Australia 1:0 Canada

Canadians have much to learn from the Australian High Court’s take on election spending limits for “third parties”

The High Court of Australia has just delivered Unions NSW v New South Wales [2019] HCA 1, a decision that should be of interest to readers who are concerned with freedom of expression in the electoral context ― a topical issue in Canada, given the recent imposition of further restrictions in this area by the recently enacted Bill C-76. The decision resulted from a challenge by a number of labour unions to New South Wales legislation that reduced the maximum amount a “third party” ― that is anyone not a candidate at an election or a political party ― is allowed to spend on campaigning in a nearly-six-month period preceding an election, from 1,050,000AUD (jut under a million Canadian) to 500,000AUD. The High Court unanimously held that the legislation was contrary to the implied freedom of political communication, which it had previously read into the Australian constitution‘s provisions requiring “representative” government.

The plurality judgment, by Chief Justice Kiefel and Justices Bell and Keane, finds that the third party spending limits are unconstitutional. That they restrict the ability to communicate is not in dispute. And while the plurality is prepared to assume that these limits are imposed for the legitimate purposes of levelling the campaigning playing field and preventing the wealthy from “drowning out” the voices of the less fortunate, they are not justified. Experts consulted prior to the enactment of the legislation provided no particular justification for recommending that the then-existing spending limits be reduced. A Parliamentary committee, however, recommend that the legislature look into the actual spending needs of third parties, and this was not done either. As a result, there is no reason for saying that the reduced limits are “reasonably necessary”.

Justice Gageler agrees with the plurality’s disposition of the case. He is persuaded of the legitimacy of the state’s pursuit “of substantive fairness in a manner compatible with maintenance of the constitutionally prescribed system of representative and responsible government”. [91] This might, in principle, justify much lower spending limits for third parties, which campaign on single issues, than for parties that must address a broad range of issues in their quest to form a government. However, “[i]t is not self-evident, and it has not been shown, that the cap set in the amount of $500,000 leaves a third-party campaigner with a reasonable opportunity to present its case”. [101] Absent such a showing, the restriction on the freedom of communication is not justified.

Justice Nettle’s conclusion is similar. He accepts the legitimacy of the objective of creating a level electoral playing field ― one on which political parties will be primary players ― and agrees that a legislatures may from time to time review the measures it takes to ensure fairness, including by lowering spending caps previously enacted. However, there must be a justification for whatever measures it takes from time to time. Such a justification is missing in this case. Although it was recommended that more evidence on the needs of third parties be collected, “for reasons which do not appear, that recommendation went unheeded. It is as if Parliament simply went ahead … without pausing to consider whether a cut of as much as 50 per cent was required”. [117]

Justice Gordon, like the plurality, assumes that restrictions on third party spending pursue a legitimate purpose, which she characterizes as the privileging of political parties and candidates. However, in the absence of evidence about the actual need for restrictions set at their current level, “the Court … cannot be satisfied that the level of the expenditure cap is reasonably appropriate and adapted to achieve the asserted constitutionally permissible end”. [150] It was for the State to show that the restriction it seeks to impose was justified, and it has not done so.

For his part, Justice Edelman considers that the reduction in the spending limits imposed on third parties, even as the limits imposed on political parties rose, cannot be explained by the purposes of maintaining a fair and corruption-free electoral system. Rather, it must have had an “additional purpose”, which “was to ensure that the voice of third-party campaigners was quieter than that of political parties and candidates”. [159] In other words, the reduction’s aim was “to burden the freedom of political communication of third-party campaigners”. [160] Justice Edelman considers that, although laws that rely on the relative silencing of some views in order to ensure that all can be heard are legitimate, to aim only at silencing some voices “is incompatible with the maintenance of the constitutionally prescribed system of representative and responsible government”, and legislation so motivated is “invalid”. [160]


Needless to say, I am not qualified to comment on whether the High Court is correct as a matter of Australian law. What I can do is compare its decision with that of the Supreme Court of Canada in Harper v Canada (Attorney-General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 SCR 827, which addressed much the same issues. (Readers will recall that I am not a fan of Harper, to put it mildly, and included it in my list of the Supreme Court’s five worst decisions of the last half-century in this blog’s recent Twelve Days of Christmas symposium.)

This is most obviously so on the issue of deference to the legislature on the issue of the appropriateness of a limitation of the freedom of (political) expression, and the evidence required for the government to make this case. The Harper majority insisted that courts should approach legislative choices with deference. In its view, “[t]he legislature is not required to provide scientific proof based on concrete evidence of the problem it seeks to address in every case”, and that “a reasoned apprehension of … harm” [Harper, 77] is sufficient to restrict fundamental freedoms protected by the Canadian constitution.

This approach is explicitly rejected in Unions NSW. While the Australian judges avoid directly criticizing the Harper majority, both the plurality opinion and Justice Nettle explicitly side with the “strong dissent” of Chief Justice McLachlin and Justice Major (joined by Justice Binnie). The plurality takes a dim view of the submission “that Parliament does not need to provide evidence for the legislation it enacts [and] is entitled to make the choice as to what level of restriction is necessary to meet future problems”. [44] When legislative choice are made in a way that burden the freedom of political communication, they must be justified. Similarly, Justice Gageler speaks of the need for a “compelling justification”, and insists that “[i]f a court cannot be satisfied of a fact the existence of which is necessary in law to provide a constitutional basis for impugned legislation, … the court has no option but to pronounce the legislation invalid.” [95] Justice Gordon insists that “the Court must … be astute not to accept at face value the assertion that freedom of communication will, unless curtailed by a reduction in the cap to $500,000, bring about corruption and distortion of the political process”. [148]

Another point of contrast between Harper and Unions NSW is the treatment of the so-called “egalitarian model of elections” designed in part to favour the interests of political parties and candidates over those of the civil society groups, disparagingly consigned to the status of “third parties”. According to Harper, election campaigns must focus attention on parties and candidates, including by ensuring that any other participants in the public debate, except the media, will behave unobtrusively. By contrast, the plurality opinion in Unions NSW explicitly rejects the submission that candidates and parties deserve preferential treatment, advanced in part on the basis that elections are “not a choice between ideas, policies, views or beliefs except insofar as such choice may be reflected in the electoral choice between candidates”. [39] Rather, the plurality says, “ss 7 and 24 of the Constitution guarantee the political sovereignty of the people of the Commonwealth by ensuring that their choice of elected representatives is a real choice, that is, a choice that is free and well-informed” [40] ― including by third parties. Justice Gageler, of course, takes the contrary view on this point. Justice Edelman’s position is more complex. He explicitly endorses “a Rawlsian, egalitarian model” [178] in which spending limits prevent some speakers from “drowning out” others. However, he also considers that it is not legitimate to target particular speakers for silencing apart from such an anti-drowning out purpose.

A last difference between Harper and Unions NSW worth highlighting is recognition by Justice Gageler of “the propensity of an elected majority to undervalue, and, at worst, to seek to protect itself against adverse electoral consequences resulting from, political communication by a dissenting minority”. [66] Justice Gageler refers to prior cases where the risk of a government legislating to limit political competition the better to maintain itself in office was explicitly adverted to. Such legislation, he notes, is incompatible with presuppositions of the Australian constitutional order. Although he finds that, in this case, “[t]here is no suggestion of abuse of incumbency” [85] by one party against others, this clear-eyed position is in contrast to that of the Harper majorityr, which ignored the possibility that incumbent governments favour legislation that excludes “third parties” from electoral campaigns in order to avoid unpleasant criticism and so reduce the odds of losing power.


There are more interesting things in the Unions NSW decision than I have room to discuss in this post. For example, Justice Gageler’s comments about the role courts in finding facts that are relevant to deciding whether a statute is constitutional are in contrast to the position of the Supreme Court of Canada in cases such as Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 SCR 1101, and should be very nutritious food for thought for those who are skeptical of the Bedford requirement of deference to trial judges. Justice Eledman’s comments on identifying statutory purpose (and in particular the role of general statements of purpose in the legislation) are also very interesting.

Overall, based on this one decision, I think that Canadians have a great deal to learn from Australians. Admittedly, the length of the High Court’s decisions is a deterrent ― Unions NSW is about 85 pages long, and I take it that it’s pretty short by Australian standards. That’s the cost of so many judges delivering full individual reasons. But the upside is that interesting ideas don’t get swept under the carpet in the process of getting to a set of reasons many judges can sign onto. I’m not saying the Supreme Court of Canada should go back to having each judge deliver his or her own reasons (though I wonder sometimes) but, at any rate, reading the Australian decisions may well be worth our while. In particular, the willingness of the Australian judges to keep a legislature accountable for imposing limits on the freedom of political expression without justification is a welcome reminder that their Canadian counterparts can do much more to protect individual rights in the electoral realm, and elsewhere.

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 “Australia 1:0 Canada”

  1. Spending limits seem mostly to concern campaign spending on operational expenses, salaries, I suspect? However, I believe campaign ideas are discussed outside the campaign system free of charge ALL the TIME: on twitter, facebook, instagram, this blog. So the law is relevant for old-school methods of communication only. Are these social media platforms included in the (struck down) spending caps? If not, the law was toothless in the free media battle ground where much voter priming takes place. After-all, “earned media”/free coverage is more powerful than a paid advertisement because the content is shared by the user themselves…. Howard Schultz is getting a lot of it at the moment, although he doesn’t know how to wield earned media or sustain coverage for himself. Do you agree that this law is pretty toothless and will would increasingly become hard to regulate anyway?

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