01/10/2012 10:30 EST | Updated 03/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Quebec New Democrat MP jumps to Liberal caucus in Commons

OTTAWA - The surprise defection of a New Democrat MP has given the Liberals a big morale boost as they begin the daunting task of resuscitating their moribund party.

Lise St-Denis stunned political observers Tuesday with her announcement that she would join the Liberals in the Commons, only eight months after riding to victory on an historic NDP wave that swept Quebec in the federal election last May.

Even interim Liberal leader Bob Rae admitted he was surprised when St. Denis first approached him late last month about making the move.

"I don't think anybody can say that to leave the official Opposition for the third party is an act of opportunism," Rae told a news conference.

He took care not to gloat or to read too much into the defection of the little-known, rookie MP for Saint-Maurice—Champlain, a riding that includes much of what used to be former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien's fiefdom.

"This is not a day of making partisan attacks," said Rae, himself a former New Democrat. "It's certainly not a day where we're going to make some exaggerated claim as to what trend does this represent. I have no idea.

"All I know is that a member of Parliament came to see me and said that she wanted to talk about joining our group and I was fairly surprised and said I'd be glad to do that."

The news that a New Democrat was preparing to join the Liberals was first reported by Le Devoir.

St-Denis's defection gives the Liberals an eighth seat from Quebec and 35 in total, but does nothing to alter the balance of power in the House of Commons. The once-mighty Liberals remain a distant third behind the NDP, which now has 101 seats, and the Conservatives, who have a solid majority with 165 seats.

Still, her move gives the Liberals a much-needed injection of hope as they prepare to gather later this week for a crucial three-day convention aimed at ensuring the long-term survival of their party.

Rae used the defection to douse the notion of a Liberal-NDP merger, an idea advocated by some Liberals, including Chretien, in the wake of their humiliating rout last May. Although St-Denis herself had trouble articulating her reasons for the switch, Rae said she was more comfortable with the Liberals' pragmatic approach to politics than with the NDP's dogmatic adherence to ideology.

The move is a blow to the NDP, which has been struggling in its newfound role as official Opposition since losing its charismatic leader, Jack Layton, to cancer in August. The party has been bleeding support in Quebec, which delivered 59 of its 75 seats to the NDP, largely on the strength of Layton's personal appeal.

However, the NDP's Quebec caucus chairman, Guy Caron, suggested St-Denis was not one of the party's brighter lights and not a big loss.

"There are some good MPs, there are MPs who adapt a little less well to political life and I think that was her case," Caron said, maintaining that the remaining NDP caucus is "very, very strong."

Caron said party switching is undemocratic and dared the Liberals to run St-Denis in a byelection if they're so sure her constituents would support her decision to change parties. He noted that the Liberals won just over 10 per cent of the vote in Saint-Maurice last May, while the NDP captured almost 40 per cent.

"On that day, Quebec voters rejected the Liberals and voted for the NDP. They voted to change the way we do politics," Caron said, noting that St-Denis ran on an NDP platform that included a proposal to bar MPs from switching parties.

"Changing political affiliation is a blatant lack of respect for democracy. It encourages cynicism towards politicians."

For her part, St-Denis indicated that she began thinking about joining the Liberals six months ago — only two months after winning election as a New Democrat and before Layton's death.

Pressed to explain her sudden change of heart, she said she was impressed with the tiny Liberal caucus's experience and performance in the Commons, particularly its decision to walk out of a vote confirming the Harper government's choice of a unilingual auditor general.

She had been a volunteer for the NDP for 10 years and said she did her homework before deciding to run for the party. But once she arrived in Parliament, she said, she was disappointed in the NDP's decision not to support an extension of a Canadian military mission in Libya, its opposition to the idea of a public-private partnership to rebuild Montreal's Champlain bridge and its longtime insistence that the Senate should be abolished.

"I didn't imagine that I could stay there for three (more) years just listening to options that I didn't believe in," she said.

St-Denis frankly admitted she never expected to be elected when she first put her name on the ballot.

"They voted for Jack Layton, who is now deceased," she said of her constituents.

St-Denis had endorsed Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair for the leadership of the NDP, which will choose a successor to Layton on March 24. While she said her decision to switch parties had nothing to do with Mulcair, it's hardly a vote of confidence in his ability to either win the leadership or change the party if he does win.

"I could have waited ... but I don't know if anything's going to change if I wait."

For his part, Mulcair told Kamloops radio station CHNL that St-Denis had not given "the slightest indication" that she had any concerns about the NDP's performance or position on issues.

"It's clear, also, that it has nothing to do with the leadership," he added. "I mean, most of the Quebec MPs support my candidacy. I've also got a large number of MPs from the rest of Canada supporting me."