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Manitoba government will change law banning floor-crossing, avoid lawsuit

Last Updated Sep 19, 2017 at 5:40 pm EST

WINNIPEG – Manitoba’s justice minister says the government will eliminate a controversial ban on political floor-crossing and end a legal battle with an ousted former backbencher.

Heather Stefanson said the Progressive Conservative government will act next month to remove a section of the Legislative Assembly Act that says anyone who leaves or is kicked out of one party’s caucus cannot join another. The law offers only two options — sit as an independent until the next election, or resign and run in a byelection under a new party banner.

“We think it’s a bad law and it’s not in the spirit of parliamentary tradition,” Stefanson told The Canadian Press Tuesday.

“We’re not going to spend … tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to defend a bill that should never have been introduced in the first place.”

Former NDP premier Gary Doer brought in the provision in 2006, shortly after David Emerson was elected to the House of Commons as a Liberal and, within days, crossed the floor to the Conservatives.

At the time, Doer said the law was needed to ensure voters’ wishes were respected.

The law is being challenged by former federal cabinet minister and MLA Steven Fletcher, who was kicked out of the provincial Tory caucus in June after criticizing the government’s plan to set up a new Crown corporation to promote energy efficiency.

Fletcher’s lawsuit, filed last month, alleges the law violates his rights of expression and association under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Fletcher said he has no intention of joining another party but is fighting the law on principle.

Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba, said he always considered the law “a political gimmick” and a likely violation of the constitution.

If the government lifts the ban on floor-crossing, he said it could tempt some disgruntled New Democrats — upset over the election of Wab Kinew as leader last Saturday — into joining another caucus or even forming their own splinter group.

“You could have a kind of core, small group of New Democrat MLAs who would in some way distance themselves from the main caucus,” Thomas said.

“They could split off in some way and sit as a group … and if they acquired a new name as a registered political party, they would qualify for the benefits that come with being an official party in the legislature.”

Something similar happened in federal politics in 2001, when a handful of members of the Canadian Alliance caucus broke away from leader Stockwell Day and formed the short-lived Democratic Representative Caucus.

In Manitoba, four legislature members are enough to qualify for official caucus status.

The Opposition New Democrats have just emerged from a divisive leadership contest that saw Kinew, a political rookie, beat out former cabinet minister Steve Ashton. Kinew has been dogged by recently revealed details of assault charges he faced 14 years ago involving a former girlfriend, Tara Hart.

Hart went public last week and said she was thrown across a living room. The charges were stayed in 2004 and Kinew has repeatedly denied the accusation.

Thomas said Kinew was already opposed by some NDP members who consider him too new to the party to lead it, and controversy over the assault charges has added to the acrimony.

“Mr. Kinew has a big challenge to bring unity and harmony within the party.”