Court challenge of Manitoba's floor-crossing law to be ruled on by March

A Manitoba judge plans to decide by March whether to overturn a law that forbids provincial politicians from switching party caucuses.

Independent MLA Steven Fletcher says law violates Charter of Rights and Freedoms

MLA Steven Fletcher started his term by fighting for access to the floor of the legislature in his wheelchair. Now he wants to be able to cross the floor if desired. (CBC)

A Manitoba judge plans to decide by March whether to overturn a law that forbids provincial politicians from switching party caucuses.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Sheldon Lanchbery reserved his decision Monday in a lawsuit brought forward by Independent MLA Steven Fletcher.

A former federal cabinet minister first elected to the Manitoba Legislature last year, Fletcher was ejected from the Progressive Conservative caucus in June after he criticized a law to create a new Crown agency to promote energy efficiency.

Under provincial law, Fletcher must sit as an Independent until the next election and cannot join another party's caucus in the legislature.

Fletcher says the ban violates his constitutional rights to free expression and association.

"As a result of my expulsion ... I am not able to represent the constituents of my riding to full advantage," he wrote in an affidavit filed with the Court of Queen's Bench.

"If I were able to join three or more other members of the legislative assembly in a recognized political party, I would regain parliamentary privileges including ... asking questions to the full extent contemplated by the rules."

As an Independent, Fletcher does not have the right to sit and vote on legislative committees and has fewer opportunities to ask questions during question period.

He asked a judge in October to quickly strike down the law, but Court of Queen's Bench Justice David Kroft said at the time the matter deserved a full hearing.

On Monday, a lawyer for the province told court Fletcher's rights have not been violated because he can still vote on matters in the legislature and ask questions.

Michael Conner also argued the legislature has the authority to set its own rules for internal matters, without interference from the court.

"Our submission is that this application must fail because it is a matter of parliamentary privilege and the charter does not apply," Conner told Lanchbery.

"It is at the discretion of the legislature to decide how that privilege will be exercised."

Conner said there is nothing stopping Fletcher from aligning himself and strategizing with another party, but it should be left to the electorate to decide whether he should carry the party's banner.

The Progressive Conservative government has said it will eliminate the ban on floor-crossing, but there is no guarantee when that change will be made.

Precedent

The law is the only one of its kind in Canada and the case is being watched by political parties across the country, said Fletcher's lawyer, William Gange.

"It could prevent another government in another jurisdiction from deciding if they were going to try to institute a floor-crossing ban" if Fletcher is successful, Gange told CBC.

The law that bans politicians from crossing the floor was introduced in 2006 by the NDP government of the day. It came soon after federal MP David Emerson crossed the floor of Parliament to the Conservative Party, mere days after being elected as a Liberal.

Then-premier Gary Doer said the ban on floor-crossing was needed to respect the wishes of voters at the ballot box.

Fletcher's ability to join another caucus would not mean much to the Progressive Conservatives, who still have 39 of 57 legislature seats. 

Fletcher said recently he has no intention of joining another party and wants to fight the law on principle.

The Opposition NDP have said they do not want Fletcher to join their party, nor do the Liberals, despite the fact that Fletcher joining their party would bring their party up to four seats, enough for official party status.

With files from Cameron Macintosh, Dean Pritchard, and The Canadian Press