The Supreme Court delivered an interesting decision in Halifax (Regional Municipality) v. Canada (Public Works and Government Services), 2012 SCC 29, yesterday. On the surface, it is a rather dull, or at least purely technical, case about the proper method of assessing the value of land occupied by a historical monument. But it has much broader implications, because it is a useful reminder of the way in which courts ought to approach discretionary decision-making by the government, something of which the government of the day is very fond.
The case concerns the application of Payment in Lieu of Taxes Act, which authorizes the Minister of Public Works and Government Services to make “payments in lieu of [municipal] taxes” to municipalities in which federal property is situated. Federal property is constitutionally exempt from provincial (and hence municipal) taxation, but as a matter of fairness, Parliament authorizes payments to municipalities that are meant to replace municipal taxes that would otherwise be levied on most federal property. Nonetheless, the statute confers a great deal of discretion on the Minister: he decides whether to make payments; the amount of the payment is calculated using the taxation rate which would be applicable “in the Minister’s opinion” if the property were taxable; and the value to which this rate is applied is also one which “in the Minister’s opinion” would be assessed if the property were taxable.
Justice Cromwell, writing for a unanimous Court, summarizes the case very effectively at par. 5:
The Minister … decided that a national historic site is effectively valueless if it does not support economically beneficial uses. He therefore concluded that roughly 40 acres of the [Halifax] Citadel site are worth ten dollars. This conclusion, in my view, is unreasonable for two reasons. First, the property value is to be the value which, in the Minister’s opinion, the local assessment authority would apply to the property … However, in valuing the property the Minister adopted an approach which the record discloses no example of a Canadian assessment authority using, and which significantly differs from the approaches that the record suggests assessment authorities in provinces across the country do use. The Minister’s opinion that the value he arrived at “would be attributable by an assessment authority” has no basis in and is contrary to the evidence. Second, the Minister’s decision is inconsistent with the Act’s purpose. The Act permits payments for national historic sites. To decide that these sites have no value for taxation purposes except to the extent that they could support commercial uses negates the very purpose of their inclusion in the PILT scheme. For these two reasons the Minister’s decision was unreasonable.
So, the Supreme Court reminds us – and, more importantly, the federal government, – the exercise of discretionary powers is judicially reviewable, and even though the standard of review is reasonableness, it is a meaningful review. The phrase “in the Minister’s opinion” which Parliament uses seems to confer a very wide discretion on the Minister. But this discretion has to be exercised on the basis of evidence and in a logical way. The Minister cannot act on a whim or just because a certain decision suits him better than its contrary. Nor can he act in a way that frustrates the purpose of the legislation he is applying.
None of this is exactly new – these themes go back at least to Justice Rand’s judgment in Roncarelli v. Duplessis,  S.C.R. 121, for example his famous statement that “[i]n public regulation … there is no such thing as absolute and untrammelled “discretion”, that is that action can be taken on any ground or for any reason that can be suggested to the mind of the administrator” (p. 140). But the reminder is timely. Recent federal legislation has taken to delegating considerable powers to the executive, and also, it seems, to trying to insulate executive action from review, by adding discretion-conferring catchphrases such as “in the Minister’s opinion” to already-existing grants of discretionary power. As the Supreme Court’s latest decision shows, however, delegation and conferral of apparent discretion does not free the executive to do whatever it pleases.