No Way to Make Law

The legislative process is being disgracefully abused in Ontario. Constitutional lawyers need to pay attention.

I wanted to write a post about those anti-carbon tax stickers the Ontario government wants to require gas stations to post. I will, eventually, get around to writing that post, I hope. Spoiler alert: I don’t like the idea of the Ontario government telling people what to say. Anyway, before I get around to a post detailing my objections to the substance of this policy, I need to write this one, which is about process by which the anti-carbon tax sticker requirement is being made into law. This process is disgusting, and I think we (by which I mean Canadian lawyers, especially Canadian lawyers interested in the constitution, and other members of the public interested in law and governance) need to be much more upset about it than I think we are.

The anti-carbon tax sticker requirement is set out in sub-clause 2(1) of the Federal Carbon Tax Transparency Act, 2019, Schedule 23 to Bill 100, Protecting What Matters Most Act (Budget Measures), 2019. Yes gentle reader, Schedule 23. Schedule 23 out of 61, that is. A great many things matter in the province of Ontario, one must surmise, and need protecting. The “Explanatory Note”, which provides anyone who can be bothered to read it an overview of the 61 statutes being amended or introduced by Bill 100, alone runs to more than 9000 words, or 13 dense pages of small print. And this is not because it is unduly detailed; on the contrary, in some cases, it contents itself with setting out “some highlights” of the amendments or new legislation being implemented. The actual legislation runs to about 81,000 words ― the length of a PhD dissertation. I think it is a safe bet that no one will ever bother reading that.

Among the threescore statutes concerned, a solid majority have little to do with the budget, as one would, I think, understand this word. There is the Bees Act, for instance, amended “to expand the method of delivering inspectors’ orders” made pursuant to some of its provisions; there is a new Combative Sports Act, 2019, which regulates ― so far as I can tell from its (perhaps inevitably, though I’m not sure) convoluted definitions provisions ― boxing, wrestling, and the like; there is the Courts of Justice Act, amended in relation to the publication of the Ontario Judicial Council’s reports and also to limit some civil jury trial rights; there is new legislation on Crown liability (which has received some harsh criticism); there are important changes to the Juries Act (which have actually come in for some praise); there is, of course, the gas station sticker legislation; and much, much, more, right up to some not doubt vitally important amendments to the Vital Statistics Act.

There is, so far as I can tell, no reason having anything to do with good government why these statutes need to be amended or enacted as a block, as part of a package of budget matters. Stephen Harper once had his “five priorities”, and though these were inevitably much derided, one could claim with a modicum of plausibility that a new government might focus on, say, those five things. Anyone who actually thinks that “combative sports”, carbon tax stickers, vital statistics, and 58 other things are all “what matters most” would be well advised to run, not walk, to the nearest psychiatrist’s office. (I say so without worrying for Ontario psychiatrists; they are unlikely to be burdened with many such visitors.) But of course, the reasons enact this legislative blob likely have nothing to do with good governance.

And this is where it’s time to drop the snark, and get serious ― and constitutional. In abstract separation of powers theory, the legislature is supposed to make law (except in those areas where it has delegated this power to the government, or left it to the courts; these are, of course, significant exceptions). In all the constitutional practice of all Westminster-type systems, so far as I know, the government dominates the legislative agenda. It mostly decides which statutes get in enacted and when. Still, the legislature has a distinctive role to play. For one thing, it is where legislation is debated, and debate might have some symbolic democratic value even if votes are ultimately whipped and their outcome is not in question. And for another, the process of committee study is what allows a detailed consideration of the proposed legislation, and also public submissions on it, and perhaps amendments to improve the proposal.

A government that cared about good governance would value this process. It might ultimately force its bills through, but it would at least be open to the idea that they might be improved, at the level of detail if not of principle, by input from backbenchers, members of the opposition, and members of the civil society. By contrast, a government that doesn’t care about good governance, and is only interested in getting its way as expeditiously as possible will see the legislative process, even one whose outcomes it is ultimately able to control, as a nuisance or, at best, as a needless formality. In either case, it will endeavour to deny the legislature the ability to play any other role than that of an extension of the government itself.

A government of the latter sort has a variety of means at its disposal. The amalgamation of multiple unrelated bills in a giant package, which drastically limits, perhaps to nothing, the extent to which each of them can be separately debated and studied is one of these means. Both Mr. Harper’s government and Justin Trudeau’s have been criticized for using and abusing this technique. Bill 100 is not exactly new in embodying it. But it should not be regarded as any less shocking despite this. By amalgamating 61 mostly disparate pieces of legislation, it prevents the legislature from properly considering them ― including those among them, like the Crown Liability and Proceedings Act, 2019 for example, that will become really substantial and very important statutes in their own right, as well as those, like the carbon tax sticker legislation, that have obvious, and ominous, implications for constitutional rights and freedoms. Bill 100 thus demonstrates nothing short of contempt for both good governance and the distinct constitutional role of the legislature. It is, as I have already said, disgusting and outrageous.

We have become inured to violations of what is sometimes described as legislative due process. As lawyers, we tend inevitably to focus our attention and energy where our expertise can make an obvious difference, in coming up with and then pursuing through the courts arguments about why the legislative end-product might be unconstitutional and therefore not law at all. I think this is understandable, inevitable to some extent, and perhaps even not always a bad thing. Still, by not thinking about the way laws are made, we let those who make them get away with the procedural equivalent of bloody murder.

This cannot go on. Those who take a benign view of legislatures and want to celebrate legislative engagement with constitutional issues need to get to grips with the reality of broken legislatures that act as rubber-stamps for executives that despise them. Those who, like me, are wary of legislatures and insist on the courts having a robust role in enforcing constitutional rights and other restrictions against them must nevertheless pay attention to what the legislatures are up to ― all the more so since we are more likely than our friends to take an appropriately skeptical view of the matter. But skepticism may not become indifference. We, along with the legislatures’ fans, with whom we can make peace for this purpose, need to get serious about making sure that our laws are made in a decent way ― and not in the way Ontario is making its laws right now.

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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