A Right to Rat?

A Manitoba MLA claims there is a Charter right to cross the floor. He is wrong.

John Markusoff writes in Maclean’s about a Charter challenge launched by Steven Fletcher, now an independent member of Manitoba’s Legislative Assembly, against section 52.3.1 of the province’s Legislative Assembly Act, which prevents members “elected with the endorsement of a political party” from joining the caucus of a different party during  their term. They must, rather, sit as independents—or resign and get themselves re-elected under their new partisan colours. Mr Fletcher will be “arguing that the ban infringes on his freedoms of expression and association, and … on the voting rights of his constituents”, the latter argument being based on an independent member’s lesser privileges (in relation to things like the ability to ask questions) compared to those of the members of a caucus. Mr. Fletcher has been expelled from the Conservative caucus, and Mr. Markusoff describes him as “an MLA marooned, and much disempowered politically for it”—although Mr. Fletcher apparently insists he has no plans to join another party.

Mr. Markusoff is supportive of Mr. Fletcher’s plight, pointing to the fact that Sir “Winston Churchill … cross[ed] the floor twice during his storied career”. (Churchill’s own take on this was that “anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat”.) Mr. Markusoff also quotes two political scientists who think Mr. Fletcher has a pretty good argument. Emmett Macfarlane is one of them, agreeing that Mr. Fletcher’s “constituents are poorly served”. Meanwhile Mr. Fletcher’s lawyer argues that the ban on floor-crossing—or ratting, or, as it’s called in New Zealand, waka-jumping (a waka is a Māori canoe)—serves to give party leaders more power at the expense of ordinary members. With that, I agree, and I too think that the ban on floor-crossing is a bad idea, as I explained here when commenting on a (never-enacted) proposal to impose a similar ban in Québec. Yet as I also noted in that post, in my view, a ban is not unconstitutional.

Indeed, it seems to me that the ban is not a meaningful restriction on anyone’s rights. For one thing, no one has a right to seat in the Legislative Assembly, or to be part of a caucus, without a mandate from the voters. And for another, the ban on floor-crossing does not prevent members from joining a party other than that for which they were elected, still less from voting as they please or voicing whatever opinions the Legislative Assembly’s standing orders allow them to voice. What it does is require them to do is stand for election to have voters confirm their party switch. If the voters still want to have the member as their representative under his or her new colours, then he or she will go on free as a bird, or at any rate as free as his or her new caucus permits. Otherwise, it’s the voters, not the ban on floor-crossing, that will have silenced the now-former member. And if the point is that the voters will likely value being represented by someone of the same party they previously voted for—well, I don’t think the Charter denies them that preference, least of all in the name of “effective representation”.

A couple of other points are worth considering here. First, if the argument is that it is somehow contrary to the Charter for party leaders to be able to exert pressure, even considerable pressure, on the members of their caucuses, this goes very far indeed. Does the leader’s ability to distribute, and to withdraw front-bench (and, in government, cabinet) roles raise constitutional questions? Or his or her ability to boot a member from caucus quite apart from any ban on floor-crossing, on the premise that there is no guarantee that the expelled member will in fact find a new political home, and may remain “marooned” instead? I doubt that a court would want to go that way, and this is as it should be. Voters are quite capable of delivering their verdict on any such shenanigans—if they care which, for better or for worse, they probably mostly do not.

Second, while floor-crossing might be described as a feature, or even “a time-honoured, Churchillian convention”, as Mr. Markusoff does in fact describe it, in a first-past-the-post universe, where members of legislatures are in principle elected in their personal capacity, it is very much a bug in a system of proportional representation. Because the legitimacy of the distribution of seats in an assembly elected using such a system rests on its relationship to the party vote (whether or not some of assembly’s members are in fact elected to represented particular constituencies), changes in the partisan affiliation of individual MPs undermine it to a greater extent than they do a system that rests on the personal relationships between MPs and their constituents. Of course, Manitoba does not have a proportional electoral system, and it should be possible for a court intent on striking down the ban on floor-crossing to do so in a manner that at least leaves the question open should it (or another Canadian jurisdiction) undertake electoral reform, but one should at least be wary of invoking over-broad principles in this matter.

To repeat, I do not think that rules, such as Manitoba’s, that put a break on the ability of members of legislatures to cross the floor are good idea. Whether the practice is Churchillian or Emersonian in any given case, the voters will be able to pass their judgment at the next election; I do not think that there is a pressing need to rush them to it. And to the extent that it can reduce the power of party leaders, there might be something to be said for floor-crossing—though there is also something to be said against a means for individual legislators of acquiring disproportionate power in a finely balanced assembly. Be that as it may, these are matters of political morality and institutional design. There is no right to rat, and the courts should not create one.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

3 thoughts on “A Right to Rat?”

  1. The principle that Parliament has the authority over its own proceedings is rules is one that has been asserted since Speaker Lenthall refused to turn over the five members, and has been a constitutional fact since the Glorious Revolution. MPs, while sitting in Parliament while it is in session, have their own separate set of rights and privileges apart from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or any other bill of rights in other Westminster countries. It’s my contention that the courts have no power to compel a Westminster assembly to alter its rules at all, whether those rules be fair or unfair. Parliament and the Provincial legislatures are their own master, and function as their own judge and jury.

    1. See my new post: in short, we’re not talking about the assembly’s rules, but the law of the land, so privilege doesn’t prevent adjudicating its constitutionality.

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