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 is 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 a 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 rules 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 made 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 discussion of 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.

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 he does not elaborate on 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.