The $100 Question, in Court

A challenge to Québec’s harsh limits on political contributions has a decent chance of succeeding

As reported last week by Le Soleil, a citizen of Québec, Yvon Maheux, is challenging the constitutionality of both the province’s $100 yearly cap on donations to political parties and some of the collateral consequences of a conviction for infringing this cap. In my view, much of the claim has considerable merit, and at least a reasonable chance of success. As I wrote when Québec was first considering lowering the amount its citizens were allowed to contribute to political parties from $1000 to $100, such a low limit is quite clearly unconstitutional, given the Supreme Court’s recognition that spending money to advance one’s political views is a form of expression that is entitled to the protection of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

As Mr. Maheux’s notice of constitutional question (kindly provided to me by his lawyer, Antoine Sarrazin-Bourgouin, whom I thank) explains, in 2016 he paid a provincial party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, $100 for taking part in a breakfast it organized, and then another $100 as a fee to take part in the party congress. For his trouble, he was prosecuted for breaching the $100 yearly cap on donations to political parties, provided for by section 91 of Québec’s Election Act. Section 564.2 of that Act provides that, if convicted, Mr. Maheux will face a minimum fine of $5000. Moreover, the infringement of the contribution cap is deemed a corrupt electoral practice (section 567), meaning that a conviction carries a number of additional consequences ― notably the disqualification from voting or running for office, as well as the loss of “the right to engage in partisan work”, both for five years (section 568).

This is a draconian regime. For one thing, the contribution limit is remarkably low. For another, the consequences for breaching it are astonishingly severe. Neither the Canada Elections Act nor Ontario’s Election Finance Act, for example, impose a mandatory minimum punishment for financial offences; nor do they deem making an excessive contribution a corrupt practice; nor do either Parliament or Ontario strip persons convicted of corrupt practices of their “right to engage in partisan work”. New Zealand ― which of course does not limit contributions to political parties at all, and is the least corrupt country in the world nonetheless ― does nothing of the sort either.

But does draconian, in this instance, also mean unconstitutional? The cases raises a number of distinct constitutional issues. The first is whether the infringement of the freedom of expression effected by the limitation of contributions one can make to a political party is justified under section 1 of the Charter. (That the limitation is a prima facie infringement of the freedom of expression must follow from the Supreme Court’s decisions in Libman v Quebec (Attorney General), [1997] 3 SCR 569 and Harper v Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 SCR 827, although these cases concerned spending independent of parties.) The other issues have to do with the constitutionality of the various consequences of a conviction for breaching the contribution limit.

Regarding the constitutionality of the limit itself, there is no precedent directly on point, I think, but it seems to me that the Québec government will be hard-pressed to show that it is minimally impairing of the freedom of expression. A legislature is entitled to some, perhaps considerable, deference in a line-drawing exercise of this sort ― Libman and Harper indicate that the courts will accept that there ought to be some limit on contributions, and any given figure is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. Still, deference can only extend so far; there is a range of acceptable alternatives, but this range is not infinite. And even if a higher limit would (of course) be somewhat less likely to attain the legislation’s anti-corruption objectives, the issue, as Chief Justice McLachlin’s majority opinion … put it, is only “whether there is an alternative, less drastic means of achieving the objective in a real and substantial manner“. That no other jurisdiction in Canada (and perhaps elsewhere) has seen it fit to set a contribution limit anywhere near this low is a strong indication that Québec’s purposes can be substantially achieved through less drastic means.

The $100 limit also fails, I think, at the final stage of the section 1 analysis, which concerns proportionality between the rights limitation’s benefits and its effects on the rights claimants. These effects, in this case, are significant; indeed, the limit renders Quebeckers’ right to contribute financially to a political party of their choice virtually nugatory. Mr. Maheux’s personal story is an eloquent illustration of this fact. So is the simple arithmetic that shows that a donation of $2 a week would be illegal. This all is particularly galling because the Supreme Court’s law of democracy jurisprudence ― especially Harper but also, before it, Figueroa v Canada (Attorney General), 2003 SCC 37, [2003] 1 SCR 912 ― suggested that participating in the activities of political parties was  political participation par excellence, to be valued and protected above others, as I explained here. Québec’s restrictive approach to political financing means that individuals such as Mr. Maheux can be prevented from developing their engagement with political parties, even as they are also prevented from participating in political debates as “third parties”, by spending money on advertising during electoral campaigns. Politics in Québec risks becoming even more of an insider activity ― ostensibly in the name of a fight against corruption. This makes no sense to me.

As for the consequences of conviction, there are three distinct issues. The first one is whether the disenfranchisement of those convicted, which is an obvious infringement of the right to vote protected by section 3 of the Charter, can be justified under section 1. In Harvey v New Brunswick (Attorney General), [1996] 2 SCR 876, the Supreme Court upheld the disenfranchisement, for five years, of a member of a provincial legislature who had been convicted of trying to induce a person who was not entitled to vote to do so. Harvey was, of course, decided before Sauvé v Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 SCR 519, which struck down the general disenfranchisement of prisoners serving sentences of two years or more, but I don’t think that Sauvé calls it into question. The Harvey court accepted that the temporary disenfranchisement of those convicted of corrupt electoral practices was a proportionate way of pursuing the specific purpose of protecting the integrity of elections, with which the general disenfranchisement provisions at issue in Sauvé had nothing to do.

That said, accepting that legislatures can disenfranchise people who compromise the integrity of the democratic process, the question is how far this principle extends. We wouldn’t accept, I think, the disenfranchisement of people who negligently infringe some technical rule about the reporting of a candidate’s expenses. But, again, how do we ― and, more to the point, how does a court ― draw lines? Again, I am not aware of judicial guidance on this point, but looking at what other jurisdictions do is instructive. The lists offences that are labelled as corrupt (or illegal) practices and can lead to disenfranchisement are not identical, but both federally (in section 502 of the Canada Elections Act) and in Ontario (in section 97.1 of the Election Act) the focus is on interference with the composition of electorate (involving voting under various false pretenses or, conversely, preventing electors from voting), or the process of casting ballots. An individual exceeding contribution limits is not deemed guilty of a corrupt practice. Although it is far from certain that the Charter prohibits this, there is, I think, at least a viable argument to be made for this proposition.

The next, related, issue is whether it is permissible not only to disenfranchise a person found guilty of having engaged in some form of corrupt practice, but also to deny him or her the “right to engage in partisan work”. As mentioned above, I do not think that any Canadian jurisdiction except Québec does it; I don’t know if any other democratic country does. The prohibition is an obvious infringement of the Charter freedoms of expression and of association. Can it be justified? Once more, I am not aware of judicial decisions directly on point, but it is possible to venture a few observations. One is that Québec is deliberately targeting political expression and association, which are at the heart of the Charter‘s protections. Another is that it’s not obvious how a ban on “partisan work” is connected to the integrity of the electoral process as such, or even of the political financing regime; at the very least it is seriously overbroad, because much of what might be fairly described as “partisan work” ― a term that Québec’s Election Act does not define, but uses in a number of provisions that suggest that it should be given a broad meaning ― has nothing to do with with either voting or fundraising. Third, once again the experience of other jurisdictions suggests that Québec’s ban is not minimally impairing, and indeed that it is likely quite unnecessary. And fourth, given its breadth, the ban’s deleterious effects on those subject to it surely outweigh whatever social benefits it might be said to have.

Finally, in his notice of constitutional question, Mr. Maheux indicates that he will argue that the cumulative effect of these various sanctions ― not any of them individually, mind you ― amounts to a violation of the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments in section 12 of the Charter. The test here is whether the punishment is grossly disproportionate, compared to the one that would have been appropriate in the circumstances. This is of course a highly subjective assessment, and I am pretty skeptical of this claim as a standalone ground for constitutional challenge. If a court grants Mr. Maheux’s claims under sections 2 and 3 of the Charter, it is superfluous to consider the section 12 argument. If it thinks that the infringements of sections 2 and 3 are individually justified, I can’t imagine it holding that collectively they are grossly disproportionate; this would strike me as an odd result.

Be that as it may, Mr. Maheux’s challenge is mostly serious and, while we lack specific, on-point guidance from the courts because the provisions of Québec’s Election Act at which it is aimed are so unique, I think it has at least a reasonable chance of success ― perhaps even a very good one. At the level of political morality, the legislation that Mr. Maheux is attacking is indefensible. It is vastly more repressive than it needs to be, and appears to have been enacted in complete disregard of the rights of those affected by it (as well as of the desirability of a competitive political system). I hope that the law recalls Québec’s legislature both to its constitutional duties and to its senses.

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.

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