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 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 an 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 party, if not exclusively) 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 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.

How Power Corrupts V

What science has to say about the corrupting effects of power

A recent article by Jerry Useem in the Atlantic, “Power Causes Brain Damage”, provides me an opportunity to return to my series of posts on the corrupting effects of power. My previous musings ― on character as a partial antidote to these effects and the dangers of addiction, on the connections between power, fear, and violence, and those between power and lies, and the perverse incentives that power imposes on those who seek and wield it ― mainly drew on literature, with a bit of political analysis and economics thrown in for good measure. Mr. Useem’s article describes a couple of very different sources for this inquiry: neuroscience and experimental psychology.

Mr. Useem reviews a number of scientific studies that have found some of the same effects that writers and philosophers who have concerned themselves with power have described. One psychologist found that experimental

[s]ubjects under the influence of power … acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

The inability of people in power to relate to others is observable both when looking at their brain processes directly, as a neuroscientist’s work suggests, and at their behaviour, whether in experiments or in real life situations that seem to echo them.

It seems likely that the inability of the powerful to empathize with others and their impulsiveness both help explain why power is inevitably violent and deceitful. It is easier to manipulate or to crush people if you do not ask yourself how they might feel about that ― and the individuals or institutions that wield power don’t. Besides, as another psychologist to whose work Mr. Useem refers points out, “power lessens the need for a nuanced read of people, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others”. In other words, why would you bother being nice to people when you can coerce them? This is a point about power’s perverse incentives, albeit a different one from that which I discussed in a post linked to above.

Now, the psychologists’ experiments’ subjects were not actual politicians or corporate executives ― “[t]hey were”, Mr. Useem explains, “college students who had been ‘primed’ to feel potent by recounting an experience in which they had been in charge.” Mr. Useem speculates that the effects the experiments shows

would presumably wear off when the feeling did—their brains weren’t structurally damaged after an afternoon in the lab. But if the effect had been long-lasting … they may have what in medicine is known as “functional” changes to the brain.

In fact, some experimental findings suggest that this is likely to be so. This is unsurprising, since both the guess that “an afternoon in the lab” is unlikely to have a long-lasting effect, and the possibility that long-term exposure to power does not wear off so easily, are quite consistent with the role of addiction in power’s corrupting effects.

Mr. Useem recounts studies that suggest that people in a position of power can try to resist addiction to it by reminding themselves, or having someone remind them, either of the limits on their power or of its corrupting influence on them and those around them. Although Mr. Useem does not mention it, the old-fashioned memento mori is the best-known implementation of this idea. Gandalf’s repeated insistence that Frodo not use the Ring, and his pointed injunction, when Frodo wears it on Amon Hen and is in danger of being discovered by Sauron’s Eye ― “Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!” ― is an obvious literary example. But from what we know about power ― from the Lord of the Rings and other sources ― these are no more than temporary fixes. Sooner or later, addiction will take hold.

In exploring the damaging effects of power, Mr. Useem seems mostly interested in business leaders, and in ways in which they can remain effective despite power’s corrosive influence on them. My focus in this series of posts is somewhat different: it is on political power, and what can be done to control it. That politicians might become less effective over time does not particularly bother me. If anything, the possibility that “[o]nce we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place” seems reassuring ― provided that the ineffective politicians can be dispensed with.

I once again conclude, then, with a reminder of the importance of constitutional mechanisms to limit the amount of harm a brain-damaged politician can inflict on us. Separation of powers, federalism, and protections for individual rights limit the amount of power a politician can wield to begin with ― and perhaps even limit the amount of damage his or her brain will come  to sustain. The Rule of Law provides further restraints on the manner in which power, even when it exists, can be exercised. And democracy provides the essential mechanism by which the politician who has overstayed his welcome ― for example because his or her brain has turned to power-corrupted mush ― can be thrown out of office.

To be sure, no constitutional device is fool- or Caesar-proof. For the ultimate, democratic safeguard against the corrupting effects of power to work, voters must be willing to invoke it ― and we should probably harbour no great illusions on that score. But constitutional and democratic safeguards are all we have ― and they are, after all, better than nothing.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A bill to improve Parliament’s constitutional scrutiny of legislation is a step forward ― but not good enough

Earlier this week, the federal government introduced Bill C-51, which will make some noteworthy changes to the Criminal Code ― mostly cleaning up offenses now deemed obsolete, but also codifying some principles relative to sexual that have been developed by the courts, and some other changes too. There has been quite a bit of discussion about these changes (see, for instance, this tweetstorm by Peter Sankoff), and I am not really qualified to speak to their substance, beyond saying that, all other things being equal, cleaning up the statute and making sure it reflects the law as applied by the courts are pretty clearly good things form a Rule of Law standpoint.

I do, however, want to say something about another, less commented, innovation in the bill: its clause 73, which would oblige the Minister of Justice to provide, alongside to any government bill introduced in Parliament, “a statement that sets out potential effects of the Bill on the rights and freedoms that are guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This is a step forward, although not a sufficiently bold one, but also a troubling symptom of the constitutional favouritism that afflicts the government and seems to show no signs of letting up.

* * *

The idea that the Minister of Justice ought to provide advice to Parliament about the compliance of bills with rights protections actually pre-dates the Charter. It was first introduced in subs 3(1) of the Canadian Bill of Rights, which required the Minister to

examine … every Bill introduced in or presented to the House of Commons by a Minister of the Crown, in order to ascertain whether any of the provisions thereof are inconsistent with the purposes and provisions of this Part and he shall report any such inconsistency to the House of Commons at the first convenient opportunity.

Identical language, but referring to the Charter, now appears in subs 4.1(1) of the Department of Justice Act. Yet these provisions, which might have involved Parliament, or at least the House of Commons, in constitutional discussions, have largely proven ineffective. There was, as we can tell from judicial decisions declaring federal legislation  invalid because contrary to the Charter (or, admittedly rarely, inoperative because contrary to the Bill of Rights), no lack of opportunities for inconsistency reports. Yet in well over half a century, only one such report has ever been made.

The reason for this is that, as the Federal Court explained in Schmidt v. Canada (Attorney General), 2016 FC 269 successive Ministers of Justice interpreted the reporting requirements as only obliging them to notify the House of Commons if they, or rather the Department of Justice (DOJ) lawyers, couldn’t come up with “[a]n argument” that the bill is constitutional “that is credible, bona fide, and capable of being successfully argued before the courts”. [5] Because DOJ lawyers are clever and creative, and perhaps also a little optimistic about their ability to mount successful arguments, this interpretation allows the Minister to avoid making a report to the House of Commons even if the constitutionality of a bill is very much in doubt.

Contrast this situation with New Zealand. Section 7 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 is a direct descendant of the Canadian inconsistency reporting requirements. It provides that the Attorney-General must “bring to the attention of the House of Representatives any provision in [a] Bill that appears to be inconsistent with any of the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights”. Attorneys-General have interpreted this as a duty to form their own opinion about whether proposed legislation is consistent with the Bill of Rights Act, and not merely about whether they might make credible arguments for the proposition that it is. As a result they have made almost 40 “section 7 reports” on government bills, and over 70 in total, including on non-government bills, which are not covered under current Canadian legislation and still would not be under C-51, in just 25 years. (One reason why similarly worded provisions have been interpreted so differently in Canada and in New Zealand is that New Zealand, like the United Kingdom, separates the roles of Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, and the latter, although elected as an MP and a member of the Cabinet, by convention acts in a relatively non-partisan fashion. I would love to see Canada adopt this practice, but won’t hold my breath.) And New Zealand’s Attorneys-General have gone further than the Bill of Rights Act required them to. The have also made public the advice regarding the consistency with the Act of all bills since 2003 ― not only those that they found to be inconsistent.

If enacted, Bill C-51 wuld take Canada close to New Zealand in this regard ― and, to some extent, even further. It will go further both in that it will create a statutory requirement, as opposed to a mere policy (albeit on that has been consistently followed by governments of various partisan persuasions), and in that it will formally inform not only the public but Parliament itself. On the other hand, the requirement will not go as far as the New Zealand policy, because it will only apply to legislation proposed by the government ― and not by individual MPs or Senators.

* * *

Despite its limitations, of which more very shortly, this is a good change. Getting Parliament to engage more with constitutional issues that arise when it legislates would be a wonderful thing. To be sur, we should not be too optimistic about what ministerial explanations of Charter concerns will accomplish. In New Zealand, Parliament routinely ignores the Attorney-General’s warnings about the inconsistency of bills with the Bill of Rights Act. It may well be that if such warnings, or a fortiori statements to the effect that a bill gives rise to constitutional concerns but the government believes that it is nevertheless consistent with the Charter become more common in Canada, legislators will similarly ignore them. But even occasional engagement with such concerns is likely to be an improvement on the current situation, in which they are systematically ignored whether or not Parliament is the only place where they could be addressed.

One particular issue to think about here is the role of the Senate. It is at least arguable that it would be more justified in opposing the House of Commons (at least by insisting on amendments, but perhaps even by outright defeating legislation) because of constitutional concerns than for any other reason. Having such concerns outlined by the Justice Minister would make it easier for the Senate to do this, and might thus contribute to make it a more significant legislative actor. That said, the Senate did give way to the House of Commons on the assisted suicide legislation, despite constitutional concerns, so any such changes are, for now, a matter of speculation.

As the above comparison between Canada and New Zealand shows, a lot will depend on just how the Justice Ministers approach their new statutory duties. This is where we come to the less attractive features of clause 73. Its wording is very open-ended ― to repeat, it requires reports bills’ “potential effects … on [Charter] rights and freedoms” (emphasis mine). In a way, this is useful, in that it allows the Minister to offer a nuanced assessment, and perhaps candidly say that there is no clear relevant guidance from the courts. But if a Minister wants to fudge, or simply to say, consistently with currently practice, that plausible ― but not necessarily compelling ― arguments can be made that a bill’s effects can be justified under section 1 of the Charter, clause 73 would allow that too. As Lisa Silver has noted, ministerial “statements may be self[-]serving”. On the whole, then, I would count the clause’s vagueness as a bad thing.

The other bad thing about it is that, as I noted earlier, it only applies to legislation introduced by the government. Now, it is true that most significant legislation is, in Canada anyway. But there have apparently been concerns that the last Conservative government used private members’ bills to advance policies that had its private support but with which it was unwilling to be too publicly associated. Whether or not that was true, something like that might happen in the future. And of course any bills introduced in the Senate would be exempt from scrutiny, at least until the rather hypothetical for now day when there are cabinet ministers from the Senate. In short, the exclusion of legislation not introduced by the government from the current scope of clause 73 is potentially dangerous ― and I have a hard time seeing why it should be there.

It gets worse ― indeed, in my view, it gets outright ugly. Clause 73 confirms what I have denounced the government’s tendency to treat the Charter as a favoured part of the constitution, and ignore the others, notably the Constitution Act, 1867. The clause will, if enacted and approached in good faith by the Justice Ministers (the latter a big if, as I noted above), force the government to alert Parliament to the repercussions of proposed legislation on a part of the Constitution. But why only part? Why that part? Why shouldn’t Parliament be alerted to issues surrounding the division of powers, not to mention aboriginal rights and, arguably above all, the constitution’s amending procedures? And what about the (quasi-constitutional) Bill of Rights, while we’re at it? (Though it is often forgotten, the Bill of Rights does protect some rights that have been left out of the Charter, perhaps most significantly the right to a fair trial in civil cases, and so remains relevant despite the Charter’s enactment.) Of course, the current provisions requiring inconsistency reports only concern the Charter and the Bill of Rights, but since the point of Clause 73 is to expand them, why is this expansion so selective? As I have previously explained, the vision of the Constitution that it reflects is a defective and a pernicious one. To that extent, Clause 73 deserves condemnation ― and cries out for amendment.

* * *

Let me conclude, then, with a quick sketch of what an amended version of Clause 73 that addresses the criticisms outlined above might look like:

(1) The Minister shall, for every Bill introduced in or presented to either House of Parliament cause to be tabled, in the House in which the Bill originates, a statement that sets out potential effects of the Bill on

(a) the rights and freedoms that are guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or recognized, declared or otherwise protected by the Canadian Bill of Rights;

(b) the aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada recognized and affirmed by the Constitution Act, 1982; and

(c) the scope of and limitations on Parliament’s legislative powers under the Constitution of Canada.

(2) The statement shall, in addition to any other matter, note whether, in the Minister’s opinion, it is more likely than not that the Bill is inconsistent with the Constitution of Canada.

(3) The statement shall be tabled

(a) in the case of a bill introduced in or presented by a minister or other representative of the Crown, on the introduction of that Bill; or

(b) in any other case, as soon as practicable after the introduction of the Bill.

(4) The purpose of the statement is to inform members of the Senate and the House of Commons as well as the public of those potential effects and the constitutionality of proposed legislation.

This is, in all likelihood, an imperfect effort. In particular, it might be unnecessary to require Ministerial statements on private members’ bills that never make it past first reading. I’d be grateful for any input on this, and on the corrections that might be necessary to my proposal, from those more knowledgeable than I about Parliamentary procedure and legislative drafting. But I do think that my substantive concerns are serious. I would be very nice indeed if Parliament were made to address at least some of them.

Inappropriate Remarks

Justice Abella should be criticized, not praised, for her comments on Donald Trump

In a widely noted (for example in this report by Colin Freeze for the Globe and Mail) commencement address given in the United States, Justice Abella has castigated “narcissistic populism” and, more broadly, what she perceives as the abandonment of a global commitment to human rights, independent institutions, and the Rule of Law. While the academics quoted by Mr. Freeze, and others, are either cheering Justice Abella on or at least think that these comments were acceptable, I disagree. Mrs. Abella would be perfectly free to engage in political commentary, but Justice Abella is not. That she did not recognize this calls her judgment into serious question.

It is quite obvious to anyone who has had the misfortune of following the news in the last year that the “narcissistic populism” quip refers to Donald Trump. Sure, Justice Abella did not utter his name. She did not need to. Populism in general is a broad (and worrying) phenomenon. But the reference to narcissism is a pointed one. Justice Abella was not speaking about Bernie Sanders, or even Marine Le Pen. (Her other remarks presumably did not only concern Mr. Trump ―  though I doubt she was thinking about Mr. Sanders.)

Unlike Justice Ginsburg of the US Supreme Court, who criticized Mr. Trump (by name) last year (at a time when his election to the presidency seemed impossible), Justice Abella wasn’t commenting on the potential head of a branch of government co-ordinate with that of which she is part. To that extent, she wasn’t compromising the separation of powers. Yet that doesn’t mean that her remarks were compatible with her judicial role. The United States are a relatively frequent litigant before the Supreme Court of Canada. Since Justice Abella’s appointment, they have been a party to seven cases decided on the merits, and to almost 20 additional leave applications in which she was involved. (These are mostly, though not quite exclusively, extradition matters.) There is no particular reason to think that there will no more such cases while Justice Abella remains on the Court. And so long as she does, and Mr. Trump remains president of the United States, it seems to me that questions about Justice Abella’s impartiality could be raised.

When I criticized Justice Ginsburg in a blog post for the CBA National Magazine last year, I noted that those whose unbridled admiration for her encouraged her injudicious behaviour had to take some of the blame:

As [Josh] Blackman has pointed out, “[o]ver the past few years, [Justice] Ginsburg has been showered in … sycophantic adoration” by those on the political left who see her as the pre-eminent judicial champion of their values. Prof. Blackman hypothesizes ― correctly, I suspect ― that the adulation got to Justice Ginsburg, to the point that she came to think that “she could do no wrong.” She may also have come to think that the public stood in dire need of her warnings about Mr. Trump, even though, as Paul Horwitz has observed, “her remarks [were] essentially conventional, unexceptional, and banal.” While I do not wish to absolve Justice Ginsburg, I think it is important to also blame those whose flattery has at least contributed to her developing such a high opinion of herself. Four centuries ago, Francis Bacon wrote that “those, that engage courts in quarrels of jurisdiction … are not truly amici curiae, but parasiti curiae, in puffing a court up beyond her bounds, for their own scraps and advantage.” The same goes, I think, for those who encourage judges to overstep their proper role in extrajudicial contexts. It is perhaps unfair to call parasiti people among whom sincere admirers no doubt outnumber self-interested sycophants, but the sincere contribute no less than the two-faced to corrupting the very person they love so much. There is nothing wrong with admiring a judge, or for that matter a politician. But if you well and truly wish him or her well, never tell yourself, and by all that you hold dear, never tell him or her, that the person you admire can do no wrong. Coming to believe that one can do no wrong ensures that one will.

The same lesson applies, I suspect, in the case of Justice Abella. As Mr. Freeze notes, she has become something of a judicial celebrity, and indeed “[e]arlier this year, Justice Abella received a ‘global jurist of the year’ prize.” I am afraid such things are not very good for sitting judges. Justice Abella’s injudicious remarks not only deserve criticism, but also show that she needs it.