Voice after Exit, European Edition

I wrote last year about a court challenge by two Canadian citizens living in the United States to a  provision of the Canada Elections Act, S.C. 2000 c. 9 (CEA), which prohibits Canadians who have resided abroad for more than five consecutive years (except members of the Canadian forces, civil servants, diplomats, and employees of international organization) from voting in federal elections. (The applicants or their lawyers have set up a website documenting their case, on which they have made available their application, affidavits, and exhibits ― which I think is a very commendable thing to do in a public interest case like this; a more general website advocating voting rights for Canadians abroad is here.)

In Charter cases such as this, courts often refer to the law of other countries, particularly when deciding whether a limitation of Charter rights is “demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society” and so constitutional pursuant to s. 1 of the Charter. So a recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights on this issue is worth commenting on.

The Court was faced with a challenge by Harry Shindler, a British citizen resident in Italy to legislation disenfranchising citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years. Whatever the situation of expatriates might have been in the past, Mr. Shindler argued, it is now easy for citizens living abroad to remain in contact with and engaged with the affairs of their home country. In his own case, he receives a pension from the U.K., pays taxes there, and is an active member of a number of British organizations. And he remains, of course, entitled to return to the U.K. at any time. The U.K. government, however, claimed that the ties between an expat and his home country wither over time, and that the small number of British citizens who register to vote overseas supports this contention. Although some citizens retain strong ties with their home country, it would be impracticable to premise the right to vote on each person’s engagement; a one-size-fits-all rule is necessary.

The Court found that, under the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to vote could be limited to further “any aim which is compatible with the principle of the rule of law and with the general objectives of the Convention” (par. 101). It also referred to its prior case law, in which it held that limiting expatriates’ voting rights was permissible. That is because

 first, the presumption that non-resident citizens were less directly or less continually concerned with their country’s day-to-day problems and had less knowledge of them; second, the fact that non-resident citizens had less influence on the selection of candidates or on the formulation of their electoral programmes; third, the close connection between the right to vote in parliamentary elections and the fact of being directly affected by the acts of the political bodies so elected; and fourth, the legitimate concern the legislature might have to limit the influence of citizens living abroad in elections on issues which, while admittedly fundamental, primarily affect persons living in the country (par. 105).

The court takes note of the social and technological changes that have made it easier for expatriates to retain their ties to their home countries. It also observes that various European bodies concerned with democratic rights have not (yet) concluded that countries were required to grant expatriates an unrestricted right to vote, although agreement that this was a good idea seemed to be emerging. And it holds, in somewhat conclusory fashion, that the disenfranchisement of expatriates after 15 years, “which is not an unsubstantial period of time” (par. 116), is not disproportionate to the government’s objective of ensuring that only those citizens with a sufficiently close connection to the U.K. be able to vote. An individualized assessment of a citizen’s ties to his home country would be too much of a burden to impose on the state.

I do not find this decision persuasive. The whole idea of expatriates otherwise lacking interest in the affairs of their home country suddenly showing up to vote strikes me as quite fanciful. The fact that few British citizens abroad register to vote may or may not suggest that most expatriates do not care, but it certainly suggests that those who do not care will not bother with voting. It is only the committed (few) who will take the trouble. The alleged objective of the disenfranchisement of expatriates is, in my view, nothing more than a post hoc dressing up of an old prejudice, no longer warranted if it ever was. One could also argue that the distinction between residents and expatriates based on their assumed level of knowledge about politics is also likely to be illusory, or at least rather less significant than usually assumed, because of the serious problems of political ignorance that affect the democratic process of every country (which Ilya Somin frequently discusses on the Volokh Conspiracy). So while it is true that an individualized assessment of engagement as a qualification for voting would be very burdensome and perhaps impossible to administer objectively and impartially (though prof. Somin has argued for similar assessments of political knowledge as a condition for extending the franchise to minors), this is really beside the point. There is simply no good reason for the law to distinguish between resident citizens and expatriates, regardless of how that distinction might be implemented.

Before concluding, I want to mention one feature of the decision of the European Court of Human Rights that I find puzzling: the attention devoted to the right, or lack thereof, of people disenfranchised by their country of nationality for residing abroad to vote in elections in their country of residence. It seems to me that the right to vote does not attach only to a person, so that everyone ought to be able to vote somewhere―anywhere―but, so long as one is able to vote somewhere, there is no problem with denying him the vote elsewhere. A right to vote is a right to participate in the political life of a specific community. Being granted permission to participate in the life of another community cannot remedy one’s exclusion from that to which one always belonged (nor does denial of such a permission make the exclusion any worse).

However that may be, I retain the view that I expressed in my original post on this topic:

[T]he denial of this right to those living abroad looks perfectly arbitrary. As with the prisoners [whose disenfranchisement the Supreme Court held to be unconstitutional in  Sauvé v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 S.C.R. 519], it is a judgment that they are not morally worthy to vote – and such judgments are not open to Parliament, according to Sauvé.

Happy Canada Day!

A few quotations to indulge, for a day, in that un-Canadian feeling, patriotism.

“There is room enough in this country for one great free people; but there is not room enough, under the same flag and the same laws, for two or three angry, suspicious, obstructive nationalities.” – Thomas D’Arcy McGee

“[L]et your motto be Canada first, Canada last, and Canada always.” – Sir Wilfrid Laurier

“Our hopes are high. Our faith in the people is great. Our courage is strong. And our dreams for this beautiful country will never die.” – Pierre Elliott Trudeau

Happy Canada Day, everyone!

An Ancient Parliamentary Right

I learned something about constitutional and Parliamentary tradition yesterday, and decided I’d post about because I was probably not alone in my ignorance of this quirk. Apologies to those in the know already!

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Each session of the mother of parliaments, at Westminster, and her daughters throughout the Commonwealth, starts with a Speech from the Throne, which sets out the Crown’s – so, by convention, the cabinet’s – agenda for the session. Debate on the government’s agenda as outline in the Speech from the Throne is the first order of legislative business, and the vote on the Address in Reply – the formal response of each House of Parliament to the Speech from the Throne – is a vote of confidence. So far, so familiar.

But, it turns out, not exact. Actually, the first order of business, in the House of Lords and the House of Commons at Westminster, the Senate and the House of Commons of Canada, and the Ontario Legislative Assembly (and perhaps others – I haven’t researched other provinces) is not debating the Speech from the Throne, but the introduction and first reading of a bill that has nothing to do with the Speech from the Throne. In the U.K. House of Commons, it is the Outlawries Bill. In the House of Lords, it’s the Select Vestries Bill. In the Canadian House of Commons, it is Bill C-1, An Act respecting the administration of oaths of office. In the Senate, it is Bill S-1, An Act relating to railways. The British bills seems to have a substantive content relevant to their titles. Canadian ones do not have anything to do with oaths of office, or railways, or anything else. Their only section reads:

1. This bill asserts the right of the House of Commons [or Senate, in S-1] to give precedence to matters not addressed in the Speech from the Throne.

This wording is revealing. It is unusual, indeed strange, for an act of Parliament to “assert,” although this is not altogether unique in Canadian legislation: the National Horse of Canada Act, S.C. 2002 c. 11, “recognize[s] and declare[s].” More importantly, it probably is unique for an Act of Parliament – even for a bill – to refer to itself as a “bill” rather than as an “Act”.

The reason for this unique wording is that these are bills that are not meant to become Acts. The preamble to C-1 explains this tradition:

Whereas the introduction of a pro forma bill in the House of Commons before the consideration of the Speech from the Throne demonstrates the right of the elected representatives of the people to act without the leave of the Crown;

Whereas that custom, which can be traced to 1558 in the Parliament at Westminster, is practised in a number of jurisdictions having a parliamentary form of government;

And whereas it is desirable to explain and record the constitutional relationship represented by that custom …

That of S-1 is similar, though of course it makes no reference to “the elected representatives of the people.” It also does not specify the date on which the custom of the pro forma bills originated.

This is perhaps as well, since there seems to be some confusion on this point. The latest iteration of Ontario’s version of the pro forma bill, more transparently named An Act to Perpetuate an Ancient Parliamentary Right, also refers to 1558. But the earliest version available on the legislative assembly’s website, dating back to 1998, claims that

[t]his practice dates back to the reign of Elizabeth I, when on March 22, 1603, (just two days before her death), Parliament made this assertion of independence from the Crown for the purposes of legislation.

The British bills seem to actually have a traditional substantive wording, related to their titles. But their purpose is exactly the same as that of the Canadian pro forma bills, for which they have served as a model (though as you can see, we have somewhat innovated on it).

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This is all quite amusing, as are many other constitutional traditions originating in Westminster. But it in a way, it is also rather sad. Pro forma bills are bald assertions of power, not intended to lead to its exercise. Having won its independence from, and then control over, a once-powerful Crown, Parliament has become the servile instrument of the Cabinet. The executive is once again in control of the agenda, and whatever Parliament says at the beginning of each of its sessions, it does not give precedence, or indeed almost any consideration, to matters not put before it by the Cabinet. (Indeed, it is the Prime Minister who tables Bill C-1 in the House of Commons.) Legislative supremacy, or even autonomy, is not much more real now than under the Tudors and the Stuarts.

Humpty Dumpty

Last week, the Globe’s Neil Reynolds blamed all the troubles, real or imaginary, of Canadian federalism on the “peace, order, and good government” (POGG) clause of s. 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Undeterred by his failure last time around to grasp the actual constitutional law he was bewailing, which I pointed out here, Mr. Reynolds is at it again, albeit with a new culprit: subsection 2A of s. 91, which authorizes Parliament to legislate with respect to “[u]nemployment insurance.” A week ago, Mr. Reynolds was ignorant of that provision’s existence, and castigated Employment Insurance (EI) as an abuse of the POGG power. It’s nice to know he might actually have read the Constitution Act, 1867. It would have been even nicer if he had acknowledge his previous mistake, but never mind.

Mr. Reynolds is manifestly distressed by what he perceives as the downfall, apparently in 1943, though I’m not sure why then, of the “limited, decentralized government” the Constitution Act, 1867 set up. Notwithstanding Lord Atkin’s “prescient warning” in the Unemployment Insurance Reference about the dangers of a federal spending power which “would afford the Dominion speedy passage into the provincial domain,” provinces and the federal government agreed to a constitutional amendment which transferred the competence to legislate with respect to unemployment insurance from the provinces to Parliament. Mr. Reynolds thinks this was catastrophic:

As Lord Atkin anticipated, the program led, a single surrender of provincial jurisdiction at a time, to a notional constitution that lets federal governments collect taxes and distribute the proceeds to any person, organization or corporation it wants.

We now think it absurd that a British aristocrat could have blocked – as illegal – a national unemployment insurance program in Canada. In retrospect, Lord Atkin proved more perceptive than this country’s determined centralizers. He perceived that the [Constitution Act, 1867] protected Canadians’ human rights by protecting their property rights from excessive federal power.

Mr. Reynolds then goes on to follow Lord Atkin (dissenting in Liversidge v. Anderson) in invoking Alice’s question to Humpty Dumpty:  “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Humpty Dumpty thought he could. Mr. Reynolds apparently is Humpty Dumpty himself, thinking as he does that he can make our constitution mean so many different things.

For it is absurd to blame the alleged abuses of the federal spending power (the power to collect taxes and distribute the proceeds however it sees fit, without regard to exclusive provincial jurisdiction) on EI. The power to implement EI is narrow, clear, and grounded in a specific constitutional provision; the problem of the federal spending power is precisely that it is unlimited in scope, vague, and has no clear constitutional basis. EI and the federal spending power are polar opposites.

And it is equally absurd to claim that the Constitution Act, 1867 “protected Canadians’ human rights by protecting their property rights from excessive federal power.” For one thing, property rights are no less vulnerable to provincial than to federal invasion. The most economically radical government in Canadian history was the Social Credit one that came to power in Alberta in 1935. Its repressive legislative programme was struck down by the Supreme Court in the Alberta Statutes Reference, [1938] S.C.R. 100, because it infringed the broad economic powers of Parliament. And the extent of these powers – over taxation, over the banks, over interest rates, over bankruptcy – means that if Parliament set about undermining property rights, it could very well have done it. Of course, the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867, rejected the American example and refused entrenching protections for property rights in the constitution (as did the framers of the Charter).

More broadly, Mr. Reynolds’ belief that Canada is an absurdly centralized country with a federal government of unlimited power is groundless. Canada might be the most decentralized federation in the world; it is certainly less centralized than the United States, Australia, or Germany. Just last year, in Reference re Securities Act, 2011 SCC 66, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down – to the consternation and disbelief of many centralizers in the business and academic communities – the proposed federal securities legislation. Canadian federalism is alive and kicking – too much for some. Mr. Reynolds would really do well to find another topic on which to fulminate.

The Pursuit of Difference

I promised my post earlier today, to say more about the belief that the alleged national slogans of Canada and the United States – respectively “peace, order, and good government,” and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – tell us something about the two countries generally and their constitutions specifically. Here goes.

Those who hold this belief conveniently forget that the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are found not in the U.S. Constitution, but in the Declaration of Independence, which has no legal effect, and does  not define the goals of American government. The Declaration was adopted to justify a revolution, and was animated by  a very different spirit than the Constitution, which was intended to establish an effective government. In his Lectures on the French Revolution (which I heartily recommend, both for the depth of the ideas and for the brilliance of the language), Lord Acton described the Declaration as the Americans’ “cutting,” and the Constitution as their “sewing.”

The Constitution Act, 1867 is the Canadian “sewing,” and it is, accordingly, not appropriate to compare it to the Declaration of Independence. The appropriate comparison is rather with the U.S. Constitution. The preamble of the latter describes its aims as “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Well, common defence, domestic tranquility, and general welfare sound an awful lot like peace, order, and good government.

As is usually the case, we are just much less different from the United States than our romantic nationalists like to think. The pursuit of difference is an unprofitable, albeit occasionally entertaining, pastime. We would do well, methinks, not to try to be different from someone else, but to be more ourselves.

It’s Not a POGGrom!

Canada’s “newspaper of record” has published an ignorant rant by Neil Reynolds, savaging alleged abuses, rhetorical, legislative, and jurisprudential, of  the “Peace, Order, and Good government” (a.k.a. POGG) clause of s. 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which sets out the powers of the federal Parliament. While the words “peace, order, and good good government” are indeed sometimes used to draw, or rather to provide rhetorical cover for, expansive and unwarranted conclusions about Canada and its constitution, most of Mr. Reynolds’ claims about the clause’s use by Parliament and courts are flat out wrong.

Mr. Reynolds’ first target is a “Canadian myth[] [that] holds that our constitutional mandate for peace, order and good government has made Canada a kinder, gentler place than the United States – debauched by its licentious pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  I’ve heard that line before, and I agree that it is silly. Mr. Reynolds is right that “POGG … was imperial boilerplate,” a perfunctory introduction to a clause vesting the legislative power in Parliament. It certainly does not give courts the right he strike down laws on the basis that they are not conducive to peace, order, and good government. (We might not have much of a statute book if it did.) It does not tell us much of anything about the sort of country we are. (I will have more to say about this in another post shortly.) [UPDATE: that post is here.]

Beyond that, however, Mr. Reynolds’ argument does not disclose much of an understanding of Canadian constitutional law. He claims that “POGG has been used from the very beginning to override” the division of powers between Parliament and provincial legislatures. Apart from bald assertions, his evidence for this claim consists of the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the constitutionality of the Anti-Inflation Act, Pierre Trudeau’s application of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis, Parliament’s creation of Employment Insurance, and its use of the spending power to  “fund everything (or almost everything) and disperse it directly and indirectly, hither and yon, as they deem fit.” This is almost entirely wrong. Continue reading “It’s Not a POGGrom!”

Is There Voice after Exit?

First of all, an apology for the overextended silence. I couldn’t find anything interesting to blog on, I’m afraid. Fortunately the CBC has rescued me by reporting on a challenge to the provision of the Canada Elections Act, S.C. 2000 c. 9 (CEA) which prohibits Canadians who have resided abroad for more than five consecutive years (except members of the Canadian forces, civil servants, diplomats, and employees of international organization) from voting in federal elections. (Indeed the disenfranchisement potentially extends even to those Canadians who have been abroad for less than five years but do not intend to return to Canada as residents, or even those who are unable to provide the Chief Electoral Officer with “the date on which [they] intend[] to resume residence in Canada,” pursuant to par. 223(1)(f) of the CEA. It is not quite clear whether the challenge extends to the requirement of an intent to return (on a certain date). While the intent requirement  is in the same provision (par. 11(d) of the CEA) as the five-year limit, it might be easily severable; certainly the individuals bringing the challenge emphasize their desire to return to Canada.

The CBC writes that

[t]he rule denying the vote to Canadians outside the country for more than five years was enacted in 1993 amid debate about the strength of their ties to Canada and how well informed they are about the domestic political situation. However, it was only in 2007 that Elections Canada began to enforce the rule to “more clearly reflect the intention of Parliament,” said spokesman John Enright. Until then, the five-year clock would reset for expats who returned even for short visits. Now, they have to “resume residency” before leaving again to regain their right to vote abroad.

It adds that

[a]ccording to economist Don DeVoretz, professor emeritus of Simon Fraser University, close to 10 per cent of all Canadians live abroad – a larger population than all but four of the provinces. About one-third of them live in the United States.

The leading case on the disenfranchisement of a class of citizens is Sauvé v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 S.C.R. 519, which the Supreme Court held ― by a 5-4 majority ― that denying the right to vote to prison inmates serving sentences of two years or more was a violation of s. 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which provides (in part) that “[e]very citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons,” and that this violation was not justified by s. 1 of the Charter. The government had conceded the s. 3 violation, which I assume will also happen in this case. The real debate in Sauvé was, and will be here, on the s. 1 justification.

Chief Justice McLachlin, writing for the majority in Sauvé, warned that “[l]imits on [the right to vote] require not deference, but careful examination” (par. 9). While “logic and common sense” could serve as justifications in the absence of hard scientific evidence, “one must be wary of stereotypes cloaked as common sense, and of substituting deference for the reasoned demonstration required by s.1” (par. 18). The prohibition on prisoner voting utterly failed the s. 1 test. For one thing, prisoner voting gave raise to no specific concern which Parliament sought to address by prohibiting it. Parliament’s stated objectives of promoting respect for the law and enhancing the purposes of criminal punishment were vague and symbolic, so much so that their “rhetorical nature … render[ed] them suspect” (par. 24); they were not pressing and substantial, as required by s. 1. For another, even if Parliament’s objectives were satisfactory, deprivation of the right to vote was not rationally connected to them. “[A] decision that some people, whatever their abilities, are not morally worthy to vote — that they do not  ‘deserve’ to be considered members of the community and hence may be deprived of the most basic of their constitutional rights” (par. 37) runs against the direction of historical progress towards universality of the franchise and “is inconsistent with the respect for the dignity of every person that lies at the heart of Canadian democracy and the Charter” (par. 44).

How will these comments apply to the denial of the franchise to Canadians living abroad? It seems to me that the government is again going to have a hard time articulating the objective of this measure, “the harm that the government hopes to remedy” (par. 23). My best guess is it will be something like “preventing voting by people who are uninformed or do not care about Canadian politics, or who have abandoned their membership in the Canadian community.” The applicants who launched this challenge, as the CBC story describes them, certainly give lie to any such claims. Especially now, thanks to the Internet, it is in fact as easy to keep abreast of Canadian news while living in New York as in North York, in Melbourne as in Montreal, in Kolkata as in Calgary. And of course it is now easy to maintain one’s ties to one’s family and friends in Canada, and to remain part of the broader community (as indeed I am trying to do with this blog for example). Add to this the fact that those Canadians living in Canada need not show that they are in any way informed about politics or current events, or that they have any sort of community ties, in order to be able to vote, and the denial of this right to those living abroad looks perfectly arbitrary. As with the prisoners, it is a judgment that they are not morally worthy to vote ― and such judgments are not open to Parliament, according to Sauvé.

I wish the challengers, and their lawyers, the best of luck.