It Doesn’t Work That Way

Legislation interfering with a municipal election does not violate freedom of expression ― contrary to what an Ontario judge has found

Last week was a busy one for me, as I was travelling to, around, and from Western Canada, having a good time, and giving five talks in four days, but the rest of the Canadian constitutional law world had an even busier one, courtesy of Justice Belobaba of Ontario’s Superior Court, and Doug Ford, its Premier. The former delivered a judgment invalidating the reduction, a mere two months before an election, of the number of seats on the Toronto city council: Toronto (City) v Ontario (Attorney-General), 2018 ONSC 5151. The latter responded to this judgment by bringing forward legislation that will invoke section 33 of the Charter, and allow the election to go ahead notwithstanding the fact that, according to Justice Belobaba anyway, holding it in this manner violates the freedom of expression. The Twitterverse was all atwitter; the commentariat commented; professors professed various shades of disbelief and indignation.

It would not be possible for me to recap and respond to everything, but I do want to make some observations ― even at the risk of repeating things that have already been said, and that I have missed. In this post, I will address Justice Belobaba’s reasoning. I will post separately on the use of the “notwithstanding clause” by Ontario’s legislature ― and some of the responses to it by commentators. Co-blogger Mark Mancini made a number of important points on both issues in an excellent (as always) post last week, and I largely agree with him. In particular, when it comes to Justice Belobaba’s decision, Mark is right that it “massages a chosen constitutional right” so as to “best achieve [the] result” it is after ― constitutional text and doctrine be damned. Here are some additional reasons why.

One thing I’d note is that the descriptions ― common in the media as well as in Justice Belobaba’s reasons ― of the redesign of the Toronto Council as having been imposed “in the middle of the city’s election” [6] need to be put into perspective. The legislation received royal assent almost 70 days before the voting was to take place. The time remaining in the election campaign was identical almost to the day to the duration of the last federal campaign ― whose length was unprecedented and, pretty much everyone agrees, quite excessive. No doubt federal and municipal elections are very different beasts; but we should perhaps hesitate before accepting the claim that the provincial legislation effectively subverted the voting process in Toronto.

Yet this is essentially what Justice Belobaba accepts when it comes to the first issue he addresses, that of “whether the enactment of Bill 5 changing the electoral districts in the middle of the City’s election campaign substantially interfered with the candidate’s [sic] right to freedom of expression.” [27; footnote omitted] Having so stated the issue, Justice Belobaba follows up with a rhetorical query: “Perhaps the better question is ‘How could it not?'” [28] Actually, there is an answer to this question, but it is worth pointing out that merely asking is not a harmless stylistic flash, but a reversal of the burden of proof, which lies on the applicants when it comes to establishing violation of their rights.

Justice Belobaba insists that pre-existing electoral arrangements “informed [the candidates’] decision about where to run, what to say, how to raise money and how to publicize their views”. [29] The new legislation disrupts plans and means that some, perhaps much, of the campaigning that has already taken place will now go to waste. As a result, it “substantially interfered with the candidate’s ability to effectively communicate his or her political message to the relevant voters”. [32] It also “undermined an otherwise fair and equitable election process”. Justice Belobaba relies on Libman v Quebec (Attorney General), [1997] 3 SCR 569 for the proposition that “where a democratic platform is provided … and the election has begun, expressive activity in connection with that platform is protected against legislative interference”. [37]

Yet Libman held no such thing. It was concerned with the constitutionality of a law that prohibited persons not having joined a referendum campaign committee for spending money to make their views on the referendum issue known. This wasn’t about fairness ― indeed, fairness in the Supreme Court’s view supported the silencing of “third parties”, if not quite a complete one ― or about interference with an ongoing campaign. The contrast with the legislation here is quite telling. No one is being prevented from communicating any message to anyone. No one is told to stay out of the redesigned election campaign. Sure, the legislation is disruptive and ill-timed, and that’s a valid policy objection to it, but not any disruption of a municipal election is a violation of the candidates’ rights. Suppose a government ― whether provincial or even federal ― announces a major new policy on funding municipalities, and the announcement happens to coincide with a municipal election somewhere, effectively forcing the candidates to adjust their messaging, their spending plans, and so on, has that government thereby infringed the Charter?

As Mark noted in his post, the Charter protects our right to speak, but does not give us any assurance that our speech will be listened to, or be persuasive. Justice Belobaba’s reasons take constitutional law in a new and unwarranted direction. It’s worth noting, too, that with fixed election dates now being the norm federally and provincially, the “permanent campaign” is here to stay. Decisions about how and where to campaign are being made all the time. If any law that interferes with them, or forces prospective candidates or campaigners to revise their plans, is an interference with their freedom of expression, then there is literally no electoral legislation, regardless of when it is enacted, that is not a prima facie Charter violation. This too strikes me as an absurd consequence of Justice Belobaba’s decision.

Justice Belobaba, however, has an even broader objection to the legislation restructuring the Toronto City Council. He says that the restructuring infringes the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression because the wards that it creates are simply too large for citizens to receive “effective representation” from their councillors. This defect, unlike interference with an ongoing election, would not be cured by delaying the application of the legislation until the next one. As Mark and many others have noted, Justice Belobaba imports the doctrine of “effective representation” from the cases that applied section 3 of the Charter ― which protects the right to vote, but doesn’t apply to municipal elections. Justice Belobaba argues that voting is an expressive activity, so there is no reason not to import tests developed in the context of the right to vote into freedom of expression cases. Like Mark, I think this is objectionable. Why bother with having a distinct, and carefully circumscribed, guarantee of the right to vote if it is anyway subsumed into freedom of expression?

But I would go further than my esteemed co-blogger, who I think is a bit too quick to concede the possibility of “overlap” between the right to vote and freedom of expression. As I have argued here, “[v]oting in an election is actually an incredibly bad way of sending any sort of message to anyone”. A ballot does not say who speaks, why, and what it is that they actually want. The act of voting is no more expressive than that of picking up a particular item from supermarket shelf; if anything, it is less so, since there usually fewer, and less palatable, choices in the voting booth. I do not mean to disparage voting. It is an incredibly valuable thing, this ability to make a choice, even among unpalatable options, of who is going to exercise power over us. But it is valuable for reasons that are quite different from those that make freedom of expression valuable ― even freedom of expression in the political context. It makes sense to have distinct constitutional protections for these activities, and distinct doctrines implementing these guarantees. There probably are cases of genuine overlap between some Charter rights, especially within and among the various “fundamental rights” protected by section 2, and to some extent between at least some of these rights and equality rights in section 15. But the right to vote is its own thing, and there are good reasons of principle as well as of legal craft to keep it separate from others.

It is hard to avoid the impression that Justice Belobaba strongly disliked the legislation on whose constitutionality he had to pronounce, found it unjust, and convinced himself that the constitution simply had to provide a remedy for it. His disclaimers about “the importance of judges exercising judicial deference and restraint” [8] (a sentiment with which I disagree ― there is no reason for deference and restraint in the face of legislation that actually is unconstitutional) ring quite hollow. He bends constitutional doctrine to get his way ― to, and past, breaking point. His decision is bound to do mischief, and should not be allowed to stand. Over to you, Court of Appeal. And for all that, it doesn’t follow that the government’s response to Justice Belobaba’s ruling was appropriate. More on that soon, I hope.

If You Build It

A good decision for federalism and for property rights from the Supreme Court

This morning, the Supreme Court has delivered its decision in Rogers Communications Inc. v. Châteauguay (City), 2016 SCC 23, holding that a municipality cannot prevent a telecommunications company from building an antenna at a site authorized by the federal government, since under the constitution that government has exclusive competence over radiocommunications. I believe this is the right decision from the standpoint of federalism doctrine and policy. It is also, if only coincidentally, a good decision from the standpoint of property rights.

Simplifying somewhat, the case arose out of Rogers’ attempt to build an antenna for its cellular network in Châteauguay, on a site that it had leased from a willing owner. Federal rules required it to obtain permission from the federal government and also to consult the municipality, while allowing the federal government to resolve any conflict with local authorities. Rogers did all this, and initially the municipality gave it the green light. However, after citizens concerned about the supposed effects of radio waves on their health and the environment petitioned the municipal authorities, they changed their mind and tried to get Rogers to agree to build its antenna on a different location. The owner of that site, however, was not willing to lease it out to Rogers, while the municipality tried to expropriate it, Rogers was unwilling to wait until expropriation proceedings would conclude, and decided to go ahead with its original project. The municipality responded by issuing, and subsequently renewing, a “notice of reserve” which signified its intention to expropriate the site, and prevented Rogers from building there.

Rogers argued that this was both unconstitutional and in bad faith and thus invalid under municipal law. In reasons by Justices Wagner and Côté, an eight-judge majority held that the notice was not a valid exercise of a provincial, and therefore a municipal, power. Justice Gascon, who concurred, was of the view that while the notice was a valid exercise of provincial power, it was inapplicable to Rogers by virtue of the doctrine of interjurisdictional immunity.

* * *

The municipality argued that its “ultimate purpose in establishing the reserve was to protect the health and well‑being of its residents living close to” Rogers’ chosen site for its antenna, “and to ensure the development of its territory” ― purposes that fall within the provincial and therefore municipal jurisdiction. The majority of the Supreme Court disagreed, however. The notice of reserve was clearly intended to forestall Rogers’ work on the antenna. It had no other purpose or effect than to interfere with its choice of location, which falls within the federal jurisdiction over radiocommunications. The majority added that

[e]ven if the adoption of a measure such as this addressed health concerns raised by certain residents, it would clearly constitute a usurpation of the federal power over radiocommunication. [46]

Thus, in “pith and substance,” the “matter” with which the notice of reserve dealt was radiocommunications, and the notice was ultra vires ― beyond the competence of the body that enacted it.

The majority acknowledged that the Supreme Court’s division of powers jurisprudence favoured flexibility and “co-operative federalism.” This principle, however,

can neither override nor modify the division of powers itself. It cannot be seen as imposing limits on the valid exercise of legislative authority … Nor can it support a finding that an otherwise unconstitutional law is valid. … [F]lexibility has its limits, and this approach cannot be used to distort a measure’s pith and substance at the risk of restricting significantly an exclusive power granted to Parliament. [39, 47]

The majority added that holding otherwise, or finding that the notice of reserve had a “double aspect” ― i.e. that it dealt with a provincial “matter” at the same time as a federal one ―

could encourage municipalities to systematically exercise the federal power to choose where to locate radiocommunication infrastructure while alleging local interests in support of their doing so. [47]

In his concurrence, a rather exasperated-sounding Justice Gascon disagrees, saying that he

find[s] it a bit much to suggest that a flexible approach to the pith and substance doctrine could encourage municipalities to hide behind local interests in order to exercise a federal power. [95]

He concludes that Châteauguay acted “not simply to control the siting of a radiocommunication system, but rather to respond to its residents’ concerns” [100] regarding health and the development of the municipality’s territory. In Justice Gascon’s view, the majority goes astray in not adopting a sufficiently flexible approach to the “pith and substance” analysis, and also in overemphasizing the practical effects of the notice of reserve at the expense of its purposes.

However, Justice Gascon agrees with the majority that even if the municipality had the constitutional authority to issue the notice of reserve, the notice would be inapplicable to Rogers by virtue of interjurisdictional immunity. The choice of locations for communications equipment has already been determined to fall within the “core” of the federal power, and the municipality’s attempt to prevent Rogers from building its equipment at a site approved by the federal government in the exercise of that power rose to the level “impairment” sufficient to trigger the application of the immunity doctrine.

* * *

As I mentioned at the outset, I believe the Court ― and specifically, the majority ― has it right. At the level of doctrine, I think that the majority is right to conclude that the reserve notice was ultra vires the municipality. As it noted, all the notice did was interfere with the choice of location of Rogers’ equipment. The fact that the motivation for this interference had to do with health and development concerns does not change the fact that the notice itself only had to do with radiocommunications.

Indeed, Justice Gascon’s approach ― finding that the notice of reserve was, in pith and substance, related to health and local development but could not apply to the only party to whom it was ever intended to apply strikes me as rather artificial. As the majority notes, the case is different from one in which, as in Quebec (Attorney General) v. Canadian Owners and Pilots Association, 2010 SCC 39, [2010] 2 S.C.R. 536, the law at issue is one “of general application that has numerous legal and practical effects,” [48] only a small subset of which are constitutionally suspect. It makes sense to resolve such a case by applying the doctrine of interjurisdictional immunity to prevent this small subset of effects from occurring while allowing the law as a whole to stand undisturbed. Justice Gascon invokes interjurisdictional immunity to deprive the notice of reserve of its effect and raison d’être. It seems more logical to say that the notice is simply void, because it is entirely about a federal, not a provincial, “matter.”

From the policy perspective, these details matter little. What is important is that the Supreme Court’s decision allows the federal government to exercise its constitutional powers without being impeded by nimbyists all over the country who would raise this or that local concern ― if not some scientifically discredited theory, as seems to have been the case here ― to prevent any national infrastructure being built. The constitution makes federal government responsible for telecommunications ― as well as for physical inter-provincial links, such as railways and, perhaps most importantly in the current political context, pipelines, for a good reason. These matters have to be treated at a national scale because of the holdout issues and collective action problems that would arise if the provinces ― and, a fortiori, municipalities ― could stand in the way or had to deal with them on their own.

Appeals to co-operative federalism are misguided in this context. After the Supreme Court handed down another decision limiting the power of that principle, the one in the gun-registry litigation, Quebec (Attorney General) v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 14, [2015] 1 S.C.R. 693, I tentatively suggested that the principle the Supreme Court applied was that of competitive rather than co-operative federalism. Competitive federalism is usually understood as involving competition between members of the federation (i.e. provinces in Canada) to get individuals and businesses to move from to another. But the Court’s federalism jurisprudence fosters “vertical” competition between the federal government and the provinces, I wrote, “for the political benefits that result from enacting policies that citizens want to see enacted.” Such competition is fine so long as its costs can be internalized by the voters for whose benefit it exists. For instance, when Québec sets up its own gun registry to replace the one scrapped by the federal government, Québec taxpayers will pay for it. But when the preferences of one set of voters are satisfied at the expense of others, what takes place is not competition, but rent-seeking. Allowing municipalities to interfere with the development of infrastructure that benefits people well beyond their borders in order to allay the local voters’ concerns would encourage just that sort of behaviour. The Supreme Court was right to step in to prevent it.

* * *

I briefly turn now to the property rights perspective on this case. The Supreme Court has seldom been solicitous of property or economic rights (except, that is, the economic rights of unionized labour), and there is no reason to think that property rights concerned it here. However, it is worth pointing out that, even if unintentionally, the Court’s decision is a clear win for property rights and freedom of contract. Consider that Rogers had found a willing lessor for the land it needed to build its antenna. The owner of the alternative site proposed by the municipality, by contrast, did not want to do business with Rogers. So the municipality wanted to expropriate her, and deprive the owner of Rogers’ preferred site of a business opportunity. And when that plan failed, it decided to expropriate the owner of that site as well. This casual indifference to property rights and economic liberty of the municipality’s own citizens is disheartening, and even if the Supreme Court preserves these rights by a happy accident, its decision is worth celebrating for that reason.