has been a slightly unpredictable Parliament.

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith has cast 11 votes of dissent so far

The first six months of the 42nd Parliament have featured small, but interesting, displays of differing opinions within parties. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

When he stood recently to cast his vote with the government, Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith says some of his colleagues applauded. This he took as good-natured ribbing.

That a Liberal backbencher would vote in line with the Liberal government is typically predictable. But Erskine-Smith is so far the least predictable of what has been a slightly unpredictable Parliament.

Through six months in the House of Commons, the Liberal MP for the Toronto riding of Beaches — East York has cast 90 votes and on 11 of those votes he has been out of step with the majority of his Liberal colleagues. 

Granted, seven of those votes were related to C-14, the government's legislation on medically assisted death. But Erskine-Smith also went astray to vote in favour of a Conservative MP's bill on charitable donations, a Conservative party motion declaring ISIS guilty of genocide, an NDP motion on decriminalizing marijuana and a Conservative MP's bill to create an organ donor registry.

(Erskine-Smith says he is inclined to support private members' bills at second reading so that such initiatives can at least be studied by a House committee, which would account for two of those votes.)

'Not disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing'

That rate of rebellion, in the unlikely event it is maintained, would wildly exceed any recent standard for standing out. A tally published in 2014 found that the most rebellious MP of the last Parliament to that point was Michael Chong, who had been out of step with the majority of Conservatives on 14 occasions, out of a total of 935 votes. 

"I am not disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing," he assures, and there is "no ill will" he says when asked about how his dissent has been received.

"I respect the government's position on various topics and I hope they respect mine as well. I think so long as disagreement is thoughtful, principled, respectful, I don't think they have any issue with it whatsoever," he said.

Erskine-Smith has, at least in most cases, not been alone. He was one of eight Liberals to vote in favour of the bill on charitable gifts, one of four to support the Conservative motion on ISIS and one of four to vote against C-14 at third reading.

But he was the only Liberal to support the NDP's motion on marijuana (in keeping with a position he had taken publicly before the NDP motion was brought forward).

"I was looking around, 'really, it's just me?' " he says, laughing.

Those have also not been the only splits of this young Parliament. Three Liberals voted against a Conservative motion to condemn the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement against Israel (Erskine-Smith abstained). The Conservative caucus divided over C-14 and C-210, Mauril Belanger's bill on O Canada. Liberal MP Doug Eyolfson voted against a government bill related to Air Canada (though he later helped save the bill from defeat). Liberal MP Robert Falcon Ouelette was the only Liberal to vote against C-14 at second reading, while NDP MP Christine Moore also initially broke with her party on the same bill.

'The importance of independence'

A relatively unassuming former lawyer, Erskine-Smith, 31, was schooled in politics and law at Queen's and Oxford and has volunteered for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Years before he sought the Liberal nomination in Beaches — East York, he ran unsuccessfully for city council while studying in Kingston.

In his maiden speech to the House in December he mentioned voting his conscience as something he was looking forward to doing.

"I want to end on this note and stress the importance of independence in the House, the importance of thoughtfulness, and the importance of respectful disagreement," he says. "I am a proud member of the Liberal caucus, but I am prouder still of standing here in the House as the voice of all residents of Beaches-East York."

"Thoughtfulness" is something he says he is very much interested in.

Liberals were committed to voting together on matters related to the party platform, the budget and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and all of the dissenting Liberal votes so far have been on measures outside those criteria. 

On the matter of whether ISIS is committing genocide, Erskine-Smith says he studied the relevant literature and came to his own conclusion. He informed the Liberal whip of his intention and took a call from Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion on Sunday.

After hearing out the minister, and despite some concerns with the wording of the Conservative motion, he voted to find ISIS guilty of genocide and he has since explained his reasoning in an op-ed for the National Post (though he quibbles slightly with the headline).

Reasonable people will disagree

He says he listens to constituent concerns and opinions, but also applies his own judgment. He supports the government and says his constituents expect him to support the commitments the party made during the campaign.

He does not foresee himself being openly antagonistic toward the government, believing that it is more constructive to raise concerns within caucus and to ministers directly.

He says he was inspired to run by Justin Trudeau's commitment to a different style of politics. His party might arguably look good for periodic dissent like his. Though it is likely just coincidence that so many dissenting votes have come so quickly.

In Britain it is not entirely uncommon to find an MP who has rebelled as much as five per cent of the time, and many who at least exceed a rate of Chong's 1.5 per cent. And Erskine-Smith thinks British democracy might be better for it, but it has sometimes been to wonder whether the Canadian Parliament could possibly withstand such differentiation.

And yet so far the House of Commons and the Liberal government remain basically upright. 

Of course it has always seemed unreasonable to imagine that any group of more than a dozen human beings — even MPs, elected under a common party banner, incentivized to stick together — would agree as much as 98 per cent of the time.

"Reasonable people take different views on any number of different subjects," he says. "I'm going to agree with my party more than the other parties overall, no question, but that's not to say I'm not going to agree more with the NDP on decriminalization or agree with the Conservatives on ISIS genocide."


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.