Stupid but Constitutional

More on why I think legislation forcing floor-crossing legislators to run in by-elections is not unconstitutional

In my last post, I asked whether there is a right to rat—whether member of Canadian legislatures have a right under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to cross the floor and join the caucus of a party different from the one for which they were elected, without going through a by-election first. I argued that there is no such right, although the bans on floor-crossing, such as the one that exists, and is now being challenged before the courts, in Manitoba are a bad idea. Somewhat to my surprise, that post provoked a good deal of discussion on Twitter (relative to my other posts, anyway, which to be fair is a pretty low standard). Because of the time difference, the fun mostly happened while I was asleep, and I missed out, so I want to follow up here.

One question that was raised, by Emmett Macfarlane, is whether I sufficiently addressed the floor-crossers’ “freedom”, under section 2(d) of the Charter, to associate with the caucus of their choice (and indeed a party caucus a right to associate with them)”. I’m not sure how much more I can say on this point; there seems to be a fundamental disagreement between prof. Macfarlane and me here. As I see it, no one is prevented from associating with a caucus, nor is a caucus prevented from associating with anyone. Only a preliminary condition is imposed: that before undertaking a (formal) association, the floor-crosser be elected under that caucus’s party label. The floor-crosser is put in the same position as any other citizen—one cannot become a member of a caucus, even if both sides are agreed, unless one first gets elected. (Consider the case of an unsuccessful candidate: he or she would very much like to be part of the caucus, and the caucus would love to have him or her, but those dastardly voters get in the way. ) Similarly, even if  engaging in collective bargaining is a constitutional right, as the Supreme Court now claims it is, I don’t think that even the Supreme Court would say that the requirement that the union have the support of a majority of workers before it is able to impose itself on their employer is a violation of the freedom of association, although it is doubtless a pre-condition that gets int the way of people engaging in associational activities.

Second, prof. Macfarlane remains of the view that the floor-crossers’ constituents rights to effective representation under that courts have read into section 3 of the Charter are infringed when their representatives are “restricted from representing [them] by responding to political circumstances that leads them to believe joining another caucus is the best way to do that”. I do not think that the right to effective representation has ever been taken to go nearly as far as prof. Macfarlane wants to take it here. In a passage from Haig v. Canada, [1993] 2 SCR 995 later endorsed by the majority in Figueroa v. Canada (Attorney General), 2003 SCC 37, [2003] 1 SCR 912, Justice L’Heureux-Dubé spoke of a

right to play a meaningful role in the selection of elected representatives who, in turn, will be responsible for making decisions embodied in legislation for which they will be accountable to their electorate. (1031; underlining in Figueroa at [25])

In other words, the right protected by section 3, both as a matter of constitutional text and even in the Supreme Court’s cases that have arguably expanded it to some extent, concerns the process of elections. As the majority put in Figueroa, it is “the right of each citizen to a certain level of participation in the electoral process”. [26] Section 3 does not deal with what happens within the legislature once the elections have taken place.

If the courts were to expand the scope of section 3 in this way, they would become entangled in all manner of questions that have always been thought of as a matter of politics—for example, whether the whip or a party line gets in the way of “effective representation”. (And I don’t think that parliamentary privilege, of which more shortly, will save them. Privilege attaches to the functioning of legislative bodies, not political parties or even caucuses.) Jan Jakob Bornheim pointed out to me that that’s precisely what happens in Germany, where the Basic Law‘s provision making members of the Bundestag “responsible only to their conscience” (article 38) has been interpreted to prohibit the imposition of party lines. For my part, I don’t think it’s a good idea to involve the courts in these issues, and I doubt that Canadian courts are all that keen to take on this responsibility, in the absence of a reasonably clear textual requirement that they do so.

In addition to all of that, I think that we should take seriously the role that party affiliation plays in people’s voting behaviour, and acknowledge that many, and probably most, voters will feel that their representation is undermined, not enhanced, by the ability of a representative whom they chose (in large party, if not exclusively) he or she was the candidate of one party to switch, mid-term, to a different party. Prof. Macfarlane suggests that this amounts to “using a reality of voting behaviour to transform the core purpose and function of” a legislator “which isn’t to represent a particularly party to but to represent a constituency”. For my part, I wouldn’t want a constitutional doctrine that is oblivious to “realities of voting behaviour” in the name of some high-minded pursuit of politics as it ought to be rather than as it is. In any case, I don’t think the distinction between the roles of representative of a party and representative of a constituency are as sharply distinct as prof. Macfarlane suggests. A legislator elected under a partisan banner can, and indeed is expected to, represent a constituency as a partisan (not in every way, of course, but in much of what he or she does),  and really don’t see how the Charter gets in the way of that, or why it should.

The final question I will address here is whether any of this matters, or whether the whole thing is a matter Parliamentary privilege anyway,  and the courts will not interfere with the way in which privilege is exercised. On this point, I think there is some confusion going on. The internal functioning of legislative bodies is a matter of privilege, as are the rules they make, internally and for themselves, such as their standing orders. That, as Benjamin Oliphant noted, the standing orders of Canadian legislatures deny independent members some important rights that they grant to those belonging to political parties (and thus arguably undermine their constituents’ right to effective representation) is a matter of privilege and not subject to Charter review. But the issue we are concerned with does not arise out of standing orders or an exercise by the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of that body’s self-governing powers. It concerns the constitutionality of a statute enacted pursuant to one of the province’s legislative powers (namely that in section 45 of the Constitution Act, 1982, to legislate in relation to the constitution of the province), to be part of the law of the land, and not merely the law and custom of Parliament. The exercise of this legislative power is obviously subject to the Charter; as section 52(1) of the  Constitution Act, 1982 provides, “any law that is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution is, to the extent of the inconsistency, of no force or effect”.

Now, as the Court of Appeal for Ontario explained in Ontario (Speaker of the Legislative Assembly) v Ontario (Human Rights Commission), (2001) 54 OR (3d) 595 at [35], although the constitutionality of legislation in relation to the functioning of a legislature or one of its components is subject to the Charter, to the extent that this legislation calls for self-application by the legislature or its Speaker, the courts will not interfere with decisions made pursuant to that legislation. (This principle, known as the right of “exclusive cognizance”, is an aspect of privilege.) So, for instance, in the case of Manitoba’s ban on floor-crossing, it will be for the Speaker (I assume) to enforce the rule that “a member who … [has] cease[d] to belong to the caucus of that party during the term for which he or she was elected … must sit … as an independent and is to be treated as such”, and the courts will not call into question the Speaker’s decisions about what that entails. But the question of the constitutionality of that provision is a prior and separate one, and the right of exclusive cognizance does not apply to that question.

In short, although they are not immune from constitutional scrutiny because of Parliamentary privilege, bans on floor-crossing are not unconstitutional. They infringe neither the freedom of association nor the right to vote (or to effective representation) protected by the Charter. Once more, to say that such bans are constitutional is not to say that these bans are a good policy. I think they are ineffective (because they cannot prevent a would-be floor-crosser from voting with his new friends), and useless, because voters can always get rid of a representative they don’t like at the next election. One might even say that these bans are stupid—stupid but constitutional, as the late Justice Scalia used to say.

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.