By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG – The lawyer for an Independent Manitoba politician is hoping a judge will agree Monday to immediately strike down a ban on floor-crossing so that his client, Steven Fletcher, will have the ability to join another party later in the week.
“The legislature is back in session on Wednesday, the fourth of October, and Mr. Fletcher wants to be in a position to explore all of his options,” lawyer Bill Gange said Friday.
Fletcher was kicked out of the governing Progressive Conservative caucus in June after criticizing the government’s plan to set up a new Crown corporation to promote energy efficiency.
He filed a lawsuit in August that asks the Court of Queen’s Bench to strike down a section of the Legislative Assembly Act, which says politicians who leave or are removed from one party’s caucus cannot join another. The law, enacted in 2006 by the former NDP government, requires such politicians to either sit as independents in the legislature, or resign their seat and run in a byelection under a new party banner.
Fletcher’s statement of claim says the law violates his rights of expression and association under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and earlier this month, Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said the government will not spend taxpayers’ money defending the lawsuit. She also said the government will introduce legislation in the coming weeks to remove the ban on floor-crossing.
The problem with the government’s plan, according to Gange, is that it can sometimes take several months for bills to be debated and passed in the legislature, and more months can pass before any changes take effect.
Gange said he will be asking a judge Monday to hear the lawsuit immediately and, assuming the government lives up to its word not to fight the case, declare the law null and void on the spot.
“Our position is that judgment ought to be entered and the provisions with respect to floor-crossing ought to be struck down as unconstitutional.”
Justice Minister Heather Stefanson would only say the government stands by its commitment to start changing the law in the coming weeks.
“Our government has already stated our view that this legislation is unconstitutional and intend to repeal it at the earliest opportunity,” Stefanson said in a written statement.
“Given that, we do not believe that such a court hearing to determine constitutionality is necessary.”
A spokesman for the minister later clarified that the government believes the law is “unparliamentary”, not necessarily “unconstitutional.”
Fletcher has previously said he has no intention of joining another party and was simply fighting the law on principle, but Gange would not rule out anything Friday.
If Fletcher were to join the Liberals, it would give that a fourth legislature seat — enough for official party status, which would bring extra money and more allotted time in question period and at committee hearings.
The removal of the floor-crossing ban could also allow four or more members from any party to break away and form their own caucus.
Something similar happened in the House of Commons in 2001, when some members of the Canadian Alliance caucus broke away from leader Stockwell Day and formed the short-lived Democratic Representative Caucus. Most rejoined after Stephen Harper became leader.