The Law of Permanent Campaigning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Permanent Censorship, Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Permanent Campaign or Permanent Censorship?

Richard Pildes has an interesting post over at the Election Law Blog, discussing Michael Ignatieff’s take on the “circumvention” of election campaign spending limits by the Conservative Party of Canada in their “permanent campaign” which, Prof. Ignatieff believes (and, in fairness to him, so do many others), destroyed him as a potential Prime Minister. The “permanent campaign” ― that is, political parties spending on advertising outside of the immediate pre-election periods, in which such spending is tightly regulated by the Canada Elections Act ― is a new phenomenon in Canada. (Not quite as new as prof. Pildes suggests; it started in 2007, when it was directed against Prof. Ignatieff’s predecessor, Stéphane Dion.) Prof. Pildes comments:

Why didn’t parties spend like this in the pre-election period before … ? … No reason, except that it just wasn’t done. Yet once political actors, including parties, believe this approach will work and have the funds to implement it, they naturally escape campaign spending limits by shifting spending to the pre-election period.

This, says prof. Pildes, is a problem not just for Canada, but for any other jurisdiction which limits political spending during the pre-election period, but not outside of it. (Prof. Pildes ties these limits to public financing of political parties, but that’s not a necessary connection, and indeed it has now been severed in Canada. Public financing for federal political parties has been abolished, but the restrictions on campaign spending, and hence the incentives to spend outside the regulated campaign period, remain in place.)

Prof. Ignatieff now favours “ban[ning] party advertising outside of election times,” but prof. Pildes notes that

once regulation moves outside of something clearly defined as a discrete “election period,” the issues become much murkier:  does Ignatieff advocate banning all party spending in support or against candidates at all times?  Or does he envision such a ban starting only a certain number of years after the most recent election, say 2-3 years, in anticipation of the next general election?

Expanding the restrictions on political spending and speech applicable during the election period would indeed be problematic. As I write in a paper on the regulation of political spending by “third parties” ― that is, anyone who is not a political party or a candidate for office ― which should appear sometime in the next few months in the McGill Law Journal,

the free discussion so essential to the existence of democracy and of parliamentary institutions is in Canada 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 at the core of the protection of the freedom of expression.

Are we prepared to accept the expansion of these constraints? And if we are, which constraints should we expand? Only those applicable to political parties, which professors Ignatieff and Pildes discuss, or should we also extend the limits applicable to “third parties,” whose political spending during election campaigns is now limited to an almost derisory amount which, as the dissenting judges in Harper v. Canada (Attorney-General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 S.C.R. 827 pointed out, that doesn’t allow them to use traditional media to communicate with national audiences?

British Columbia has, in fact, attempted to expand its restriction on “third party” spending to “pre-campaign periods,” first of 60 days and then of anywhere between 0 and 40 days, only for both attempts to be declared unconstitutional by its Court of Appeal, in  British Columbia Teachers’ Federation v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2011 BCCA 408 and Reference Re Election Act (BC), 2012 BCCA 394. As I wrote here in commenting on the latter decision, I’m afraid that it “is a somewhat wilful, or at least wishful, interpretation of Harper.” The rationale of the Harper majority, which upheld severe restrictions on third party advertising during election campaigns, might be stretched to apply to pre-campaign periods.

But it’s not a sure thing that the Supreme Court would so stretch it. (As best I can tell, BC didn’t appeal the decisions striking down its pre-campaign rules to the Supreme Court, so we had no occasion to find out.) At some point at least, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify silencing, or even muffling, political debate. We might find it acceptable for the 35-day period of an election campaign. But longer, and especially permanent, restrictions come with very high costs for our freedom of expression. The “permanent campaign” might be a detestable innovation, but permanent censorship would be even worse.