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.

Not That Kind of Voting

What New Zealand’s Electoral Commission’s attempt to boost turnout gets wrong about voting, and what we can learn from it

There will be a general election in New Zealand this Saturday. As is customary in such circumstances, there is some hand-wringing going on about what turnout is going to be like ― it was almost 78% in 2014, which in Canada, never mind the United States, would be considered sky-high, but regarded as worryingly low in New Zealand. And the Electoral Commission is doing its part in trying to encourage people to vote, among other things by publishing this sleek video that recently showed up in my Facebook feed (and by using other ads based on the same theme):

The trouble, as I see it ― though I will not claim to speak for Kiwi abstainers ― is that, if you think about it for a second, this video’s true message about voting is precisely the opposite of the one it is intended to convey.

We “vote every day”, we are told: for snoozing or getting up; for dirty or clean underwear (that one, I suppose, is of particular relevance to politics); for whether to be a nice person or a not-so-nice one; and for a whole lot of other things. And it follows, apparently, that we should also vote in the election (or those entitled to do so should, anyway ― I am not, since I’m not yet a permanent resident). In other words, according to Elections New Zealand, voting for a party and a candidate to represent you in Parliament is just like making one of those everyday decisions that you are used to making, well, every day. Except, of course, that it isn’t, and in a number of ways.

Perhaps most obviously, if done with a modicum of seriousness, voting in a election is a good deal harder than deciding whether to hit the snooze button or to get up already. (I’ll call that sort of decision-making “voting”, as opposed to voting.) Voting requires one to acquire substantial amounts of information about the candidates and their platforms, about the world and the ways in which the candidates’ proposals fit or do not fit with what we know about it, and ideally also about how the electoral process itself works. (Another video from the Electoral Commission cheerfully showcases the voters’ utter ignorance about the latter point, as if equanimity were the appropriate response to it.) Relatively few people are well informed voters, and even some, perhaps quite a few, of those who are not at least realize that they have work to do in order to become at least somewhat knowledgeable ― though many will never do that work, for reasons to which I’ll presently return. And quite apart from informational difficulties, voting requires one to ponder incommensurable values (do vote, say, for the candidate with the better tax policy or the one more likely to respect the constitution?). By contrast, one doesn’t need to work very hard to “vote”. “Voters” typically have all the information they need from personal experience, and the values at stake are also less abstract and easier to sort out.

The second crucial difference between voting and “voting” is that the “voters” are the ones who live with the consequences of their decisions, whereas voters are not. If you keep on dirty underwear, you are the one who stinks. If you haven’t had occasion to learn that in the past, there’s a reasonable chance that you will learn now. By contrast, if you vote to keep a lousy politician in office, most (and perhaps  all) of the cost of that vote (however small a fraction of the total cost is attributable to an individual vote) is absorbed by others. You may even profit from your bad decision, either because the politician rewards his or her supporters at the expense of  the community as a whole, or simply because voting in that way gave you a satisfaction that is greater than the costs that vote imposes on you ―  though again the costs to the community as a whole are substantial. Moreover, it is often difficult to trace bad outcomes to bad votes, or good outcomes to good ones. The difficulty is sometimes subjective ― a voter who doesn’t understand a modicum of economics will not be able to tell that relative impoverishment resulted from the protectionist policies he or she supported. But it is often objective. Policy is complex, and it is difficult even for knowledgeable people to link causes with effects with much certainty. As a result, voters do not learn from the consequences of their decisions in the way “voters” do.

In short, voting and “voting” are rather different activities, and just because we do a lot of the latter, and do it reasonably well, it doesn’t follow that we should do the former, or that we can do it with any competence. We “vote” well enough because each “vote” is (usually) a relatively straightforward decision and, even when it is not, we have strong incentives to learn enough, and to be objective enough, to decide well, because we are the one living with the consequences of the decision. These reasons don’t apply to voting, which involves complex decisions and trade-offs, which are difficult enough to manage even for unbiased and well-informed decision-makers ― but we lack the incentives to be either of these two things because we do not in a meaningful way bear the consequences of our votes.

Of course, I have no idea whether the Electoral Commission will be successful at persuading people to go to the polls despite the faulty premises underlying its ad campaign. But if it does, this will, I am afraid, be an additional reason to distrust voters, who let themselves be fooled by what is really an well put-together effort at misdirection. Rather, the message we should take from the ad is the one that Ilya Somin delivers in his book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter: the more decisions we can make by “voting” rather than voting, the better off we will be. Whoever wins this week’s election should really think about that, rather than fret about turnout rates. Don’t worry though: I won’t be holding my breath.

Stupid but Constitutional

More on why I think legislation forcing floor-crossing legislators to run in by-elections is not unconstitutional

In my last post, I asked whether there is a right to rat—whether member of Canadian legislatures have a right under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to cross the floor and join the caucus of a party different from the one for which they were elected, without going through a by-election first. I argued that there is no such right, although the bans on floor-crossing, such as the one that exists, and is now being challenged before the courts, in Manitoba are a bad idea. Somewhat to my surprise, that post provoked a good deal of discussion on Twitter (relative to my other posts, anyway, which to be fair is a pretty low standard). Because of the time difference, the fun mostly happened while I was asleep, and I missed out, so I want to follow up here.

One question that was raised, by Emmett Macfarlane, is whether I sufficiently addressed the floor-crossers’ “freedom”, under section 2(d) of the Charter, to associate with the caucus of their choice (and indeed a party caucus a right to associate with them)”. I’m not sure how much more I can say on this point; there seems to be a fundamental disagreement between prof. Macfarlane and me here. As I see it, no one is prevented from associating with a caucus, nor is a caucus prevented from associating with anyone. Only a preliminary condition is imposed: that before undertaking a (formal) association, the floor-crosser be elected under that caucus’s party label. The floor-crosser is put in the same position as any other citizen—one cannot become a member of a caucus, even if both sides are agreed, unless one first gets elected. (Consider the case of an unsuccessful candidate: he or she would very much like to be part of the caucus, and the caucus would love to have him or her, but those dastardly voters get in the way. ) Similarly, even if  engaging in collective bargaining is a constitutional right, as the Supreme Court now claims it is, I don’t think that even the Supreme Court would say that the requirement that the union have the support of a majority of workers before it is able to impose itself on their employer is a violation of the freedom of association, although it is doubtless a pre-condition that gets int the way of people engaging in associational activities.

Second, prof. Macfarlane remains of the view that the floor-crossers’ constituents rights to effective representation under that courts have read into section 3 of the Charter are infringed when their representatives are “restricted from representing [them] by responding to political circumstances that leads them to believe joining another caucus is the best way to do that”. I do not think that the right to effective representation has ever been taken to go nearly as far as prof. Macfarlane wants to take it here. In a passage from Haig v. Canada, [1993] 2 SCR 995 later endorsed by the majority in Figueroa v. Canada (Attorney General), 2003 SCC 37, [2003] 1 SCR 912, Justice L’Heureux-Dubé spoke of a

right to play a meaningful role in the selection of elected representatives who, in turn, will be responsible for making decisions embodied in legislation for which they will be accountable to their electorate. (1031; underlining in Figueroa at [25])

In other words, the right protected by section 3, both as a matter of constitutional text and even in the Supreme Court’s cases that have arguably expanded it to some extent, concerns the process of elections. As the majority put in Figueroa, it is “the right of each citizen to a certain level of participation in the electoral process”. [26] Section 3 does not deal with what happens within the legislature once the elections have taken place.

If the courts were to expand the scope of section 3 in this way, they would become entangled in all manner of questions that have always been thought of as a matter of politics—for example, whether the whip or a party line gets in the way of “effective representation”. (And I don’t think that parliamentary privilege, of which more shortly, will save them. Privilege attaches to the functioning of legislative bodies, not political parties or even caucuses.) Jan Jakob Bornheim pointed out to me that that’s precisely what happens in Germany, where the Basic Law‘s provision making members of the Bundestag “responsible only to their conscience” (article 38) has been interpreted to prohibit the imposition of party lines. For my part, I don’t think it’s a good idea to involve the courts in these issues, and I doubt that Canadian courts are all that keen to take on this responsibility, in the absence of a reasonably clear textual requirement that they do so.

In addition to all of that, I think that we should take seriously the role that party affiliation plays in people’s voting behaviour, and acknowledge that many, and probably most, voters will feel that their representation is undermined, not enhanced, by the ability of a representative whom they chose (in large part, if not exclusively) because he or she was the candidate of one party to switch, mid-term, to a different party. Prof. Macfarlane suggests that this amounts to “using a reality of voting behaviour to transform the core purpose and function of” a legislator “which isn’t to represent a particularly party to but to represent a constituency”. For my part, I wouldn’t want a constitutional doctrine that is oblivious to “realities of voting behaviour” in the name of some high-minded pursuit of politics as it ought to be rather than as it is. In any case, I don’t think the distinction between the roles of representative of a party and representative of a constituency are as sharply distinct as prof. Macfarlane suggests. A legislator elected under a partisan banner can, and indeed is expected to, represent a constituency as a partisan (not in every way, of course, but in much of what he or she does),  and really don’t see how the Charter gets in the way of that, or why it should.

The final question I will address here is whether any of this matters, or whether the whole thing is a matter Parliamentary privilege anyway,  and the courts will not interfere with the way in which privilege is exercised. On this point, I think there is some confusion going on. The internal functioning of legislative bodies is a matter of privilege, as are the rules they make, internally and for themselves, such as their standing orders. That, as Benjamin Oliphant noted, the standing orders of Canadian legislatures deny independent members some important rights that they grant to those belonging to political parties (and thus arguably undermine their constituents’ right to effective representation) is a matter of privilege and not subject to Charter review. But the issue we are concerned with does not arise out of standing orders or an exercise by the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of that body’s self-governing powers. It concerns the constitutionality of a statute enacted pursuant to one of the province’s legislative powers (namely that in section 45 of the Constitution Act, 1982, to legislate in relation to the constitution of the province), to be part of the law of the land, and not merely the law and custom of Parliament. The exercise of this legislative power is obviously subject to the Charter; as section 52(1) of the  Constitution Act, 1982 provides, “any law that is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution is, to the extent of the inconsistency, of no force or effect”.

Now, as the Court of Appeal for Ontario explained in Ontario (Speaker of the Legislative Assembly) v Ontario (Human Rights Commission), (2001) 54 OR (3d) 595 at [35], although the constitutionality of legislation in relation to the functioning of a legislature or one of its components is subject to the Charter, to the extent that this legislation calls for self-application by the legislature or its Speaker, the courts will not interfere with decisions made pursuant to that legislation. (This principle, known as the right of “exclusive cognizance”, is an aspect of privilege.) So, for instance, in the case of Manitoba’s ban on floor-crossing, it will be for the Speaker (I assume) to enforce the rule that “a member who … [has] cease[d] to belong to the caucus of that party during the term for which he or she was elected … must sit … as an independent and is to be treated as such”, and the courts will not call into question the Speaker’s decisions about what that entails. But the question of the constitutionality of that provision is a prior and separate one, and the right of exclusive cognizance does not apply to that question.

In short, although they are not immune from constitutional scrutiny because of Parliamentary privilege, bans on floor-crossing are not unconstitutional. They infringe neither the freedom of association nor the right to vote (or to effective representation) protected by the Charter. Once more, to say that such bans are constitutional is not to say that these bans are a good policy. I think they are ineffective (because they cannot prevent a would-be floor-crosser from voting with his new friends), and useless, because voters can always get rid of a representative they don’t like at the next election. One might even say that these bans are stupid—stupid but constitutional, as the late Justice Scalia used to say.

A Right to Rat?

A Manitoba MLA claims there is a Charter right to cross the floor. He is wrong.

John Markusoff writes in Maclean’s about a Charter challenge launched by Steven Fletcher, now an independent member of Manitoba’s Legislative Assembly, against section 52.3.1 of the province’s Legislative Assembly Act, which prevents members “elected with the endorsement of a political party” from joining the caucus of a different party during  their term. They must, rather, sit as independents—or resign and get themselves re-elected under their new partisan colours. Mr Fletcher will be “arguing that the ban infringes on his freedoms of expression and association, and … on the voting rights of his constituents”, the latter argument being based on an independent member’s lesser privileges (in relation to things like the ability to ask questions) compared to those of the members of a caucus. Mr. Fletcher has been expelled from the Conservative caucus, and Mr. Markusoff describes him as “an MLA marooned, and much disempowered politically for it”—although Mr. Fletcher apparently insists he has no plans to join another party.

Mr. Markusoff is supportive of Mr. Fletcher’s plight, pointing to the fact that Sir “Winston Churchill … cross[ed] the floor twice during his storied career”. (Churchill’s own take on this was that “anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat”.) Mr. Markusoff also quotes two political scientists who think Mr. Fletcher has a pretty good argument. Emmett Macfarlane is one of them, agreeing that Mr. Fletcher’s “constituents are poorly served”. Meanwhile Mr. Fletcher’s lawyer argues that the ban on floor-crossing—or ratting, or, as it’s called in New Zealand, waka-jumping (a waka is a Māori canoe)—serves to give party leaders more power at the expense of ordinary members. With that, I agree, and I too think that the ban on floor-crossing is a bad idea, as I explained here when commenting on a (never-enacted) proposal to impose a similar ban in Québec. Yet as I also noted in that post, in my view, a ban is not unconstitutional.

Indeed, it seems to me that the ban is not a meaningful restriction on anyone’s rights. For one thing, no one has a right to seat in the Legislative Assembly, or to be part of a caucus, without a mandate from the voters. And for another, the ban on floor-crossing does not prevent members from joining a party other than that for which they were elected, still less from voting as they please or voicing whatever opinions the Legislative Assembly’s standing orders allow them to voice. What it does is require them to do is stand for election to have voters confirm their party switch. If the voters still want to have the member as their representative under his or her new colours, then he or she will go on free as a bird, or at any rate as free as his or her new caucus permits. Otherwise, it’s the voters, not the ban on floor-crossing, that will have silenced the now-former member. And if the point is that the voters will likely value being represented by someone of the same party they previously voted for—well, I don’t think the Charter denies them that preference, least of all in the name of “effective representation”.

A couple of other points are worth considering here. First, if the argument is that it is somehow contrary to the Charter for party leaders to be able to exert pressure, even considerable pressure, on the members of their caucuses, this goes very far indeed. Does the leader’s ability to distribute, and to withdraw front-bench (and, in government, cabinet) roles raise constitutional questions? Or his or her ability to boot a member from caucus quite apart from any ban on floor-crossing, on the premise that there is no guarantee that the expelled member will in fact find a new political home, and may remain “marooned” instead? I doubt that a court would want to go that way, and this is as it should be. Voters are quite capable of delivering their verdict on any such shenanigans—if they care which, for better or for worse, they probably mostly do not.

Second, while floor-crossing might be described as a feature, or even “a time-honoured, Churchillian convention”, as Mr. Markusoff does in fact describe it, in a first-past-the-post universe, where members of legislatures are in principle elected in their personal capacity, it is very much a bug in a system of proportional representation. Because the legitimacy of the distribution of seats in an assembly elected using such a system rests on its relationship to the party vote (whether or not some of assembly’s members are in fact elected to represented particular constituencies), changes in the partisan affiliation of individual MPs undermine it to a greater extent than they do a system that rests on the personal relationships between MPs and their constituents. Of course, Manitoba does not have a proportional electoral system, and it should be possible for a court intent on striking down the ban on floor-crossing to do so in a manner that at least leaves the question open should it (or another Canadian jurisdiction) undertake electoral reform, but one should at least be wary of invoking over-broad principles in this matter.

To repeat, I do not think that rules, such as Manitoba’s, that put a break on the ability of members of legislatures to cross the floor are good idea. Whether the practice is Churchillian or Emersonian in any given case, the voters will be able to pass their judgment at the next election; I do not think that there is a pressing need to rush them to it. And to the extent that it can reduce the power of party leaders, there might be something to be said for floor-crossing—though there is also something to be said against a means for individual legislators of acquiring disproportionate power in a finely balanced assembly. Be that as it may, these are matters of political morality and institutional design. There is no right to rat, and the courts should not create one.

The Law of Permanent Campaigning

Election law might have help create permanent campaigns. Can it be used to solve their problems?

The regulation of “money in politics” in Canada follows a bifurcated approach. Fundraising by political parties is subject to strict regulations that apply evenly throughout the electoral cycle. (There are special rule for candidates in elections and party leadership races.) By contrast, the expenditure of money by parties, as well as candidates, and so-called “third parties” ― which is to say, everyone else ― is only regulated, and very tightly regulated at that, during election campaigns, but not at other moments. Indeed, I once wrote that

the free discussion so essential to the existence of democracy and of parliamentary institutions is at no point so constrained as during electoral campaigns. No debate in Canadian society is so regulated as the one at the heart of our parliamentary democracy and thus of the protection of the freedom of expression.

This regulatory approach was developed at a time when election campaigns were mercifully short, and not much electioneering took place outside of the immediate pre-election “writ period”. But what happens if this is no longer so? What if the campaigning becomes “permanent”, to use a word that has been popular for a while now? The Conservative Party of Canada, under Stephen Harper’s leadership, is sometimes said to have brought the permanent campaign to Canada, but everybody’s doing it now, as Anna Lennox Esselment points out in a Policy Options post. The post is only an overview of a book that prof. Esselment has  co-edited with Thierry Giasson and Alex Marland. I have not read it yet ― I will eventually ― so for now I can only venture a couple of comments about prof. Esselment’s post.

One point worth making is the links prof. Esselment makes between “permanent campaigning” and the way in which party leaders are being put at the centre of politics. That political parties have become primarily tools for the promotion of individual leaders is a point made by Bernard Manin in his book on The Principles of Representative Government; I have, I think, shown that it applies with full force to Canada in my article on  “‘Third Parties’ and Democracy 2.0”, where I looked at the 2011 election campaign. (I summarized that part of the article here.) The development of the “permanent campaign” exacerbates this trend, though it did not create it; the days when parties could be seen as the “supermarkets of ideas” that Pierre Trudeau once thought they ought to be are long gone. As I argued in my article, we should not pretend otherwise, and take that into account in revising the ways in which we regulate the democratic process.

Regulation is the subject of another of prof. Esselment’s observations. She points out that “the rules regulating party financing” are among the “factors … contributing to the permanent campaign”. Once rules were in place to prevent “corporations, unions and wealthy individuals” from financing political parties,

the need to fundraise directly from [large numbers of] individual Canadians became a driving force in party operations. Knowing who might donate, how much and when is now crucial.

This in turn fuels the parties’ need for data about voters and potential donors (as well as people who might provide other forms of support). Prof. Esselment notes that this data gathering creates concerns about privacy, and she is right, of course. But another point worth emphasizing is that the story she tells illustrates the inevitability of unintended consequences. The permanent data-hungry campaign was not what those who clamoured for restrictions on party financing were looking to get, but they got it anyway. Their attempts to solve one (perceived) problem, though they may have been successful, also helped create a different one. A whole set of problems, actually, as prof. Esselment explains, having to do not only with the behaviour of parties as organizations, but also with what they do in, and to, Parliament.

This leads me to the final issue I will raise here. Prof. Esselment suggests that more fiddling with the regulation of political fundraising and expenditures is one “way out” of these problems. We might want

to regulate political party financing outside of the writ period and impose annual spending limits. This could limit a party’s ability to launch attack ads against their opponents between elections. … Reintroducing public subsidies for political parties might also reduce their ferocious appetite for information about Canadians, a key part of fundraising efforts.

The suggestion to “regulate party financing outside of the writ period” is a bit vague ― party financing is already regulated at all times, after all, though as I noted above, the regulations tend to apply evenly throughout the electoral cycle. But spending limits outside the writ period, and public financing, would have predictable, if unintended, negative consequences.

Permanent spending limits are, of course, permanent restrictions on the parties’ (and their supporters’) freedom of expression. We might not care too much about that, seeing how parties are vehicles for the aggrandizement of leaders and not contributors to an ideas-based political discourse, though I think that the freedom of expression even of relatively unsavoury actors has a value. But if parties subject themselves to permanent spending limits, they will not leave the rest of civil society alone. They will introduce stringent limits on the ability of “third parties” ― the disparaging name under which every speaker who is not a party or a candidate is known in election law ― to spend and express themselves as well. This is already what happens federally and in some provinces during election campaigns, and the Supreme Court has approved ― in the name of fairness ― the principle of radically lower spending limits for “third parties” than for political parties. Ontario has now gone further and introduced spending limits for “third parties” that apply six months ahead of an election. Permanent limits on party spending will create a strong pressure for what I have called, here and elsewhere, permanent censorship:

[A]n attempt to control “third party” spending between elections … It would extend to all advertising related to political parties or their candidates, including by taking position on issues “associated” with the party or the candidate. Moreover, in addition to dollar limits, the spending control regime includes onerous registration and disclosure requirements. Any individual, group, or organization that wanted to engage in political discourse would have to register with Elections Canada and keep it informed about its income and expenses. In effect, an extension of the rules on “third party” spending between elections would be a step towards the imposition of a regime of wholesale political censorship in Canada.

As I explain in detail in the posts linked to above, the courts may well find that such a regime is an unjustified violation of the protection of the freedom of expression in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But then again, they may not. But it would be no less terrifying even if the courts were in fact prepared to uphold it.

As for public financing for political parties, it is not obvious that it would reduce their hunger for data about us ― if not as potential donors, then as prospective voters (or indeed opponents who might be dissuaded from voting with targeted negative advertising). It would, however, reinforce the dominant position of large parties ― especially, of course, of the winners of the last election ― and prevent smaller, and above all new, parties from competing with more established ones on anything like equal terms. Perhaps these distorting effects are worth it for other reasons (though I’m skeptical), but I don’t think that the uncertain prospect of reduced data collection could justify them.

Permanent campaigns are, obviously, an important political development, and the law must take them into account. I am looking forward to reading the book on which prof. Esselment’s post is based, and perhaps I will have more to say about the subject as a result. But we must be very careful to avoid creating more problems as we try to solve those we have already identified. Indeed, we ought to keep in mind that if these problems arise from previous attempts at regulation, the solution might not be a fuite par en avant, but a retreat.

Dreaming of Dialogue

Can New Zealand courts declare statutes to be inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act? Does this matter?

Canadians have long been used to the idea that, as the Supreme Court put it in Re Manitoba Language Rights, [1985] 1 SCR 721, “[t]he judiciary is the institution charged with the duty of ensuring that the government complies with the Constitution.” (745) In New Zealand, things are very different of course, because the constitution is not entrenched. Parliamentary sovereignty prevails, and the courts’ role is limited accordingly. Although there is a statutory bill of rights, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, it specifically provides that courts cannot invalidate or otherwise refuse to apply legislation that is inconsistent with it, and contains no remedial provision analogous to section 24 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

So it is, or at perhaps was, an open question what, if anything, a court might be able to do when it concludes that a statute is inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act. Might it go so far as to issue a declaration to that effect, or is it limited to only stating this opinion in the course of its reasons? In Attorney-General v Taylor [2017] NZCA 215, the New Zealand Court of Appeal says that, sometimes at least, a formal declaration can be made, and upholds the very first such declaration issued by a New Zealand court, confirming that the disenfranchisement of all convicted prisoners (and not only of those serving sentences longer than the three-year Parliamentary term) is inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act’s guarantee of the right to vote. (The Attorney-General was not contesting the substantive point, it is worth noting, but only disputing that the declaration could and should have been made.)

* * *

The first question for the Court was whether authority to make a “declaration of inconsistency” existed at all and, if so, what its source was. The answer, the Court holds, is that superior courts have such an authority as part of their jurisdiction to answer questions of law, and that the Bill of Rights Act supported it. The Court rejects the Attorney-General’s submission that express statutory authorization is required to permit the making of declarations of inconsistency. Just as Parliament’s legislative authority does not derive from positive law but from political fact, so does the judicial authority of the courts. Neither branch owes its authority to the other; rather, “a distribution of the state’s sovereign powers among the branches of government emerged from the political settlement concluded in the decades following the Glorious Revolution of 1688”. [50] Ultimately, “[i]nconsistency between statutes is a question of interpretation, and hence of law, and it lies within the province of the courts.” [62]

The Court notes that the Bill of Rights Act itself contemplates the possibility of a judicial assessment of the consistency of other legislation with its provisions, whether its results are stated in the court’s reasons (which the Attorney-General accepted was permissible) or in a formal declaration. Moreover, New Zealand has undertaken to provide domestic remedies for breaches of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the implementation of which is one of the Bill of Rights Act’s stated purposes, so that it should be interpreted in accordance with this undertaking. Besides, in the Human Rights Act 1993, Parliament has already authorized the making of declarations of inconsistency when legislation breaches equality rights. Although the Bill of Rights Act contains no equivalent provision, this “evidences parliamentary acceptance that a court may make declarations about the inconsistency of legislation with rights protected by the Bill of Rights”. [107]

Second, the Court had to address an intervention by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who argued that the whole case, or at least the way in which it had proceeded, was an infringement of Parliamentary privilege. In particular, the Speaker was concerned by the reliance, at first instance, on a report prepared by the Attorney-General to alert the House of Representatives of the incompatibility (in the Attorney-General’s opinion) between the blanket disenfranchisement of prisoners and the protection of the right to vote in the Bill of Rights Act. Indeed he sought sought to prevent the use of any “speeches in the House, select committee reports or submissions made to select committees” [122] to ascertain the consistency of legislation with the Bill of Rights Act, arguing that this would be tantamount to calling Parliamentary proceedings into question contrary to article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1688 and the Parliamentary Privilege Act 2014. The Court rejected these arguments, holding that “a court does not impeach parliamentary proceedings merely by describing parliamentary processes or making a finding about the same subject matter,” [129] so long as it does “not endorse or criticise Parliament’s treatment of the issues”. [130] It is permissible, too, to refer to the Attorney-General’s report, although it is important for the courts to come to their own, independent conclusions.

Third, the Court considered the conditions in which declarations of inconsistency should or should not be granted. Such declarations, thought they do not affect anyone’s rights, are part of a “dialogue” (it might have been more accurate to say “conversation”) involving the the different branches of government, which

is not unique to constitutional disputes. It describes the routine work of government, in which Parliament legislates and the executive administers and courts interpret, leading in due course to legislative reform to better meet the community’s evolving needs. [150]

The only difference is that a declaration of inconsistency is a “more pointed” [150] than usual expression of a court’s opinion, which carries with it

the reasonable expectation that other branches of government, respecting the judicial function, will respond by reappraising the legislation and making any changes that are thought appropriate. [151]

Such “pointed” expressions of judicial opinion should not be lightly; a statement in the court’s reasons for judgment is sometimes, and even “ordinarily” [162] preferable. But it is sometimes necessary to go further. However, the courts are to apply fairly strict criteria for standing (at least when compared with the Canadian “open bar” approach), and to ensure that there exists a real adversarial dispute and that they have the relevant evidence available to them before pronouncing on the rights-consistency of legislation.

Fourth and last, the Court asks itself whether a declaration should have been granted in this case. It concludes that because “[t]he undiscriminating limitation … on so central a right demanded justification [and] [n]one was forthcoming” a declaration of inconsistency “was the appropriate way both to convey the Court’s firm opinion that the legislation needs reconsidering and to vindicate the right”. [185]

* * *

To Canadian readers this all might seem like pretty tame stuff. And indeed there is no mistaking the notes of caution in the Court’s discussion, above all in its statement that “indications” rather than formal declarations of inconsistency should “ordinarily” suffice. What “ordinarily” will mean in practice remains, of course, to be seen, but at least for now the Court seems to think the step of granting a formal remedy ― even one that could produce no more than a purely symbolic effect ― is a serious, even an exceptional one.

Yet I think it would be a mistake to make light of the Court’s decision and, perhaps more importantly, of its reasoning. Although its conclusions are cautious, it still reflects a confident view of the judiciary’s constitutional position as a branch of government that is, in its own sphere, not Parliament’s subordinate, but its equal. It is worth noting that the primary ground on which the Court rests the authority to make declarations of inconsistency is not an implication from the text or nature of the Bill of Rights Act (as it had done in Simpson v Attorney-General [1994] 3 NZLR 667 (CA), a.k.a. Baigent’s Case, where it held that damages were available for breaches of the Act by the executive). Rather, the authority to make declarations of inconsistency is said to come from the judiciary’s own inherent powers, which the Court goes out of its way to say are not the product of any legislation but of the constitutional order of things (my phrase, not the Court’s). Similarly, the Court resists the Speaker’s attempt to restrict judicial deliberations about Bill of Rights Act issues, even as it cautions that judges must be seen to interfere with the deliberations of Parliament.

Indeed, this case can be seen as a clash between two competing constitutional visions. One, advanced both by the Attorney-General and the Speaker, sets Parliament, protected by its sovereignty and privilege, above the other branches of government, whose first concern must be to avoid disrespecting or challenging it. The other, which the Court adopts, treats the branches as (almost) co-equal: “each is sovereign within its sphere of authority in the sense that it may act without the permission or authority of the others”.[51] To be sure, Parliament is first among equals because it can make law, and thereby oust judicial power (though New Zealand judges, as their British counterparts, have on occasion mused about the limits of that authority) or, in other cases, royal prerogative. But at least until it does so equality, not subordination, is the rule. It is a respectful equality, but respect goes both ways: not only must the courts exercise restraint and show comity on appropriate occasions, but Parliament too ought to engage in constitutional dialogue, and go so far as to reconsider its enactments, when called upon to do so by the courts.

Yet I am quite skeptical about the potential for constitutional dialogue between the judiciary and Parliament, on which the Taylor Court rests such hopes. We know that in Canada the “dialogue” has turned out to be quite one-sided, with the Supreme Court telling Parliament what it had, and what it could not, do. As the majority put in Sauvé v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 SCR 519, another prisoner disenfranchisement case,

the fact that the challenged denial of the right to vote followed judicial rejection of an even more comprehensive denial, does not mean that the Court should defer to Parliament as part of a “dialogue”. Parliament must ensure that whatever law it passes, at whatever stage of the process, conforms to the Constitution. The healthy and important promotion of a dialogue between the legislature and the courts should not be debased to a rule of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” [17]

The power dynamics in New Zealand are, of course, the opposite of those in Canada. It is Parliament, not the judiciary, that gets to have the last word in a constitutional conversation. But I do not expect it to be any more open to persuasion than the Supreme Court of Canada. I would love to be proven wrong on this, but I’d be quite surprised if ― assuming there is no change of government at the forthcoming election ― New Zealand’s Parliament chose to “reconsider and vindicate the right” to vote as the Bill of Rights Act, which it was happy to ignore on this issue, requires it to do.

* * *

Subject to an intervention by the Supreme Court, the courts of New Zealand do, then, have the ability to formally declare legislation to be inconsistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, despite the Act not authorizing them to do so. This authority rests on a conception of the constitution in which the branches of government are almost, if not quite, equal, rather than Parliament lording it over the courts (and the executive). Yet there is reason for skepticism about the vision of respectful dialogue between Parliament and the courts that this relative equality is supposed to foster. Someone gets to have the last word, and it seems likely enough that, in New Zealand as in Canada, it will be the only that will count.

NOTE: See also the comments by Andrew Geddis, on Pundit, and Edward Willis, on his Great Government blog.

Accounts of Accountability

It’s important to keep politicians accountable. But what follows for regulation of money in politics?

Freedom of expression is necessary, among other things, to foster political accountability in a democracy. On that much we can surely all agree. But what follows from the link between the freedom of political discussion and our interest in holding our elected representatives to account? Specifically, when it comes to regulating money in politics, should a healthy concern with maintaining accountability cause us to favour more restrictions, or fewer? The answer to that question is, to say the least, not obvious, as a comparison between two judicial opinions linking democratic accountability and freedom of expression but coming to opposite conclusion shows.

In McCutcheon v Federal Election Commission, 134 S Ct 1434 (2014), the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court struck down limits on the total amount of money an individual is allowed to donate to candidates at an election. (The limit on the amount that can be given to an individual candidate was not at issue.) In dissent, Justice Breyer drew on the value of accountability to justify the limitation of the role of money in politics. He noted that “political communication seeks to secure government action. A politically oriented ‘marketplace of ideas’ seeks to form a public opinion that can and will influence elected representatives.” (1467) The protection of the freedom of expression, he continued, “advances not only the individual’s right to engage in political speech, but also the public’s interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters.” (1467; emphasis in the original) According to Justice Breyer, the undue influence of substantial pecuniary contributions to politicians, which he characterized as

[c]orruption breaks the constitutionally necessary “chain of communication” between the people and their representatives. It derails the essential speech-to-government-action tie. Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard. Insofar as corruption cuts the link between political thought and political action, a free marketplace of political ideas loses its point. (1467)

In other words, to keep politicians accountable to the voters, it is necessary to limit the influence of money on them, and in this particular case to uphold the constitutionality of limits on donations.

Compare this with the opinion of Australian High Court’s Chief Justice Mason in the case of Australian Capital Television Pty Ltd v Commonwealth, (1992) 177 CLR 106. At issue were provisions eliminating the ability of both political parties and candidates and of “third parties” to pay for electoral advertisements in broadcast media. (Parties represented in Parliament were given some free time for their advertisements.) Chief Justice Mason also extolled the virtues of democratic accountability and emphasized the link between the actions of the governors and the opinions of the governed:

the representatives who are members of Parliament and Ministers of State are not only chosen by the people but exercise their legislative and executive powers as representatives of the people. And in the exercise of those powers the representatives of necessity are accountable to the people for what they do and have a responsibility to take account of the views of the people on whose behalf they act. Freedom of communication as an indispensable element in representative government. [37]

Democratic accountability thus required that the freedom of expression be protected (even in the absence of an explicit guarantee in the constitutional text):

Indispensable to that accountability and that responsibility is freedom of communication, at least in relation to public affairs and political discussion. … Only by exercising that freedom can the citizen criticize government decisions and actions, seek to bring about change, call for action where none has been taken and in this way influence the elected representatives. … Absent such a freedom of communication, representative government would fail to achieve its purpose, namely, government by the people through their elected representatives; government would cease to be responsive to the needs and wishes of the people and, in that sense, would cease to be truly representative. [38]

So far, so similar to Justice Breyer. But from this, Chief Justice Mason went on to reason that the restrictions on electoral advertising at issue could not stand, because they were incompatible with the freedom of political communication, and thus undermined democratic accountability. More money in politics, not less, was the way to keep politicians accountable to the people.

Now, contrasting these two opinions in this way is oversimplifying things. The issues in McCutcheon and in Australian Capital Television were somewhat different. The former concerned the giving of money to politicians; the letter, spending both by politicians and by civil society actors. Although both come within the general category of “money in politics” concerns, it is possible to think that one but not the other can be strictly regulated. Besides, to some extent at least, both McCutcheon and Australian Capital Television were about means, not just ends. It is possible that, confronted with different regulations, both Justice Breyer and Chief Justice Mason would have reached different conclusions by reasoning from the same values.

That said, we know that the same faction of the U.S. Supreme Court that dissented in McCutcheon was also favourable to restrictions on electoral speech by (at least some) members of the civil society in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, 558 US 310 (2010). And while there might be a point at which Justice Breyer would have balked at the limitation of permissible financial contributions to politicians, it is not clear where that point lies. Conversely, although Chief Justice Mason suggested that a less restrictive set of regulations might have been compatible with the freedom of political communication, existing regulatory schemes, such as Canada’s or New Zealand’s, would likely not have made the cut, and I struggle to imagine one that would. The disagreement is not only, and I suspect not mainly, about means. It is driven to a substantial extent by conflicting interpretations of the value of accountability.

I’ll leave to another post (maybe, sometime) a discussion of who, if anyone, of Justice Breyer and Chief Justice Mason is right. My point here is rather that appeals to values, and even to generally accepted truths (such as the importance of free political expression to democratic accountability) are unlikely to settle the difficult disputes that arise in the law of democracy. The values may be shared at a sufficiently high level of abstraction, yet understood so differently as to lead those who hold them to starkly different conclusions.