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.

Crashing the Party

Andrew Coyne says we should re-think how we choose party leaders. So here are my thoughts.

In a recent column in the National Post, Andrew Coyne argues that “it is time to rethink how we choose party leaders” ― at least if we care about the institution of Parliament, and don’t think that “MPs are nobodies, and the role of the leader is to look good on TV”. As someone who cares about Parliament, he argues that we should go back to “the classic Westminster model”, where party leaders are chosen by the party caucus ― like, say, in Australia. Mr. Coyne is not alone in making this point; Dale Smith has done so repeatedly (for example in this Policy Options post about his new book), and others have too. But, although they are among the more thoughtful observers of the Canadian political scene, their arguments leave a number of significant questions unanswered.

One is simply whether the benefits that they are promising us will materialize if the clock is turned back on the tendency to broaden, instead of narrowing, the constituency that chooses party leaders. Mr. Coyne argues that leaders chosen by their caucus would be “battle-tested and ready to do the job a party leader is supposed to do in our system: lead a caucus in Parliament”, as well as more accountable to the caucus. Moreover, leadership contests would not consume “the vast amounts of time and money” they now do. That last point is no doubt true, so far as it goes ― though while I hope that it’s not an entirely reliable guide to the reality of politics, if you’ve watched the original, BBC version of the House of Cards, you might be a bit skeptical about the intra-caucus leadership contests being any less immoral than the current Conservative leadership race that has prompted Mr. Coyne to write his column. Urquhartian cynicism aside, the frequency of leadership coups in real-life Australian politics seems to disprove Mr. Coyne’s argument that caucus members are be the best placed to chose an accountable and effective leader. If they were any good at it, why would they always be changing their minds?

Part of the reason is that, however much Mr. Coyne may deride this, and however much we may regret this, it really is a very big part of a party leader’s job to look good on TV ― and while caucus members know this, and start worrying when the leader’s polling numbers dip, they might not actually be the best at predicting who will do this job well. In the “audience democracy” described by Bernard Manin in his book on The Principles of Representative Government, leaders are more important than parties, in no small part precisely because of their ability to speak directly to voters through the electronic media. As I explained in an article in the McGill Law Journal, Manin’s “audience democracy” model fits Canada very well (I summarized that part of the article here). Again, this state of affairs may be a cause for regret, but it is a product of technological and social trends beyond our control; changing the way in which party leaders are selected won’t reverse them.

But suppose I am wrong about this, and reverting to having caucuses selecting party leaders would in fact be a useful thing to do. The other question that I have after reading Mr. Coyne is whether he proposes a legal intervention to force parties to adopt his preferred mechanism for choosing leaders. Parties, after all, are not going in the direction he is advocating ― quite the contrary. Delegated conventions used to be the norm, but they are a thing of the past now. Leaders are chosen by membership as a whole and, in the case of the federal Liberals ― as with a number of parties around the world ― it’s not even just by membership, but by self-identified “supporters” too. And though my instinct is to treat this is evidence that the parties know something that Mr. Coyne and those who agree with him don’t, the Tories’ current misery notwithstanding, it at least is conceivable that there is a collective action problem at work. The parties, and the public, would all be better off (let’s assume) with leaders chosen by caucus, but the one that moves to that system first will be criticized for being undemocratic, so no one dares take the plunge.

Would this prima facie case for legislative intervention stand up to scrutiny? One obvious problem might be that such an interference with the parties’ internal affairs might be challenged as a violation of the freedom of association protected by paragraph 2(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Even if the courts were to find a violation, there would no doubt be some material for an attempt at a section 1 justification, but I don’t know if it would be enough. I don’t recall any freedom of association cases about political parties, so any assessment as a matter of positive law would be rather speculative. But even putting a possible Charter challenge to one side, interference with the party members’ freedom should count as an argument, though perhaps not a conclusive one against legislation.

Another issue to consider would be the risk of a one-size-fits-all approach, given the vast disparities in the sizes of parties and caucuses. Many registered parties, of course, have no Parliamentary caucus at all; some others have a very small one, perhaps even a single MP. If leadership selection by caucus were mandated, that could create perverse outcomes ― including a party’s lone MP selecting his or her own successor as leader, should he or she wish to resign. Of course, it would be possible to write legislation so that it would apply to caucuses of a certain size ― but that seems to lead to perverse consequences of its own. A party would be forced to abandon an existing membership-selection system in favour of caucus-selection upon reaching a certain size, and possibly return to one upon falling below the threshold again, which strikes me as odd, though perhaps that’s just me.

Ultimately though, the idea of imposing caucus selection of party leaders runs into the same problem as most attempts at regulating parties. Why can’t the voters settle it? If caucus selection causes parties to have better leaders, then people will presumably vote for them ― perhaps especially given that leaders are so important in the “audience democracy”. The prima facie case for regulation assumes that voters would (irrationally) prefer a flawed but more “democratically” selected leader to a better one picked by a caucus. But while the voters’ irrationality should not be underestimated, this seems hard to believe. Would voters ― who do not seem to pay a whole lot of attention to party leadership contests in the first place ― be so beguiled by the claims of the more “democratic”  parties as to overlook substantial differences in leader quality?

It seems to me, ultimately, that Mr. Coyne’s complaint is less about the political parties that have somehow been so naïve as to abandon the virtues of caucus selection in favour of the vice of giving a broader spectrum of constituents a say in how they will be led than it is about voters who fall for the charms of TV-savvy populists. Ideally, he effectively says, we wouldn’t give them the option of voting for these populists at all, leaving them to choose among safe options vetted by the political establishment. The argument has its appeal, during a Conservative leadership race said to be led by a pair of populists, not to mention the Beeblebrox presidency south of the border. But can we count on party caucuses to stem the tide of populism for long? If they are thwarted by these guardians of political propriety, will not the populists launch their own parties (especially if a form of proportional representation, which Mr. Coyne favours, were ever implemented)? I have no firm views on this, but I am skeptical that caucus selection of party leaders, whether voluntarily implemented or enforced, can do us much good.

Do You Really Have to Go?

Lessons for Canada and New Zealand on resignations of MPs

A recent article by Audrey Young in the New Zealand Herald observes that the number of resignations of Members of New Zealand’s Parliament during the course of the terms for which they were elected has increased since the country moved from the first-past-the-post electoral system (which Canada now has) to the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system. Ms. Young also writes about proposals to reduce the number of resignations. There may be something for both Canada and New Zealand to learn from each other here.

The overall numbers are stark: “In the 20 years before MMP began in 1996, there were 14 vacancies ― nine caused by resignations of MPs and six by deaths while in office. [NOTE: It occurs to me that the numbers don’t add up; but the correct figure is relatively unimportant here.] In the 20 years since … there have been 48 vacancies”, 45 of them caused by resignations. New Zealand’s Parliament was enlarged when MMP was introduced, but the increase of its membership from just below 100 to 120 does not account for the growth in the number of resignations. Of course, correlation does not equal causation; but there are in fact good reasons to think that there is causation here.

Most significantly, Ms. Young notes that of the 45 MPs who resigned, 30 were “list MPs”. Yet there are at one time only 50 (or, with the occasional addition of overhang seats, sometimes 51 or 52) such MPs in New Zealand’s Parliament, compared to 70 elected in single-member districts. The smaller pool of list MPs is providing two thirds of all resignations. And it’s not hard to see why that might be the case: when a list MP resigns, he or she is simply replaced “by the next available candidate on the party list.” There is little cost for the party, for getting a soon-to-retire or an out-of-favour MP to retire, and replacing him or her with a more eager or better liked one.

Yet David McGee, a former Clerk of the New Zealand Parliament, writes in the Herald that all these resignations are “deleterious to the institution of Parliament and to the sense of obligation that members should feel to it”. While does not elaborate this very much, he adds that “[m]embers in the final year of a Parliament can and should be expected to contribute to its work for the full term that they have signed up to”. And so Mr. McGee suggests a solution to this problem. “In the case of list members … any vacancy occasioned by resignation should not be filled.” This will disincentivize the parties, which prompt most these resignations, from ever doing so.

For Canadian advocates of electoral reform generally, and especially of MMP (which I take it is the most popular option among reformers), there is a warning here. Electoral reform is likely to bring in more resignations ― and more MPs brought in from lower down party lists, without the publicity or scrutiny of elections. An unintended consequence, no doubt, but arguably still an unpleasant one. And solution proposed by Mr. McGee is not very appealing either, it seems to me; it is too dependent, for its attractiveness, on complete success. If it fails to prevent resignations, then it will result in departures from the principle of proportionality of representation ― and in a finely balanced Parliament might even cause a change in the balance of power. And to achieve the absolute success it requires, Mr. McGee’s proposal incentivizes parties in a way that is arguably no less perverse than that of the current system for being its opposite: a party will do everything to keep a list member, even one involved in scandal or found to simply be incompetent, from resigning, and diminishing its power. As Edward Willis points out,

the ability for politicians to resign is usually understood to be an important accountability mechanism. Politicians do not always cover themselves in glory, and sometimes the people want (metaphorical) blood. Falling on one’s sword in a public manner demonstrates the accountability of the political system to the people at the level of the individual politician, and for that reason alone I would be hesitant to put anything in the way that would prevent or inhibit political resignations.

The same concerns arise with respect to Mr. McGee’s proposal for dealing with resignations of MPs elected by constituencies, Mr. McGee argues that

as a condition of being declared elected, electorate members should be required to enter into a bond to serve through the full term of the parliament. The amount of the bond would not cover the full cost of a byelection … but it should be sufficiently high to provide a financial disincentive to resignation for the member and for the party backing the member.

The only exception he would make to the application of these penalties would be for those MPs who resign “on health grounds proved to the satisfaction of the Speaker or the Electoral Commission”.

The idea is similar to one that has already been implemented in Québec, where the Act Respecting the Conditions of Employment and the Pension Plan of the Members of the National Assembly provides, since 2015, that the Assembly members who do not complete the term for which they were elected forfeit the “transition allowance” to which they would otherwise be entitled. Pursuant to section 12 of the Act, a member who resigns can only get his or her allowance upon proving, to the satisfaction of the Assembly’s Ethics Commissioner, that the “resignation is due to a serious family matter or to a major health issue affecting him or a member of his immediate family.”

When this idea was first floated in 2013 by the then-Minister responsible for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, Bernard Drainville ― who would later resign from the National Assembly in June 2016, right in the middle of a legislative term ― I criticized it here. I noted that the supposed “moral contract” between the voters and their representatives, which bound the latter to serve out their terms, appeared to be a matter of wishful thinking, if the experience of the leader of Mr. Drainville’s own party was anything to go by. Pauline Marois had resigned from the National Assembly in 2006, saying that “her heart [was] no longer in it”, and yet came back and was elected again in 2007, later becoming Premier. More importantly, though, I wrote that “requiring members of the assembly to serve out their terms would have perverse effects”, notably in that

it would incentivize a member mired in ethical problems, or even one charged with an offense, to cling to his or her seat rather than resigning and giving it up to another, better able to represent his or her constituents. And more broadly, citizens would not be well served by a representatives whose heart … was no longer in it, and who only show up at the Assembly in order to eventually collect their allowance. Mr. Drainville’s proposal would likely create such zombies.

Needless to say, not many people pay heed to my rants, and the proposal had sufficient bipartisan support that it was eventually enacted, not by Mr. Drainville’s Parti québécois, but by the Liberals who replaced them in government in the meantime.

If New Zealaders get serious about taking action against MP resignations, they would do well to consider Québec’s experience. It is still very brief, but perhaps already instructive. My worries about zombie-MNAs waiting to collect their allowance might have been exaggerated, though of course it is impossible to tell. What is clear, however, is that a financial penalty will not deter at least some legislators from resigning mid-term. Mr. Drainville himself did it, to take up a radio talk-show host job, after Pierre-Karl Péladeau resigned as Parti québécois leader and quit politics. Mr. Péladeau’s own resignation might have fallen within the scope of the “serious family matter” exemption, but his case also shows that a penalty that would be a serious matter for most people would have been of no concern at all to someone as wealthy as he is.

Indeed, this may be unsurprising. In New Zealand itself already denies any sort of golden parachute to members of Parliament who leave before the end of their term. Section 11 of the Members of Parliament (Remuneration and Services) Act 2013 only provides an “additional salary” to those who are “member[s] of Parliament immediately before the dissolution of a Parliament” ― and yet it has not stopped resignations. Admittedly, the amount to which members who serve out their term are entitled is only three months of salary, as opposed to up to a year in Québec. Still, that many choose to forego it ― even leaving just months before they would become eligible for it ― suggests that when a legislator becomes sick and tired of legislating, he or she may walk away from easy money just to get away from it. (Take that, all you cynics who think that politicians are only in it for greed or lust for power!)

Our institutions have flaws; sometimes, very visible, even obvious flaws. Members of Parliament resign without finishing the job for which they were elected; governments come to office without the support of a majority of the people. It is tempting to look for an easy fix to these flaws. But these fixes may be less effective than they seem, and may create problems of their own if implemented. Moving to an electoral system featuring party lists may raise the number of parliamentary resignations; requiring prospective MPs to pay a bond to ensure against their resignation may fail to provide that insurance, yet deter the less well off from standing for office. Tinkering with the rules may feel satisfactory, but it is perhaps better to remember that no system is perfect.

Privilège parlementaire: une jurisprudence à récrire

Note. Le présent billet a d’abord paru sur À qui de droit, le blogue de la Faculté de droit de l’Université de Sherbrooke, le 19 novembre dernier. Je remercie Léonid Sirota de contribuer à sa plus grande diffusion en m’autorisant à le republier sur son excellent blogue. Je dévoile aussi le fait que j’agis, en tant que spécialiste allégué du droit constitutionnel comparé et des standards mondiaux du droit constitutionnel (matière dont il n’est question que dans la dernière section de ce billet), comme expert dans l’affaire Boulerice et al. v Attorney General of Canada, Board of Internal  Economy, and the Hounourable Andrew Sheer, Speaker of the House of Commons, et ce, pour le compte des requérants, à l’appui de leur contestation d’une requête en radiation. La question de la recevabilité de mon affidavit est actuellement  pendante devant la Cour d’appel fédérale.


Dans l’excellent article qu’il faisait paraître en 2014, Marc-André Roy s’inquiétait des « lacunes dans la définition et la compréhension du privilège parlementaire au Canada [, qui] peuvent se révéler problématiques et même dangereuses pour le maintien de la primauté du droit, surtout lorsque ce type de privilège entre en conflit avec les droits et libertés garantis par la Charte » (p. 493). Au terme de son étude, il en venait à la conclusion que « [l]’évolution du privilège parlementaire au Canada ne pourra[it] se faire de manière cohérente sans que les tribunaux s’efforcent de mieux saisir cette notion […] et son importance pour le parlementarisme […] » (p. 528).

Je partage généralement cette double critique (internaliste) d’incohérence et (externaliste) de mécompréhension des enjeux, à laquelle je veux ici ajouter. Au vu de l’impératif plus formel de cohérence, certaines ambiguïtés de la jurisprudence de la Cour suprême du Canada relative au privilège parlementaire semblent avoir échappé à la critique doctrinale. Concernant l’exigence plus matérielle d’adéquation de l’interprétation de l’institution du privilège parlementaire avec sa fonction et son contexte actuel d’application et de reconstruction équilibrée et non contre-intuivement injuste de l’ensemble de notre droit constitutionnel, s’il est vrai qu’au Canada la critique du privilège parlementaire tend à se résumer à la sauvegarde des droits et libertés et la mobilisation d’une idée générale de l’État de droit, en revanche le constitutionnalisme global se veut aussi sensible aux menaces que pose une conception du privilège parlementaire inadaptée aux nombreuses transformations qu’ont connues l’État de droit moderne et le parlementarisme depuis l’époque où se jouaient des scènes telles que celle qui est représentée dans le célèbre tableau de John Singleton Copley. L’une de ces menaces est le détournement du privilège parlementaire par la majorité parlementaire afin d’opprimer la minorité.

Origines métropolitaines

Dans la tradition de droit public dont le Canada a hérité, le privilège parlementaire est cet ensemble d’immunités – limitées à l’exercice des fonctions parlementaires – et de pouvoirs – dont ceux d’assurer l’ordre des débats et la discipline parlementaire, de prévoir le décorum, de punir pour outrage et de convoquer des témoins – qu’ensemble la common law et la loi anglaise – dont le Bill of Rights de 1689, les modifications  de celui-ci et son interprétation  ainsi que les lois relatives au parlement – ont progressivement reconnu aux parlementaires à titre individuel ou réunis en chambre. Son exercice se traduit notamment par l’adoption d’un règlement par la chambre parlementaire dont son président est chargé de l’application.

Alors que l’idée eut dû s’imposer en vertu de celle de primauté du droit, il a fallu attendre Gilbert Campion, sous les soins duquel fut publiée en 1946 la 14eédition du célèbre traité d’Erskine May sur le droit parlementaire, pour que soit bien compris le fait que le privilège parlementaire n’existe pas en dehors du droit mais au sein et en vertu de celui-ci, sous la forme d’un ensemble de pouvoirs, immunités et inviolabilités dérogatoires au droit commun, mais dont l’exercice allégué est évidemment susceptible de contrôle judiciaire (p. 170-175 de la 14e éd.). Que les chambres parlementaires puissent abuser de leur privilège était pourtant connu au moins depuis l’affaire Stockdale v. Hansard de 1839 (112 E.R. 1112), où le Queen’s Bench anglais en avait retracé l’histoire d’un siècle. La jurisprudence canadienne reconnaît aussi que le « privilège parlementaire ne crée pas un hiatus dans le droit public général du Canada; il en est plutôt une composante importante » (arrêt Vaid de 2005, par. 29).

L’institution du privilège parlementaire que le droit canadien a hérité du Royaume-Uni s’est donc d’abord développée, dans la métropole, dans un cadre étranger à la notion de loi suprême et de droit supralégislatif. Elle a historiquement servi à protéger les parlementaires du monarque à une époque antérieure à la convention du gouvernement responsable – qui ne s’est nouée pour établir le régime parlementaire que peu après 1832 (WS Holdsworth, “The Conventions of the Eighteenth Century Constitution” (1932). 17:2 Iowa L Rev 161) – et où les tribunaux n’étaient pas aussi indépendants de l’exécutif qu’ils ne le sont aujourd’hui. Le privilège parlementaire a donc été historiquement subordonné à la loi, qui pouvait le modifier et en déterminer l’étendue, et la question que son exercice puisse se dérober au contrôle de la loi suprême ne pouvait pas se poser. Dans de nombreux pays d’ailleurs, la cour constitutionnelle contrôle la loi organique et le règlement intérieur des assemblées parlementaires. Le privilège parlementaire y est donc assujetti, non seulement à la loi ordinaire, mais à la loi suprême.

Transplantation coloniale par le législateur impérial

Il n’est donc pas surprenant que, pour le Canada, l’article 18 de la Loi constitutionnelle de 1867une loi constitutionnelle d’origine impériale, attribue au Parlement fédéral la compétence de définir les « privilèges, immunités et pouvoirs que posséderont et exerceront le Sénat et la Chambre des Communes et les membres de ces corps respectifs », sous réserve de ce « qu’aucune loi du Parlement du Canada définissant tels privilèges, immunités et pouvoirs ne donnera aucuns privilèges, immunités ou pouvoirs excédant ceux qui, lors de la passation [d’une telle loi], sont possédés et exercés par la Chambre des Communes du Parlement du Royaume-Uni de Grande-Bretagne et d’Irlande et par les membres de cette Chambre ». J’ai dû en corriger ici le libellé, car une erreur s’est manifestement glissée dans la version (non officielle) française, qui se lit plutôt « de la présente loi ». En effet, c’était l’objet même de la modification, en 1875 par loi impériale, la Loi de 1875 sur le Parlement du Canada (38-39 Victoria, ch. 38), référencée (no 7) à l’annexe de la Loi constitutionnelle de 1982 d’ailleurs, que de déplacer le point de comparaison-plafond depuis la date d’adoption de la Loi constitutionnelle de 1867 vers celle de la loi fédérale relative au privilège des chambres du parlement central. C’est cette modification qui a permis au législateur fédéral canadien d’attribuer aux chambres parlementaires fédérales le pouvoir de recevoir des déclarations assermentées, ce qui en même temps rendait possible la sanction judiciaire du parjure, qui échappe à l’immunité parlementaire prévue au « privilège ». Cette disposition de la loi impériale est mise en œuvre par l’article 4 de la Loi sur le Parlement du Canada, qui dispose que les « privilèges, immunités et pouvoirs du Sénat et de la Chambre des communes, ainsi que de leurs membres, sont […] a) d’une part, ceux que possédaient, à l’adoption de la Loi constitutionnelle de 1867, la Chambre des communes du Parlement du Royaume-Uni ainsi que ses membres, dans la mesure de leur compatibilité avec cette loi; b) d’autre part, ceux que définissent les lois du Parlement du Canada, sous réserve qu’ils n’excèdent pas ceux que possédaient, à l’adoption de ces lois, la Chambre des communes du Parlement du Royaume-Uni et ses membres ».

On ne trouve pas de dispositions équivalentes relativement aux chambres des législatures provinciales. Or ces législatures étaient, dès 1867 – à la différence du législateur fédéral qui n’en a obtenu un quasi équivalent qu’en 1949 (British North America (No. 2) Act, 1949, 13 Geo. VI, c. 81 (R.-U.); voir Renvoi : Compétence du Parlement relativement à la Chambre haute de 1980) –, titulaires d’une compétence générale de modifier « la constitution de la province », si bien qu’en 1896, dans l’affaire Fielding v. Thomas ([1896] AC 600 (P.C.)), le Conseil privé britannique leur reconnut celle d’accorder à leurs chambres respectives un privilège parlementaire équivalent à celui prévu par le droit britannique, et ajouta que cette compétence provinciale était l’héritière de la compétence constitutionnelle des législatures coloniales prévue à l’article 5 du Colonial Laws Validity Act de 1865, selon lequel toute législature coloniale était réputée avoir toujours été compétente pour « modifier sa constitution ».

Il ressort de ce qui précède que, en vertu de la loi suprême et de la jurisprudence du Conseil privé, en droit canadien le privilège parlementaire devait être prévu dans, et assujetti à, la loi (fédérale ou provinciale, suivant les cas), jusqu’à concurrence de ce que prévoit le droit britannique. La Cour suprême, dans une jurisprudence alambiquée, en décidera autrement.

Relevons que ni la loi ni la jurisprudence ne reconnaissent de privilège du genre à d’autres assemblées, dont les conseils de ville ou municipaux (Prud’homme c. Prud’hommeMouvement laïque québécois c. Saguenay (Ville), par. 142).

Incohérences de la jurisprudence de la Cour suprême du Canada

L’arrêt New Brunswick Broadcasting de 1993, où était invoqué le privilège parlementaire de l’Assemblée législative de la Nouvelle-Écosse, a vu la Cour suprême hisser le privilège parlementaire, non pas prévu dans la loi, mais « inhérent » aux, ou « nécessaire au bon fonctionnement » des, chambres parlementaires provinciales, au rang de principe non écrit de notre droit constitutionnel rigide, c’est-à-dire de niveau supralégislatif, de manière à ce que son exercice ne puisse, notamment, faire l’objet d’un contrôle de constitutionnalité en vertu de la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés, étant admis dans notre droit que, à l’exception de la procédure de modification constitutionnelle, une partie de la constitution juridique formelle, rigide ou supralégislative ne peut en invalider une autre.

Dans l’affaire Harvey c. Nouveau-Brunswick de 1996, où il signait des motifs concordants, le juge en chef Lamer écrivait ce qui suit : « Dans l’arrêt New Brunswick Broadcasting, notre Cour à la majorité était d’avis que la Charte ne s’appliquait pas à l’exercice du privilège inhérent d’exclure des étrangers que possèdent les députés de l’Assemblée législative, du fait que ce privilège jouissait d’un statut constitutionnel en tant que partie intégrante de la Constitution du Canada. J’ai souscrit au résultat, mais pour une raison très différente (par. 2, j. en chef Lamer, motifs concordants). » Dans le renvoi de 1997 sur la rémunération des juges, où cette fois il rédigeait des motifs majoritaires, ce même juge en chef se disait, en obiter dictum, « continue[r] de douter que les privilèges des assemblées provinciales fassent partie de la Constitution » (par. 92). Il est assez exceptionnel de voir un juge de la Cour suprême ainsi manifester son désaccord avec l’opinion majoritaire de ses collègues au-delà du jugement dans lequel celle-ci s’est exprimée, surtout si l’opinion en question participait de la ratio decidendi. Il faut dire cependant que, outre ceux du juge en chef Lamer, les motifs minoritaires, sur cette question, de l’arrêt New Brunswick Broadcasting continuent de convaincre nombre de juristes. Je pense ici à l’extrait suivant des motifs du juge Sopinka : « Le problème que suscite l’approche adoptée par ma collègue le juge McLachlin tient à ce que, pour soustraire certains privilèges à un examen fondé sur la Charte, elle conclut d’abord qu’ils font partie de la Constitution du Canada. La raison en est qu’ils sont visés par le préambule de la Loi constitutionnelle de 1867. Je trouverais curieux que les rédacteurs de la Loi constitutionnelle de 1867 aient eu l’intention de consacrer certains privilèges au moyen d’une mention générale dans le préambule mais pas la constitution dans son ensemble qui est expressément maintenue en vigueur par l’art. 88 de cette loi constitutionnelle. En conséquence, contrairement à ce que dit l’arrêt Fielding c. Thomas, on pourrait soutenir que ces privilèges ne sont pas assujettis aux lois de la province et ne pourraient être modifiés que par modification de la Constitution du Canada en vertu de l’art. 43, ou encore de l’art. 38, de la Loi constitutionnelle de 1982. À part ces privilèges, l’ensemble de la constitution de la province demeurerait assujettie [sic] aux lois de la province. Il me semble que la perspective de la perte de tout contrôle législatif sur ses droits et privilèges serait un prix bien cher à payer par l’appelant pour les soustraire à l’application de la Charte. Pour produire un tel effet, on s’attendrait à plus que la simple mention générale, dans un préambule, d’une « constitution semblable dans [le] principe ». »

Dans l’affaire Vaid de 2005, où la question était de savoir si la gestion de son personnel par le parlement fédéral relevait du privilège parlementaire de manière à échapper à la loi, formellement ordinaire, fédérale sur les droits de la personne, en l’occurrence la Loi canadienne sur les droits de la personne, la Cour suprême a vu l’occasion de préciser les contours du privilège parlementaire en tant que principe sous-jacent à notre loi suprême plutôt que de se contenter d’examiner cette question à la lumière de ce que prévoyaient les dispositions législatives fédérales pertinentes, confirmant ainsi que le principe de l’arrêt New Brunswick Broadcasting s’appliquait, avec quelques adaptations, aux chambres parlementaires fédérales.

Contrairement à l’avis du Conseil privé de 1896 dans Fielding v Thomas (référencé plus haut) qui ne la limitait qu’à ce que prévoit le droit britannique au moment de son exercice, le juge Binnie, dans des motifs unanimes, sans distinguer entre l’immunité à l’égard de la loi suprême et l’immunité à l’égard de la loi ordinaire, assujettit en outre la compétence des législatures provinciales relative au privilège parlementaire au respect d’une exigence de nécessité (par. 37, in fine). Autrement dit, la loi provinciale peut reconnaître un privilège parlementaire si celui-ci est nécessaire en plus d’être reconnu par le droit britannique.

Concernant la compétence fédérale, prévue à l’article 18 de la Loi constitutionnelle de 1867, relative au privilège du parlement du Canada, le juge Binnie, sans davantage distinguer entre l’immunité relative à la loi ordinaire et celle relative à la loi suprême, plutôt que de la réduire, au contraire l’étend au-delà de la limite, pourtant bien indiquée, de ce que prévoit le droit britannique au moment où cette compétence est exercée (par. 38). En d’autres termes, la loi fédérale peut reconnaître un privilège, soit prévu par le droit britannique, soit nécessaire, l’alternative se substituant à l’exigence cumulative. En plus de pouvoir justifier que la loi fédérale accorde positivement un privilège plus grand que ne le prévoit le droit britannique, le critère de « nécessité » pourra aussi, à défaut pour la loi canadienne de prévoir spécialement un privilège et dans la mesure où l’alinéa 4a) de la Loi sur le Parlement du Canada renvoie au privilège qu’avaient la Chambre des communes britannique et ses membres en 1867, autoriser le juge à conclure à son existence même s’il n’est pas « péremptoirement établi » par la loi britannique, la jurisprudence britannique ou la jurisprudence canadienne (par. 39). Échappe sans doute au cadre d’analyse du juge Binnie l’éventualité où le droit britannique établirait « péremptoirement » que, au moment de l’adoption de la Loi sur le Parlement du Canada par exemple, voire de tout temps, un pouvoir ou une immunité allégués ne faisaient pas ou n’ont jamais fait partie du privilège parlementaire. La thèse de la « nécessité » d’un tel privilège serait alors des plus improbables, voire d’un dangereux provincialisme, volontairement aveugle à la raison juridique et au patrimoine constitutionnel mondiaux.

Outre qu’elle a réduit la compétence législative provinciale d’une part et élargi la compétence fédérale de l’autre, dans l’un et l’autre cas du privilège parlementaire provincial ou fédéral, on remarque que la Cour suprême a réussi à contourner, au moyen du critère de « nécessité », l’exigence de la loi suprême, qui était de prévoir le privilège parlementaire dans la loi ordinaire – même s’il est à se demander s’il n’a pas échappé au juge Binnie que, concernant le privilège des chambres fédérales, l’abrogation de l’alinéa 4a) de la Loi sur le Parlement du Canada priverait une partie de son approche « nécessitariste » de son assise. Qui plus est, en en faisant un principe constitutionnel non écrit de niveau supralégislatif, la Cour suprême paraît disposée à priver les législateurs fédéral et provinciaux de la compétence de réduire la portée du privilège en deçà de ce dont on l’aura convaincue de la nécessité, ce qui a de quoi inquiéter et qui va à contre-courant de la tendance mondiale, qui est à la réduction du privilège parlementaire, question sur laquelle nous reviendrons. En somme, le privilège d’une chambre parlementaire correspondra toujours à ce que la jurisprudence tiendra pour nécessaire, à l’exception du privilège prévu par la loi fédérale en faveur de la Chambre des communes ou du Sénat et qui, sans se révéler nécessaire, ne va pas au delà de ce que prévoyait le droit britannique en faveur de la Chambre des communes au moment où la loi fédérale a été adoptée.

Une menace imprécise pour les droits fondamentaux

Dans l’arrêt Vaid toujours, le juge Binnie définit ce qui satisfait au critère de nécessité comme « la sphère d’activité [… qui est] si étroitement et directement liée à l’exercice, par l’assemblée ou son membre, de leurs fonctions d’assemblée législative et délibérante, y compris leur tâche de demander des comptes au gouvernement, qu’une intervention externe saperait l’autonomie dont l’assemblée ou son membre ont besoin pour accomplir leur travail dignement et efficacement » (par. 46). Dans l’arrêt New Brunswick Broadcasting, le juge Cory, dissident, s’était inquiété de la menace suivante : « Par exemple, douterions‑nous de l’application de la Charte si, dans l’exercice de sa compétence en matière de punition d’un outrage commis par un de ses membres, l’assemblée législative devait condamner cette personne à l’emprisonnement à vie sans que celle‑ci soit admissible à une libération conditionnelle ? Il est certain qu’une telle mesure sortirait du champ d’application constitutionnel du privilège parlementaire et que les dispositions de l’art. 12 de la Charte s’appliquant aux peines cruelles et inusitées entreraient en jeu« . L’arrêt Vaid se veut donc rassurant, en indiquant que « [l]es tribunaux peuvent examiner de plus près les affaires dans lesquelles la revendication d’un privilège a des répercussions sur des personnes qui ne sont pas membres de l’assemblée législative en cause, que celles qui portent sur des questions purement internes« (par. 29.12). Au reste, certains experts sont d’avis que les organes parlementaires seront assujettis à la Charte dans l’exercice de leur compétence pénale (J.P.J. Maingot, Le privilège parlementaire au Canada, 2e éd., Montréal, Presses universitaires McGill‑Queen’s, 1997, p. 217 et 219). Cela dit, l’état du droit sur cette question est trop imprécis pour écarter la menace.

Une tendance mondiale fondée en raison dont il est urgent de tenir compte

Le bon usage d’une exigence de « nécessité » consiste à lui faire contribuer au rétrécissement, non pas à l’étendue, du privilège parlementaire considéré à l’échelle des standards mondiaux. Au-delà d’une diversité certaine mais plus superficielle d’un pays à l’autre, la tendance lourde, au sein du Commonwealth, est au rétrécissement du privilège parlementaire, et ce, par l’application d’un critère de « nécessité » devant permettre son adaptation à la situation actuelle des chambres parlementaires au sein des démocraties modernes fondées sur l’État de droit et les droit fondamentaux (Yvonne Tew, « No longer a privileged few: expense claims, prosecution and parliamentary privilege », (2011) 70(2) Cambridge Law Journal 282; Charles Robert et Dara Lithwick, « Renewal and Restoration: Contemporary trends in the Evolution of Parliamentary Privilege », The Table, 2014, p. 24-43, à la page 34).

La Commission de Venise, se fondant notamment sur les règles et pratiques du Parlement européen et de l’Assemblée parlementaire du Conseil de l’Europe, les travaux de l’Union interparlementaire (UIP), ceux de l’Association des secrétaires généraux des parlements (ASGP) et ceux de plusieurs parlements nationaux, a récemment entrepris de dégager certains standards relatifs à l’immunité parlementaire (Rapport sur l’étendue et la levée des immunités parlementaires).

Relevant qu’un « nombre croissant de travaux universitaires ont […] été consacrés ces dernières années à l’immunité parlementaire », la Commission de Venise précise que « [c]ertains défendent le principe de l’immunité, mais la plupart se montrent critiques, se faisant l’écho d’une tendance croissante à la remise en question de la nécessité de l’immunité parlementaire dans une démocratie moderne » (par. 50). Elle s’explique aisément une telle tendance, en somme, par le fait que:

[L]’immunité parlementaire issue de la tradition constitutionnelle européenne qui se dessine à la fin du XVIIIe siècle et au début du XIXe siècle s’est répandue presque partout dans le reste du monde, et domine toujours. Cependant, les règles de l’immunité ont été formulées dans un contexte historique et politique très différent du nôtre. Beaucoup de choses ont changé depuis sur le plan institutionnel et démocratique, surtout dans les systèmes parlementaires, et cette évolution n’a pas épargné les règles de l’immunité; il est important aujourd’hui d’en tenir compte dans l’évaluation de leur place et de leur fonction dans monde d’aujourd’hui. L’un de ces grands changements a été la modernisation de la démocratie, qui a pour effet que la menace de pressions indues de l’exécutif sur le parlement a pratiquement disparu dans bien des pays. La montée en influence des partis politiques a aussi, au moins dans les systèmes parlementaires, multiplié les liens entre le gouvernement et les parlementaires du parti au pouvoir. C’est alors l’opposition (le plus souvent minoritaire), plutôt que le parlement lui-même, que menacent les pressions indues de l’exécutif, et qui pourrait avoir besoin d’une protection spéciale. De nos jours, l’immunité parlementaire fournit donc surtout une garantie aux forces minoritaires (par. 23-24, la Commission renvoyant ici à son rapport de 2010 sur Le rôle de l’opposition au sein d’un parlement démocratique).

« Autre nouveauté notable »,  d’indiquer la Commission de Venise : « l’indépendance et l’autonomie de la justice, qui font que l’exécutif a bien moins qu’il y a deux siècles la possibilité d’abuser des tribunaux contre ses adversaires politiques au parlement dans la plupart des pays démocratiques d’aujourd’hui, ce qui diminue la nécessité d’un régime spécial d’immunité parlementaire«  (par. 25). En effet, dans les systèmes parlementaires modernes où les partis politiques sont fortement disciplinés – avec une acuité particulière dans ceux où le système électoral favorise le bipartisme – et où l’indépendance de la magistrature est plus fortement protégée, la menace venant du gouvernement à l’encontre du parlement et de ses minorités tend à s’exercer non pas par le truchement des tribunaux autant que par une instrumentalisation du droit parlementaire.

Toujours dans son rapport de 2014, la Commission de Venise rappelle que, avec le privilège parlementaire, « [i]l ne s’agit pas de privilégier personnellement et individuellement les parlementaires, mais de garantir le fonctionnement démocratique d’une assemblée législative » (par. 22). Ce rappel s’impose par le « paradoxe de l’immunité parlementaire, qui peut servir à la consolider la démocratie comme à la saper » (par. 29). Car, comme elle l’affirmait plus tôt dans son rapport, la Commission de Venise est d’avis que l’immunité parlementaire doit permettre aux parlementaires de s’acquitter de leur charge « sans crainte de harcèlement ou d’accusations indues de l’exécutif, des tribunaux ou de leurs adversaires politiques » (par. 7).

Parmi les « principes juridiques et démocratiques fondamentaux », la Commission de Venise en mobilise notamment deux qui font également partie des « principes non écrits » du droit constitutionnel canadien et qui militent en faveur d’une interprétation restrictive du privilège parlementaire : le principe même de la démocratie représentative et celui de l’État de droit. Le premier doit offrir une protection « particulièrement utile à l’opposition parlementaire et aux minorités politiques » (par. 36).

En revanche, la Commission de Venise précise que « [l]es mesures disciplinaires internes sortent du cadre de la présente étude, qui ne les aborde pas, bien qu’il soit évidemment utile d’en tenir compte dans l’évaluation de la liberté d’expression des parlementaires dans la pratique » (par. 56). Elle ajoute que la « combinaison d’un large régime d’irresponsabilité et de règles intérieures strictes peut toutefois susciter des tensions, et donner une impression trompeuse du degré de liberté réelle dont jouissent les parlementaires » (note 19).

Il ressort de ce qui précède que, au-delà d’une tendance mondiale certaine au rétrécissement par actualisation du privilège parlementaire, il faille s’attendre à une évolution du travail standardisant vers la question de la démocratie interne des chambres parlementaires. Cela s’impose par la prise de conscience de la menace que représente l’abus du pouvoir qu’ont les chambres de discipliner leurs membres. À ma connaissance, aucun principe général du droit constitutionnel moderne n’est susceptible de fonder une objection à ce que le législateur, ordinaire ou constitutionnel, intervienne de manière à assurer un contrôle formel (c’est-à-dire procédural) de la démocratie interne des chambres parlementaires et que ce contrôle comprenne celui, tout aussi formel, de légalité ou constitutionnalité par les tribunaux judiciaires ou constitutionnels. À l’inverse, ces principes laissent présager que de telles interventions pourront représenter des standards.

Pour conclure, j’aimerais rappeler que, cette tendance actuelle et ses raisons d’être, il y a longtemps qu’un grand esprit les avait comprises et convoquées. Il s’agit de Hans Kelsen, et la preuve s’en trouve dans un livre qu’il a fait paraître en 1929.

Selfie Slow-Down

I have already blogged about one American judicial decision on the constitutionality of a “ballot selfie” ban, which has since been upheld on appeal by the Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit. And I have also written about the history of the secret ballot, which in my view explains why measures to protect ballot secrecy ― including bans on something that might at first glance appear quite innocuous, like a selfie showing for whom a person has voted ― are actually more important than they seem. Another American decision issued last week, this one by the Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, provides some additional food for thought on this issue.

Much of the discussion in Judge Sutton’s majority opinion in Crookston v Johnson is procedural. The case came up as an application for a preliminary injunction preventing the enforcement of Michigan’s prohibition on “exposing marked ballots to others”, (1) and Judge Sutton concludes that it is simply too late to grant one now in anticipation of the elections to be held on November 8. The people who will be running the election have already been trained and have received specific guidance on photography at the polling stations. Changing the rules at this point would create unnecessary confusion. So Judge Sutton does not rule on the merits of the case, which will be assessed later, assuming the applicant still cares. (This situation is reminiscent of the Canadian cases about election debates, which are invariably brought on an emergency basis when the debates are set up, and invariably abandoned before a full merits hearing once the election has taken place.)

But Judge Sutton does make some comments that bear on the merits of the dispute, and, although preliminary, these comments strike me as quite sensible and interesting. One observation is that

many Michigan voting stalls … are simply tall desks, placed next to each other, with three short dividers shielding the writing surface from view. In this setting, posing for a ballot selfie could compromise the secrecy of another’s ballot, distract other voters, and force a poll worker to intervene. (4)

My memory of Canadian voting stalls is a bit hazy ― I skipped the last election because I couldn’t tell which of the parties was worst ― but something like that might be true of them too. And indeed, even if it is not in any given case, it is worth thinking about whether our voting arrangements must actually be planned so as to cater to the “needs” of people wishing to snap a selfie.

Another practical point is that allowing ballot selfies could create a “risk of delay” at the polling stations, “as ballot-selfie takers try to capture the marked ballot and face in one frame—all while trying to catch the perfect smile”. (5) In a brief concurrence focusing entirely on the issue of delay, Judge Guy makes the additional point that “with digital photography, if you don’t like the way you look in the first one, you take another and so on ad infinitum.” (7) He wonders, too, whether “the allowance of taking a selfie also include use of the ubiquitous selfie stick”. (7)

And then, there are the issues that I have already discussed here ― whether the absence of evidence of ballot selfies’ harm shows that there is no reason for banning them or, on the contrary, demonstrates the effectiveness of the bans as a prophylactic measure. Judge Sutton clearly thinks that the latter is the case. Moreover, “[t]he links between [voter corruption and intimidation] and the prohibition on ballot exposure are not some historical accident; they are ‘common sense'”. (5, quoting US Supreme Court precedent.) Chief Judge Cole, dissenting, takes the contrary view, as have other American courts that have addressed selfie bans.

For own part, without expressing an opinion as to which of these views is correct as a matter of U.S. law, I have more sympathy for Judge Sutton’s. While I have been dwelling on the importance of evidence in constitutional adjudication for some time now, and critical of restricting rights on the basis of assumptions no later than yesterday, the evidence is actually there, albeit that it is mostly historical. Moreover, a court should be able to pronounce on the issue of delay without waiting for an “experiment” to take place. Common sense can be an unreliable guide to adjudication, but ― absent evidence to the contrary ― courts should be able to rely on it sometimes.

Prohibitions of ballot selfies might seem counter-intuitive or even quaint. In the United States, they run counter to the very strong tradition of virtually untrammelled freedom of expression. While I sometimes wish that Canadians took more inspiration from that tradition than they do (for example when it comes to the criminalization of “hate speech”), this is one instance where a more even-handed weighing of competing interests might be in order. Judges Sutton and Guy provide a useful reminder of what some of these interests are.

Yes They Can II

Does existing legislation allow a referendum on electoral reform?

The former Chief Electoral Officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, has caused some ongoing confusion on Twitter about whether a referendum on electoral reform would be legal. The source of this confusion is section 3 of the federal Referendum Act, which provides that

Where the Governor in Council considers that it is in the public interest to obtain by means of a referendum the opinion of electors on any question relating to the Constitution of Canada, the Governor in Council may, by proclamation, direct that the opinion of electors be obtained by putting the question to the electors of Canada … at a referendum called for that purpose.

Mr. Kingsley appears to believe that that the desirability of electoral reform is not a “question relating to the Constitution of Canada.” As Emmett Macfarlane has pointed out, he is wrong.

The electoral system is a constitutional matter. Substantively, it is one of the fundamental issues relating to the organization of one of the branches of government (or, more precisely, of a component of the legislative branch). Formally, electoral arrangements were originally provided for in the Constitution Act, 1867 ― federal ones, in Part IV, “Legislative Power,” under the heading “The House of Commons,” (notably at sections 40 and 41) and those of Ontario and Québec in Part V, “Provincial Constitutions,” under the heading “Legislative Power” (notably at sections 70, 80, 83, and 84). To be sure, these provisions partly referred to existing electoral legislation, and enable Parliament and the provincial legislatures to enact such legislation in the future, but they show that the Fathers of Confederation understood that the electoral system is a constitutional issue.

Now, as I have argued here, electoral reform does not require a constitutional amendment enacted with provincial support. It can be implemented by Parliament legislating alone. But that’s because section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982 provides that “[s]ubject to sections 41 and 42, Parliament may exclusively make laws amending the Constitution of Canada in relation to … the … House of Commons.” Electoral reform is an amendment to the constitution “in relation to the House of Commons.” So long as it does not affect “the right of a province to a number of members in the House of Commons not less than the number of Senators by which the province [was] entitled to be represented [in 1982]” or “the principle of proportionate representation of the provinces in the House of Commons prescribed by the Constitution of Canada” protected respectively by paragraphs 41(b) and 41(a) of the Constitution Act, 1982, such an amendment can and must be made by an Act of Parliament. Yet the fact that it does not require provincial consent or participation does not make it any less of a constitutional amendment, and its desirability any less of “an issue relating to the Constitution of Canada.”

The only way a referendum on electoral reform ― or any other constitutional issue ― might be illegal, and indeed unconstitutional, is if holding it is seen to be a modification to the amending formula set out in Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 (which includes section 44). The Supreme Court’s rather vague opinion in Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704, which held among other things that ostensibly consultative elections to the Senate would be unconstitutional modification of the constitution’s “architecture” leaves that possibility open ― depending on what “architecture” means. In the interests of time, I will assert ― and perhaps defend my assertion at some later date ― that the Senate Reform reference does not preclude a referendum of electoral reform, but I think that the matter is not free from doubt.

Be that as it may, it is quite clear that the Referendum Act itself is not an obstacle to such a referendum. Of course, as others have pointed out, Parliament could also legislate to permit such a referendum, whether enacting a statute for that specific purpose in derogation of the Referendum Act, or amending the Referendum Act itself. But such legislation is not necessary. Electoral reform is a constitutional issue and can be the subject of a referendum under existing legislation.

Permanent Censorship, Again

Ontario’s proposal for regulating pre-campaign political spending is wrong

Earlier this week, The Globe and Mail reported that the Ontario government is proposing to introduce legislation that would limit the flow of private money into the political process (and introduce public subsidies to political parties). There is no bill yet, as the government is consulting with (some of) the opposition, but there is a very handy table that sets out the details of the government’s proposal and compares them to the rules in other Canadian jurisdictions. In this post, I want to discuss one aspect of the proposed changes: the limitation of “third-party” spending during the six months prior to a scheduled general election to 600,000$ (see the table at p. 4). This proposal is, in my view, unconstitutional, and it is quite possible, although not certain, that the courts, which are likely to be asked to rule on the issue, will agree.

As is clear from the table, a number of Canadian jurisdictions limit the expenses that citizens, unions, corporations, and social movements who want to make their views on political issues known, collectively known to election law under the derisive name of “third parties,” can incur during an election campaign. The Supreme Court upheld the principle of such limitations in Libman v. Quebec (Attorney General), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 569, and it upheld the federal limits in Harper v. Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 S.C.R. 827. No Canadian jurisdiction, however, currently limits third party expenses incurred prior to the official election campaign period.

What the table doesn’t say though is that British Columbia has tried to do so, only for its attempts to be twice found unconstitutional by the province’s Court of Appeal. In British Columbia Teachers’ Federation v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2011 BCCA 408, the Court struck down limits imposed during a sixty-day pre-campaign period. Then, in Reference Re Election Act (BC), 2012 BCCA 394, the Court took the view that limiting third-party expenses during a period that could, depending on the dates of legislative sittings, vary from 0 to 40 days would also be unconstitutional. The province did not appeal on either occasion, so that the Supreme Court has not had an occasion to pass on the issue.

In commenting on the latter decision, I wrote that I wasn’t sure that Court was correct to conclude that Harper did not apply to the pre-campaign limitations of third party spending. Its rationale ― that the civil society needs to be silenced in order to make election campaigning a “level playing field” on which political parties can frolic unimpeded ― could be applied to the period preceding the official campaign, especially if the spending of political parties is also limited during that period, as it would be under the Ontario government’s proposal (see the table at 3). But, as I noted when discussing musings in Québec and within the federal government about limiting third party spending prior to or between election campaigns, Harper can indeed plausibly be read as precluding the extension of spending limits beyond the bounds of the election campaign.

In response to the dissent’s (cogent, in my view) observation that the spending limits imposed on third parties prevented them from communicating effectively, the Harper majority observed

that third party advertising is not restricted prior to the commencement of the election period. Outside this time, the limits on third party intervention in political life do not exist. Any group or individual may freely spend money or advertise to make its views known or to persuade others. [112]

This was an important part of the majority’s reasoning on the way to its conclusion that the spending limits were “minimally impairing” of the freedom of expression, and thus justified under section 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Beyond predicting of what the Supreme Court would or would not do if confronted with pre-campaign spending limits, it is, however, important not to lose sight of the principles at stake. As I wrote in my post on the possible introduction of limits on third party spending between federal election campaigns,

It is important to appreciate just how far-reaching an attempt to control “third party” spending between elections would be. 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.

There are a couple of additional issues with the Ontario government’s proposal worth highlighting too. One concerns federalism. While provincial and federal electoral processes are separate, the issues and, to some extent anyway, the parties involved in them are not quite distinct. A limit on the ability of a civil society group to speak out about an issue relevant to a provincial election can also be a limit on that group’s ability to speak out on an issue ― that same issue ― relevant to federal politics. If these limits are imposed for a short time, it might be argued ― though perhaps not very convincingly ― that the interference with the other government’s sphere is incidental. But the longer the limits, the more tenuous that case is. There is good reason why Justice Rand wrote, in Switzman v. Elbling, [1957] SCR 285, that “[u]nder [Parliamentary] government, the freedom of discussion in Canada, as a subject-matter of legislation, has a unity of interest and significance extending equally to every part of the Dominion,” (306) and is therefore a federal, not a local concern. We have not given much thought to the relevance of this point to provincial electoral regulations, but we ought to before expanding them as much as Ontario seeks to do.

The other point concerns the proposed definition of “political advertising” (at p.5 in the table). It is modelled on the one in section 319 of the Canada Elections Act, and while not nearly as objectionable as the one used by Québec in section 404 of its Election Act (whose defects I discussed here), it is still problematic in that it is not fully technologically neutral. As I explained here (and in my article on the regulation of third parties and their role in contemporary Canadian politics),

the Canada Elections Act, for a reason that I do not understand, treats online communications differently from more traditional ones, in that it only only exempts online communications by individuals, and not those of organizations (whether corporations, trade unions, etc.) from its definition of electoral expenses. By contrast, for other forms of communications, notably those published in the traditional media, whether exempt from or included in the definition of (restricted) electoral expenses, the messaging of individuals and that of entities are treated in the exact same way. The singling out of online communications for a more stringent rule should be repealed.

Regardless of the views its government and, eventually, the courts take on the other issues I have raised here, it would be unfortunate if, legislating in 2016, Ontario were to repeat a mistake made by Parliament in 2000.

As I also explained in my article, “third parties” play an increasingly important role in contemporary politics, injecting ideas into the political debate which political parties prefer to focus largely on the personalities of their leaders and a select few wedge issues. I am therefore skeptical about the wisdom of regulating them at all. However, even if a case for limited regulation during the relatively short duration of an election campaign can be made out, there is no justification for extending regulation to long periods of time outside the campaign period. Ontario’s plans in this regard would quite possibly be found unconstitutional by courts, and in any event would be a most unfortunate move in the direction of political censorship. They should be scrapped.