The System Is Working

Environmentalist groups have a point when they say they are being muzzled by Elections Canada; trouble is, that’s exactly how the law is meant to work

As the media reported earlier this week, environmentalist groups are angry at Elections Canada, which has warned them that spending money to raise awareness of climate change in the run-up to the coming federal election would subject them to the rules on “third party” participation in election campaigns. Many are feeling that they will be required to keep quiet during the campaign, which rather defeats the purpose of being advocacy groups. Even the BBC has a story on this.

For its part, Elections Canada has issued a response claiming that the Canada Elections Act doesn’t prevent advocacy groups from advocating, so long as they register if they spend $500 or more and comply with the spending cap. Elections Canada adds that the registration requirement “leads to increased transparency” and has been in place “for nearly 20 years”. Helpfully, I suppose, the statement concludes with an acknowledgement that the rules “can be complex”, and Elections Canada is happy to answer questions about them.

The rules are indeed somewhat complicated, as I explain below. But the bottom line is simple enough. Despite the officials’ protestations, NGOs ― be they environmentalist or other ― have a point when they say that they are being muzzled. To some extent, that’s what the Canada Elections Act is designed to do; to an even greater extent this might be an unintended consequence of the Act’s pursuit of transparency, but an entirely predictable one. The issues are well known; I, for one, raised them in my statement to the House of Commons Select Committee that considered the latest round of amendments to the Canada Elections Act. The only surprising thing is the degree to which people still end up being surprised when problems of sort arise.


The Canada Elections Act‘s regulation of political spending is predicated on the idea that attention during election campaigns should be focused on politicians ― individual candidates and political parties, especially parties. Parties, if they run candidates in all ridings, are able to spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising ― which they are entitled to buy at favourable rates, in addition to an allowance of free airtime. Non-politicians ― that is, individuals, labour and student unions, corporations, and NGOs ― are known as “third parties” in the election law jargon and, as I explained here, their participation in electoral debates is viewed as anomalous, indeed suspicious, and is strictly limited.

One set of limits concerns the amounts of money third parties are allowed to spend, which are only a small fraction of the spending allowed political parties. The Supreme Court has upheld the limitation of third party spending during election campaigns, notably in Harper v Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 SCR 827, although there is good reason to be critical of that decision, which I have even rated as one of the worst in the last fifty years. (As I noted here, the High Court of Australia was also quite skeptical of Harper in a recent decision.) Last year, Parliament enacted further limits that apply even before the formal campaign begins, and their constitutionality has not yet been tested; Harper, in my view, does not dispose of the question.

In addition to spending limits, “third parties” are also subject to onerous registration and reporting requirements. Some of these are the cause of the latest dust-up. Specifically, Division 1 of Part 17 of the Canada Elections Act imposes such requirements on “third parties” that incur more than $500 of expenses on, notably “partisan activities” and “partisan advertising” during the “pre-election period”, which begins on June 30 of the year for which a fixed-date election is scheduled and ends with the start of the election campaign. During the election campaign itself, governed by Division 2 of Part 17, “election advertising”, as well as “partisan activities” count for the spending thresholds that can trigger registration and reporting requirements.

The definitions of “partisan” and “election advertising”, found in section 2(1) of the Canada Elections Act, are very broad. The former term “means the transmission to the public by any means during a pre-election period of an advertising message that promotes or opposes” a party or a candidate, further defined in section 2(7) as “naming”, “identifying” (“including by … logo” or picture, as the case may be, and “providing a link to an Internet page that” names or identifies the party or candidate. “Election advertising” includes the same things as “partisan advertising”, but also “taking a position on an issue with which a … party or candidate is associated”, even without naming that party or candidate. Since issues with which no candidate or party “is associated”, come election time, are about as common as colour pictures of a Maple Leafs Stanley Cup parade, the definition of “election advertising” encompasses pretty much any advertising that has anything to say on matters of government or policy.

Now, some means of communicating with the public are exempted from these definitions. In particular, the exemptions cover anything that the media will print or broadcast without charge to the speaker ― things like quotes in news items, interviews, and op-eds. Also exempt are organizations’ communications with their members, shareholders, or employees, as well as “the transmission by an individual, on a non-commercial basis on the Internet, of his or her personal political views”. Note, though, that on its face the latter exemption doesn’t cover ― indeed, it rather pointedly excludes ― a group’s or an organization’s online communications, even if not paid for (for example, tweeting under the organization’s handle). And of course, any communication that the media are not interested in carrying free of charge will count as an advertising. In effect, for groups and organizations, the media are the gatekeepers of their ability to communicate with the public without having to register as “third parties”.

So what’s the big deal about registration? Well, although you won’t know it from the Elections Canada statement linked to above, registration doesn’t just mean filling out a form. There are a number of other requirements. To begin with, unions and corporations cannot register before their board has adopted a resolution authorizing them to incur expenses on “partisan” or “election advertising” (sections 349.6(5) and 353(5) of the Canada Elections Act). All “third parties” are also required to have a “financial agent” who will be responsible for collecting money to be spend on “partisan” or “election advertising” and for spending it (sections 349.7 and 354). These transactions must be done through a separate bank account (section 358.1) After the election is over, a detailed report on the money collected, advertising taken out, and costs incurred must be filed (section 359). And this is not all. Those “third parties” that spend more than 10,000$ are also required to file interim reports during the course of the election campaign and, most significantly, to appoint auditors (section 355) and file the auditor’s report on their spending (section 360).

Needless to say, this is all quite costly, at least in time, but also ― especially for those third parties that spend more 10,000$ ― in money. Big trade unions, whose budgets are extracted from workers who don’t get a say on whether to contribute or on how the money is spend, may not be especially troubled by these costs. But for NGOs, whose income comes from voluntary (albeit taxpayer-subsidized) donations, and which need to be much more careful about how they spend it, compliance with the Canada Elections Act may be too expensive. From their perspective, the sensible if unfortunate thing to do may well be to keep quiet for the duration of the election campaign, or even starting with the beginning of the pre-campaign period.

This means that for a period of almost four months preceding the election ― the period when the most people pay attention, even if it’s still sporadic and fragmentary attention, to political and policy issues ― civil society organizations may indeed be prevented from expressing their opinion about politicians, except to the extent that the media will let them. Again, the bigger and better-known you are, the less of a problem this may be for you. Smaller groups, whose views are (naturally and fairly) of less interest to the media, will find it more difficult to get across to the voters. The more unusual voices, in other words, are the ones who are the most at risk of being silenced ― in effect if not, perhaps, in intent ― by the Canada Elections Act.

And of course even for larger groups, having to pass through the media means sound-bite-sized interventions have a much better chance of getting across to the voters than anything more serious. Say that a politician or party is anti-environment, or pro-worker, or something equally inane, and the media may well pick it up. But they’re not going to run a detailed report card assessing the competing parties’ platforms on some issue ― but publishing it on an NGO’s website, let alone running it as an advertisement would mean having to comply with burdensome registration and reporting requirements under the Canada Elections Act.


No wonder, then, that environmentalists are feeling muzzled and frustrated. And of course groups pursuing other agendas may be feeling that way too ― or may come to feel that way when the occasion arises. They have more than a little justification. And they shouldn’t be the only ones feeling wronged. The voters should be too. You may not miss the presence of a particular set of activists in the election campaign, but the rules that silence them silence the activists on your side too. You may not be all that interested activists generally have to say, but you should be interested in politicians’ feet being held to the fire.

The ostensible rationale for registration and reporting requirements is that they serve to promote transparency, in addition to assisting in the enforcement of spending limits applicable to “third parties”. It is on that basis that the Supreme Court upheld those requirements that apply in the course of the election campaign ― although not those applicable in the pre-campaign period, which weren’t yet in the Canada Elections Act ― in Harper. Yet one needs to weigh the value of transparency against the costs that its pursuit imposes on those subject to the Canada Elections Act ― and, as I have just explained, on the voters who are being deprived of important contributions to the electoral debate.

The Harper majority’s analysis on this point was quite perfunctory. There is no real discussion of compliance costs and their deterrent effects. Instead, the majority is content to baldly assert that “[t]he appointment of a financial agent or auditor is not overly onerous. Rather, it arguably facilitates the reporting requirements.” [145] Even worse, the majority did not at all consider what I think is the crucial issue: the thresholds at which the registration and reporting requirements kick in. All it said was that the requirements “vary depending on the amount spent on election advertising”. [145] Yet one can accept the principle of imposing such requirements on heavy spenders while also acknowledging that the existing rules go much too far.

In New Zealand, “third parties” are not required to register until they spend NZ$13,200 (ca. C$11,000); more detailed reporting requirements only apply once a “third party” spends NZ$100,000. (Even then, third parties aren’t peremptorily required to provide an auditor’s report, although they may be asked to do so.) These strike me as rather more reasonable figures than those in the Canada Elections Act, though even they should probably be multiplied several-fold to account for the fact that New Zealand’s population is only a small fraction of Canada’s.

It is difficult to believe that a “third party” spending a few thousand, or even tens of thousand of dollars is going to have any substantial impact on an election by itself. At most, it may be successful enough in getting other people ― voters, media, or politicians ― to discuss the issues it is raising. It is this discussion, rather than anything published on an NGO’s website or even a Facebook ad, that might, conceivably albeit theoretically, matter. In the abstract, this discussion might be enriched by more disclosure. In practice, the very real costs of the disclosure requirements end up preventing the conversations from happening at all. I fail to see how the voters benefit from this.


As Elections Canada points out in its response to the environmentalist groups, the “advertising during the election period has been subject to the Canada Elections Act for nearly 20 years”. This is true. (As noted above, rules on advertising in the pre-election period are new.) For about half of this time, it has been known, at least to those who study these things, that the rules tend to hobble not business interests, but labour unions and civil society groups. Colin Feasby wrote about this in 2010; I did (in the context of Québec elections, which are subject to similar but even more draconian rules) in 2012; also in 2012 Tom Flanagan came out in support of rules like those in the Canada Elections Act, whose enactment he had opposed, with the declared intention to muzzle unions; I updated Dr. Feasby’s findings in an article published in 2015. And in my statement to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs when it was studying amendments to the Canada Elections Act last year (which, among other things, introduced restrictions on “third parties” in the pre-campaign period) I specifically mentioned both the registration and reporting requirements’ tendency to muzzle civil society, and the needless low threshold at which these requirements apply. Needless to say, that had no effect on the resulting legislation.

Yet at every election the impact of restrictions on “third parties” seems to surprise. It happened in Québec in 2014, when the Chief Electoral Officer tried censoring a short documentary a group of citizens had produced to oppose the election of the Parti québécois and the enactment of its “values charter”. Eventually, the Chief Electoral Officer changed his mind; but he was wrong to do so. It happened again in Québec in 2018, now with environmentalist groups being targeted. And now it’s happening at the federal level. The system, one might say, is working. It was designed to shut down political debate not dominated by politicians or the media. That’s what it’s doing.

It will be obvious that I don’t think it’s a good system. Like the National Post’s Chris Selley, I think the rules need to be changed. Whether any restrictions on political spending are justified is debatable but, as noted above, one can accept the premises of Canada Elections Act and still support relaxing its requirements a great deal. Ideally, the next Parliament will take up the issue. But there is also room for litigation. Certainly rules on pre-campaign spending, whose constitutionality has not yet been tested all the way to the Supreme Court can be challenged. But perhaps even the registration and reporting rules upheld in Harper could be attacked, provided that the courts are forced to consider solid evidence of their pernicious effects.

The Tragedy of Lord Sumption

Thoughts on Lord Sumption’s views on the relationship between law and politics

In my last post, I summarized at length Lord Sumption’s Reith Lectures, delivered earlier this year. As I noted there, Lord Sumption’s views on politics, law, and the relationship between the two are challenging ― especially, but by no means only, to those of us who support judicial review of legislation. Here, I would like to explain why I think there is much truth in what Lord Sumption says, but also to point out the weaknesses and even contradictions in his claims.

By way of reminder, Lord Sumption begins by arguing that the domain of law has been expanding for the last two hundred years, as people have (once again) turned to the state as the provider of physical and economic security and moral certainty. But this expansion has brought with it concerns that the state’s power reaches too far. Representative politics can help mitigate these concerns by generating compromise and accommodation between majorities and minorities. Yet as politics loses its lustre, people turn to law to control the outcomes politics produces. Law promises (and sometimes delivers) principled decision-making, but it does so at the cost of compromise and accommodation and thus, ultimately, legitimacy. The courts end up creating and defining new constraints on politics, and there is little to choose between such constraints being undemocratically imposed in the name of liberalism or of some other ideology. Moreover, in the long run, politics, with its capacity to legitimate limitations on state power provides better security for rights than the law. Yet politics is ailing. Constitutional reform, and especially constitutional entrenchment, will not save it. If democracy is hollowed out, Lord Sumption grimly concludes, we will not notice, “and the fault will be ours”. (V/7; NB: I will use roman numerals to designate the lecture, and arabic ones for the page in the transcript; links to individual transcripts are in the previous post.)


Significant parts of Lord Sumption’s argument run along the lines drawn by Jeremy Waldron, notably in “The Core of the Case against Judicial Review”. The emphasis on the importance of disagreement and the preference for settling disagreement about rights through the political process, in part because it is more egalitarian than adjudication, sound Waldronian. The skepticism about the capacity of judges, or indeed of anyone else, to find out the truth of the matter about moral issues, is Waldronian too. Lord Sumption does not mention Professor Waldron, or indeed any thinker more contemporary that A.V. Dicey, so it’s not quite clear whether how direct Professor Waldron’s influence on him is. However, original or not, these points are important and bear repetition.

Lord Sumption’s critique of the undemocratic character of “dynamic treaties” ― or, I would add, any constitutional documents interpreted as “living instruments” ― builds on these arguments. He focuses on the judicial creation of rights on the basis that “a modern democracy ought to have” (III/3) them ― or, in other words, of what I have been calling “constitutionalism from the cave” ― as qualitatively different from mere application of fixed texts to new facts. Readers will not be surprised to learn that this strikes me as compelling. Lord Sumption’s argument tracks public meaning originalist views, a point to which I will return, but since he does not disclose his influences, I don’t know whether he is at all interested in originalist theory. It is worth noting that, in a later lecture on “Judicial Review and Judicial Supremacy“, Professor Waldron too has focused on living constitutionalism, and specifically the claim that a constitutional court is entitled “to develop new views about (what the court thinks) the constitution ought to have forbidden (though it did not) and to act on these views” (40) as especially problematic.

One additional point on which Lord Sumption echoes that lecture of Professor Waldron is the rejection of comprehensive systems of values as suitable objects for judicial enforcement. Professor Waldron does not want judges to “begin to think of themselves and present themselves as pursuing a coherent program or policy rather just responding to” (27) individual violations of the constitution that happen from time to time. Lord Sumption’s forceful rejection of values systems ― which he equates with one another for this purpose, so that entrenchment and judicial enforcement of a liberal dogma is, in a sense, no different from that of “Islamic political theology or the dictatorship of the proletariat” (IV/4) ― seems to reflect this concern. If asked to take judicial review of legislation as a given, as Professor Waldron does in the “Judicial Supremacy” lecture, Lord Sumption would also urge a piecemeal rather than a systematic approach as the more modest one.


But Lord Sumption’s argument is not simply a reprise of Professor Waldron’s. What makes him interesting, and challenging not just for supporters of judicial review of legislation but also for critics, is that his vision of politics is a gloomy one. Those who have misgivings about judicial review, including Professor Waldron or, to take a couple of Canadian examples, Chief Justice Glenn Joyal of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench in a lecture on “The Charter and Canada’s New Political Culture” and Joanna Baron and Geoffrey Sigalet in a Policy Options post earlier this year, tend to be fairly optimistic about democratic politics. Professor Waldron, especially in “The Core of the Case”, thinks that democratic majorities will protect rights about as well as courts, although in later work he has recognized that some minorities (such as criminal suspects) might end up being routinely shortchanged by the democratic process. He has also forcefully criticized the views of those who equate the Rule of Law with the protection of property and contract rights and, on this basis, are skeptical of social legislation and the welfare state. Chief Justice Joyal, for his part, has extolled “bold” and

“purposeful” governance … expected to include and achieve … the realization of big and bold federal and provincial objectives [and] to assist in the accommodation and brokering of … diverse and conflicting interests underlying the various societal ills and problems. 

Accommodation and compromise are the best outcomes that Lord Sumption sees democratic politics produce. “Bold” and “purposeful” governance? He seems pretty skeptical. It is not just that he sees and laments the decline in the authority of political institutions ― Chief Justice Joyal saw and lamented that too. More interestingly, I take Lord Sumption to raise the possibility that, even when it functions well, democratic politics is dangerous.

Much of Lord Sumption’s first lecture is devoted to establishing this proposition. Pointing out “rising demands of the State as a provider of amenities, as a guarantor of minimum standards of security and as a regulator of economic activity” (I/4), as well the voters’ tendency to be “afraid to let people be guided by their own moral judgments in case they arrive at judgments which we do not agree with”, (I/6) he seems to echo Lord Acton’s prescient warning, in the Lectures on Modern History, about seeing the “[g]overnment [as] the intellectual guide of the nation, the promoter of wealth, the teacher of knowledge, the guardian of morality, the mainspring of the ascending movement of man”, (289) though again he does not refer to Acton or to any other source. Lord Sumption’s concern at the far-reaching and unrealistic expectations that people have of government and government’s tendency to restrict liberty to try to meet these expectations points to an ineradicable flaw of democracy.

What is more, at times, Lord Sumption seems to accept that certain rights are could appropriately be entrenched beyond the reach of democratic politics. He mentions, repeatedly, rights not to have one’s life, liberty, or property interfered with arbitrarily or without the ability to challenge the interference in court, as well as democratic rights. At other times, admittedly, Lord Sumption seems to say that, in the United Kingdom anyway, an entrenched constitution ― even, it might seem, one limited to protecting these rights, would be inappropriate. This contradiction is never fully resolved, although perhaps what Lord Sumption means is that a narrowly drawn constitution protecting these rights is theoretically desirable, but does not offer sufficient benefits to be worth the dislocation that would occur if it were to be enacted in the UK. Be that as it may, Lord Sumption’s nods in the direction of a limited entrenched constitution and his support for a fairly robust version of the principle of legality ― including in cases like R (Unison) v Lord Chancellor [2017] UKSC 51, which others have criticized as impinging on Parliamentary sovereignty ― suggest concern at what democratic institutions, if left unchecked, might do to important rights and constitutional principles.

This is what prompts me to see Lord Sumption’s vision of law and politics as tragic. He doesn’t have much hope for law, and says we must trust in politics, but his “praise of politics”, to borrow the title of his second lecture, is damningly faint. If all goes as well as it might, he says, we’ll keep muddling through, and not oppress too many people while lurching between overbearing optimism and fretful censoriousness. And perhaps, all will not go so well, although we will not even notice.


Is this the best we can do? I do not want to give quite so easily, and so I would like to try to rescue law, and perhaps, in a way, even politics, from Lord Sumption’s critique. This is almost a matter of necessity: after all, Lord Sumption himself thinks that some measure of entrenchment may well be justified, or at least excusable, and between that and his admonition to avoid dislocating established and functioning constitutional orders, those of us living in polities with entrenched constitutions should probably try to make them work before thinking about abolishing them. Moreover, even if we agree with Lord Sumption that entrenching rights is a bad idea, we still need to think about structural features of constitutions, to which Lord Sumption pays almost no attention. (This is another element of his thinking that he shares with Professor Waldron.) And besides, I am as worried as Lord Sumption by the overbearing, illiberal tendencies of contemporary democracy, and less willing to resign myself to them.

One question that needs to be asked is whether attempts to impose legal constraints on government are necessarily bound to degenerate into living constitutionalist creation of unwarranted constraints by the courts. Lord Sumption seems to think so. He implicitly accepts the living constitutionalist view that constitutional terms such as “due process of law” have no fixed meanings, and that adjudication based on such terms is inevitably going to answer the question not “whether the right exists but whether it ought to exist”. (IV/5) And, to be sure, there is no shortage of living constitutionalists who agree with him, from the hosts of the Stereo Decisis podcast to Supreme Court judges giving constitutional benediction to rights they invent. As I have suggested here,

if constitutional disputes can only be decided by reference to what are political rather than legal considerations, then it is not obvious, as a normative matter, why they should be decided by the courts rather than by political institutions. 

But while Lord Sumption is right about this, I believe he errs in accepting that adjudication of rights issues must devolve into judicial benediction of rights or ― what is equally non-judicial ― dogmatic deference to legislative choices. In many ― I think in most ― cases, an originalist court that seeks to ascertain the public meaning of constitutional texts, and perhaps to engage in good-faith development of constitutional doctrine based on the texts’ original purposes can actually avoid adjudicating primarily on the basis of its normative priors. As William Baude has pointed out, this requires an effort at self-restraint on the court’s part: the court must accept that its first task is to ascertain the meaning of existing law, without rushing to conclude that this meaning is obscure so as to impose its own views on the parties. But I do not think that such an effort is impossible for courts to undertake. Indeed, even that ostensible champion of living constitutionalism, the Supreme Court Canada, already engages in originalist adjudication, admittedly of varying quality, in a non-negligible number of cases, as I have most recently discussed here.

Emphasizing the importance of constrained, originalist constitutional adjudication ― rather than throwing up our hands and conceding that the courts will do what they please with constitutional texts ― is all the more important because it can help resolve not only cases about fundamental rights but also those dealing with structural aspects of constitutions. Lord Sumption says almost nothing about federalism and separation of powers; to me, the way in which he breezes past them in his discussion of the United States is quite disappointing, a rare moment of incuriosity in an otherwise very thoughtful lecture series. Lord Sumption’s preferred understanding of democracy, as “a constitutional mechanism for arriving at collective decisions and accommodating dissent” (III/7) seems to put structural issues front and centre. And given his sharp comments about the pernicious effects of bypassing the usual parliamentary mechanism in favour of a referendum on Brexit, I think he ought at least to give some thought to the question of whether, quite apart from entrenching rights, the decision-making processes of representative democracy may require robust constitutional safeguards against elected officials inclined to sacrifice them for momentary political advantage.

Ultimately, though, I think that Lord Sumption is too quick to reject the desirability of substantive limits on legislation, as well as to ignore the need for structural safeguards. He thinks that it is not a problem that, under the existing UK constitution, “the limits on what Parliament [or legislatures] can do depend on political conventions [that] derive their force from shared political sentiment which would make it politically costly to disregard them”. (V/2) (The situation is the same under the Canadian constitution except with respect to issues on which the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has something to say.) Yet Lord Sumption gives cogent reasons to think that democratic politics often do not make it costly for Parliament to overreach and overregulate; and, on the contrary, that voters will, in the long run, demand too much conformity and control. These concerns echo those already expressed F.A. Hayek’s, in The Road to Serfdom. They are not new. They should be addressed, if possible, with more than vague hopes of compromise.

Indeed, I also think that Lord Sumption oversells compromise. He is right that one cannot expect to always get what one wants in politics, and that unwillingness to give an inch to partisan opponents one believes to be unprincipled at best, if not outright evil, is a real problem. But surely compromise isn’t valuable on any terms. To say so is only to encourage extremist opening bids by people who will expect us to agree to slightly more moderate versions of their still unreasonable demands in the name of accommodation. (The Québec government’s defence of its anti-religious dress code as moderate is a good example of this.) Compromise is important, but it cannot always be justly expected. As Lord Sumption himself recognizes, there are laws that make civilized coexistence or full membership in a democratic community impossible.


Lord Sumption’s Reith lectures are well worth listening to or reading, and reflecting on. They challenge those of us who support judicial review of legislation with an accessible but powerful restatement of the Waldronian case against that constitutional device and affirmation of the importance of democracy. They challenge Waldronians and other supporters of democratic institutions with a frank and not at all optimistic assessment of these institutions’ output. They are not right about everything ― but, insofar as they are wrong, they are wrong in interesting ways. As I said in introducing my summary of the lectures, I think that incoming law students, in particular, would benefit from engaging with Lord Sumption’s ideas. But so would those with more experience of the law. I am sure I have.

The Fault Will Be Ours

Lord Sumption on politics, law, and the meaning and decline of democracy

A couple of months ago, Jonathan Sumption, former barrister extraordinaire, recently-retired UK Supreme Court judge, and well-regarded historian too, delivered the BBC’s Reith Lectures for this year, speaking on Law and the Decline of Politics. Despite my delay in getting to them, I think they are worth writing about. Lord Sumption’s arguments challenge most if not all of us in one way or another. I expect that those used to the North American way of thinking about constitutional law will find them more uncongenial than many lawyers in the United Kingdom or in New Zealand, but Lord Sumption’s views do not neatly fit into any pre-defined category, and will have something that will force just about anyone to reflect. (I particularly recommend the lectures to any students who are about to start studying law; they are quite accessible, but will give you an excellent preview of many of the debates you will confront in the coming years, and expose you to a way of thinking that is not exactly prevalent in North American law schools.)

In a nutshell, Lord Sumption’s argument is that, as he put it in the first lecture, “Law’s Expanding Empire“,

law does not occupy a world of its own. It is part of a larger system of public decision making. The rest is politics. The politics of ministers and legislators of political parties, of media and pressure groups, and of the wider electorate. (2-3)

The question is, how does law relate to this larger system? What is the place of law vis-à-vis politics? Should it, in particular, be used to control political outcomes and bring them into alignment with some set of substantive values? Lord Sumption wants to caution us against the dangers he says lying in wait if we go down this path. But it is not because he takes an especially optimistic view of politics. In this post, I summarize the five lectures. (It will, I am afraid, be quite long.) I will comment separately.


Lord Sumption’s misgivings appear especially strongly in his first lecture. Law, he says, is an alternative to chaos. But just how much law (and how many lawyers) do we need? Lord Sumption observes that

Until the 19th century, most human interactions were governed by custom and convention. The law dealt with a narrow range of human problems. It regulated title to property, it enforced contracts, it protected people’s lives, their persons, their liberty and their property against arbitrary injury, but that was about all. Today, law penetrates every corner of human life. (3)

It need not be that way. The Rule of Law requires limitation of government power and the protection against interference with life, liberty, and property, as well access to the courts to enforce these limits and protections, but it does not necessarily follow that law needs to be pervasive. Rather, this is something that the voters have chosen, in an ongoing fit of general optimism about the prospects of collective action. Democracy “has inevitably led to rising demands of the State as a provider of amenities, as a guarantor of minimum standards of security and as a regulator of economic activity”. (4)

Moreover, after a retreat over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, “a growing moral and social absolutism … looks to law to produce conformity”. Even when there is no real consensus in the community about what how a particular moral issue ought to be treated,

we resort to law to impose uniform solutions in areas where we once contemplated a diversity of judgment and behaviour. We are afraid to let people be guided by their own moral judgments in case they arrive at judgments which we do not agree with. (6)

It is as if moral judgment, which would have been individual in the past, has increasingly been collectivized. In a growing number of cases, moreover, this judgment has been delegated to the judiciary.

At the same time, there has been a push to take judgments about safety and security away from individuals and hand them over to public authorities, under judicial supervision. As more misfortunes appear preventable, the demands are made for them to be prevented; “we are no longer willing to accept the wheel of fortune as an ordinary incident of human existence”. (7) Yet this is achieved only by “restricting the liberty of the public at large in order to deprive them of the opportunity to harm themselves”. (7)

The result of it all, Lord Sumption says, is the comeback of the Hobbesian Leviathan: “[t]he 17th century may have abolished absolute monarchy but the 20th century created absolute democracy in its place”. (8) And unlike when government was an external, antagonistic force, democratic government “is us”. (8) We both fear and repose our fondest hopes in it.


In his second lecture, “In Praise of Politics“, Lord Sumption asks, “how do we control the potentially oppressive power of democratic majorities without undermining democracy itself?” (2) He focuses on the notion of legitimacy, which he defines as “a collective instinct that we owe it to each other to accept the authority of our institutions, even when we don’t like what they are doing”. (2) Any government, but especially a democratic one, must preserve its legitimacy. Democracy does this by accommodating differences between majorities and minorities, and securing compromises that mean that minorities do not become “permanently disaffected groups [with] no common bonds to transcend their differences with the majority”. (2) This can be done through representative government or through law.

Representative institutions, in contrast to winner-take-all direct democracy, exist in part to accommodate the interests and demands of minorities. They make compromise possible. Building on the thought of James Madison and Edmund Burke, Lord Sumption argues that “political elites have their uses. Professional politicians can fairly be expected to bring to their work a more reflective approach, a broader outlook and a lot more information than their electors”. (3) They are also better placed to further national “collective interests which extend over a longer time scale and a wider geographical range than are ever likely to be reflected in the public opinion of the moment”. (3)

Bypassing the processes of representative government, as was done with the Brexit referendum is dangerous. Compromise becomes impossible, as

52 per cent of voters feel entitled to speak for the whole nation and 48 per cent don’t matter at all. … It is the mentality which has created an unwarranted sense of entitlement among the sort of people who denounce those who disagree with them as enemies, traitors, saboteurs, even Nazis. This is the authentic language of totalitarianism. It is the lowest point to which a political community can sink, short of actual violence.

Lord Sumption warns, however, that disengagement from politics calls into question the ability of the political process to generate compromise and legitimacy. Political parties play an important role in securing the accommodation of various interests in policy-making, but as their membership has declined greatly, they are no longer representative of the broader citizenry, and the candidates whom they put forward are increasingly out of touch with the voters. All this “is, in the long
run, likely to lead to a far more partisan and authoritarian style of political leadership”. (5)

Law, the other barrier to oppressive majorities, has become more important as politics has lost its lustre. The politicians’ authority is waning, but the judges’ is undiminished; indeed it is growing:

Judges are intelligent, reflective and articulate people. They are intellectually honest, by and large. They are used to thinking seriously about problems which have no easy answer and contrary to familiar clichés, they know a great deal about the world. The whole judicial process is animated by a combination of abstract reasoning, social observation and ethical value judgment that seems, to many people, to introduce a higher morality into public decision-making. (5)

The judiciary is now more active than it used to be in policing the actions of other public authorities. It does so, in particular, by enforcing the principle of legality, which Lord Sumption suggests should rather be called “the principle of legitimacy”. The principle is appropriately applied to ensure that Parliament faces the consequences of measures that would amount to, notably, “retrospective legislation, oppression of individuals, obstructing access to a [c]ourt, [or] acts contrary to international law”. However, it can be taken further, and made into a barrier to Parliament acting, even advisedly, in ways the courts simply disagree with.

However much we may agree with the outcomes in particular cases, we should be wary of this empowerment of politically unaccountable institutions. It is not the courts’ function to generate compromise, and therefore legitimacy. The law’s strengths are also its weaknesses:

Law is rational. Law is coherent. Law is analytically consistent and rigorous. But in public affairs these are not always virtues. Opacity, inconsistency and fudge maybe intellectually impure, which is why lawyers don’t like them, but they are often inseparable from the kind of compromises that we have to make as a society if we are going to live together in peace. (7)


Lord Sumption’s third lecture, “Human Rights and Wrongs” focuses on what he describes as “an unfriendly meeting” (1) between law and politics. The idea of fundamental rights is not new; in earlier times it was expressed through the concept of natural rights. The trouble with it, however, is that

[t]o say that rights are inherent in our humanity without law is really no more than rhetoric. It doesn’t get us anywhere unless there is some way of identifying which rights are inherent in our humanity and why, and that is essentially a matter of opinion. (2)

Indeed, “[r]ights … are the creation of law which is a product of social organisation and is therefore, necessarily, a matter of political choice”. (2) How is the choice to be made, how are the differences of opinion to be settled? Appealing to democracy is a problem since the point of rights is to protect people from what democratic majorities might do to them. But what else is there? Neither religion nor ideology work in a democratic society.

Still, there is wide agreement that there are some truly fundamental rights: those having to do with due process of law (though Lord Sumption does not use this label), and democratic rights, such as “freedom of thought and expression, assembly and association, and the right to participate in fair and regular elections”. (3)

Legislators can create further rights, including by subscribing to rights-creating treaties. But what Lord Sumption describes as “dynamic treaties”, such as the European Convention Human Rights (ECHR), as it has been interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights (the Strasbourg Court), whose content keeps being developed by supranational institutions after their implementation in law “escape[] parliamentary control”. (3) As Lord Sumption describes the Strasbourg Court’s jurisprudence, it “develops [the ECHR] by a process of extrapolation or analogy so as to reflect its own view of what additional rights a modern democracy ought to have”. (3) This goes beyond “applying an abstract statement of principle to concrete facts” that weren’t originally anticipated, or giving effect to “concepts … such as the notion of inhuman or degrading treatment [that] plainly do evolve over the time with changes in our collective values”. (4) Such developments are “a form of non-consensual legislation”. (4)

Good or bad, this judicial legislation is controversial; in any case, law should not be made judges, disempowering citizens. In particular, questions about the limitation of rights, the purposes for which it can be undertaken, and the degree to which it is necessary, “are all intensely political … . Yet, the [ECHR] reclassifies them as questions of law”, (6) to be settled by the courts rather than the political process.

We can think of democracy, Lord Sumption says, either as “a constitutional mechanism for arriving at collective decisions and accommodating dissent” or as “a system of values”, (7) of substantive requirements that a political system must fulfill. A political system that is democratic in one sense is not necessarily democratic in the other. Lord Sumption worries that “[d]emocracy, in its traditional sense” (that is, the first one) “is extremely vulnerable to the idea that one’s own values are so obviously urgent and right that the means by which one gets them adopted don’t matter”. (7) And he worries that many lawyers are tempted to attribute such urgency to liberal values. For his part, he rejects this view, which he finds

conceptually no different from the claim of communism, fascism, monarchism, Catholicism, Islamism and all the other great isms that have historically claimed a monopoly of legitimate political discourse on the ground that its advocates considered themselves to be obviously right. (7)


Lord Sumption’s fourth lecture, “Rights and the Ideal Constitution” takes on a constitutional system that has implemented a number of substantive, values-based constraints on democratic decision-making: that of the United States. Lord Sumption is skeptical of what he calls the “legal model” of the state, since “in the long run, political constraints on the part of majorities are likely to be a great deal more effective than legal ones”. (2) To be sure, the “legal model” promises constraint “based on a body of principle applied by judges” (3) immune from the sort of pressures and incentives to which politicians are subject. This model is based on mistrust of “elective institutions” and their ability “to form opinions about [rights] with the necessary restraint, intelligence or moral sensibility”. (3)

Against that, Lord Sumption argues, we need to count the value of legitimacy: “‘We, the people,’ is the emotional foundation of democracy in Britain as well as in the United States”. Democratic decision-making is also egalitarian. A constitution that enforces a set of substantive values, be they those of “liberalism, human rights, Islamic political theology or the
dictatorship of the proletariat” (4) is neither egalitarian nor legitimate in the eyes of those who do not share these values. It is, therefore, not the right kind of constitution: “the proper function of a constitution is to determine how we participate in the decision-making processes of the state and not to determine what the outcome should be”. (4) Instead of looking for “the right answers to … moral dilemmas”, a polity should content itself with “a political process in which every citizen can engage whose results, however imperfect, are likely to be acceptable to the widest possible range of interests and opinions”. (4)

Echoing the arguments made in the previous lecture in the context of the ECHR, Lord Sumption reiterates that in deciding rights claims based on vague constitutional language judges are deciding not so much “whether the right exists but whether it ought to exist. Yet, that is surely a question for lawmakers and not judges.” (5) Anyway, “on politically controversial issues, the decisions of judges almost always involve a large element of political value judgment”, and “are not necessarily wiser or morally superior to the judgments of the legislature”. (5) Lord Sumption also reiterates his earlier point that judicial resolution of essentially political disputes does not leave room for compromise and accommodation. By contrast, political compromise may succeed at resolving differences in the community, as it did over abortion in Britain (in contrast to the United States).

All that said, Lord Sumption cautions that it does not follow “that there are no rights which should be constitutionally protected in a democracy”. (6) Rather, “one must be very careful about which rights one regards as
so fundamental as to be beyond democratic choice”. (6) Again, life, liberty, property, due process, and democratic rights fit the bill. But they will not be enough to protect against the tyranny of the majority. Ultimately, “the Courts cannot parry the broader threat that legislative majorities may act oppressively unless they assume legislative powers for themselves”. (7) If any barrier can do that, it must be found in the political culture, not in the law.


Lord Sumption’s fifth and last lecture, “Shifting the Foundations“, addresses the proposals for introducing the “legal model” of the state to the United Kingdom. Lord Sumption suggests that, although presented as a solution to the ongoing crisis of political institutions, this idea, like all calls for institutional reform in response to crises real or supposed, has little to do with the problems it purports to address. There is something, Lord Sumption says, to the criticisms of the UK’s existing constitutional arrangements, said to be “obscure, old-fashioned, out of step with international practice and giv[ing] far too much power to Parliament”. (3) But there is also something to be said in defense of these arrangements.

Lord Sumption points out that “[t]he godparents of written constitutions have been revolution, invasion, civil war and decolonisation”. (3) Nothing of the sort has happened in the UK in centuries. As a result, there is no blank slate on which to write a new constitution. If this were nevertheless done, the result, even if

an artefact of perfect rationality, a thing of great intellectual beauty … would have no basis in our historical experience, and experience counts for a great deal in human affairs; more than rationality, more even than beauty. Ultimately, the habits, traditions and attitudes of human communities are more powerful than law. (3)

Besides, the flexible political constitution has been able “to adapt to major changes in our national life which would have overwhelmed much more formal arrangements”. (3)

The problem, and not just in the UK but elsewhere, Lord Sumption argues, is not with institutions but a political culture struggling with

long term decline in the membership … of all the major national political parties, falling turnout at elections, widespread contempt for professional politicians, the rise of powerful regional nationalisms offering a more immediate source of legitimacy. (4)

The reason for this malaise, Lord Sumption suggests, is that democracy cannot meet the unrealistic expectations for it that result “from the eternal optimism of mankind, … a misunderstanding of the role of politicians, and … an exaggerated view of their power to effect major change”, as well as “the auction of promises at every general election”. (5) This produces “a sense of impotent frustration [that] undermines public confidence in the whole political process”. (5) Those who are disappointed with the representative institutions (Lord Sumption specifically mentions environmentalists frustrated by inaction on climate change) are prepared to look to a strongman who will “get things done”. A further problem is that “[p]eople expect their representatives, not just to act for them, but to be like them”, yet “all political systems are aristocracies of knowledge. Democracy is only different in that the aristocracies are installed and removable by popular vote”. (5) This exacerbates “[r]esentment of political elites”, (6) which plays a large role in current politics.

For Lord Sumption, constitutional change is not the answer to these difficulties, although he is interested in electoral reform “if it boosted public engagement with politics and enabled them, once more, to accommodate differences of interest and opinion across our population”. (7) An entrenched constitution subject to judicial interpretation, by contrast, “will simply produce a partial shift of power from an elective and removable aristocracy of knowledge to a core of professional judges which is just as remote, less representative and neither elective nor removable”. (6)

Lord Sumption ends on a dark note:

we will not recognise the end of democracy when it comes, if it does. Advanced democracies are not overthrown, there are no tanks on the street, no sudden catastrophes, no brash dictators or braying mobs, instead, their institutions are imperceptibly drained of everything that once made them democratic. The labels will still be there, but they will no longer describe the contents, the facade will still stand, but there will be nothing behind it, the rhetoric of democracy will be unchanged, but it will be meaningless – and the fault will be ours. (7)


As noted above, there is much to reflect on here. I am not suggesting that everything Lord Sumption says is right; indeed, it cannot be, because his arguments are not altogether consistent with one another. I will set out some reflections on Lord Sumption’s views in my next post. For now, suffice it to say that, if we are to avoid the dark future whose possibility Lord Sumption asks us to confront, we need to think seriously about the issues he cogently outlines.

No Way to Make Law

The legislative process is being disgracefully abused in Ontario. Constitutional lawyers need to pay attention.

I wanted to write a post about those anti-carbon tax stickers the Ontario government wants to require gas stations to post. I will, eventually, get around to writing that post, I hope. Spoiler alert: I don’t like the idea of the Ontario government telling people what to say. Anyway, before I get around to a post detailing my objections to the substance of this policy, I need to write this one, which is about process by which the anti-carbon tax sticker requirement is being made into law. This process is disgusting, and I think we (by which I mean Canadian lawyers, especially Canadian lawyers interested in the constitution, and other members of the public interested in law and governance) need to be much more upset about it than I think we are.

The anti-carbon tax sticker requirement is set out in sub-clause 2(1) of the Federal Carbon Tax Transparency Act, 2019, Schedule 23 to Bill 100, Protecting What Matters Most Act (Budget Measures), 2019. Yes gentle reader, Schedule 23. Schedule 23 out of 61, that is. A great many things matter in the province of Ontario, one must surmise, and need protecting. The “Explanatory Note”, which provides anyone who can be bothered to read it an overview of the 61 statutes being amended or introduced by Bill 100, alone runs to more than 9000 words, or 13 dense pages of small print. And this is not because it is unduly detailed; on the contrary, in some cases, it contents itself with setting out “some highlights” of the amendments or new legislation being implemented. The actual legislation runs to about 81,000 words ― the length of a PhD dissertation. I think it is a safe bet that no one will ever bother reading that.

Among the threescore statutes concerned, a solid majority have little to do with the budget, as one would, I think, understand this word. There is the Bees Act, for instance, amended “to expand the method of delivering inspectors’ orders” made pursuant to some of its provisions; there is a new Combative Sports Act, 2019, which regulates ― so far as I can tell from its (perhaps inevitably, though I’m not sure) convoluted definitions provisions ― boxing, wrestling, and the like; there is the Courts of Justice Act, amended in relation to the publication of the Ontario Judicial Council’s reports and also to limit some civil jury trial rights; there is new legislation on Crown liability (which has received some harsh criticism); there are important changes to the Juries Act (which have actually come in for some praise); there is, of course, the gas station sticker legislation; and much, much, more, right up to some not doubt vitally important amendments to the Vital Statistics Act.

There is, so far as I can tell, no reason having anything to do with good government why these statutes need to be amended or enacted as a block, as part of a package of budget matters. Stephen Harper once had his “five priorities”, and though these were inevitably much derided, one could claim with a modicum of plausibility that a new government might focus on, say, those five things. Anyone who actually thinks that “combative sports”, carbon tax stickers, vital statistics, and 58 other things are all “what matters most” would be well advised to run, not walk, to the nearest psychiatrist’s office. (I say so without worrying for Ontario psychiatrists; they are unlikely to be burdened with many such visitors.) But of course, the reasons enact this legislative blob likely have nothing to do with good governance.

And this is where it’s time to drop the snark, and get serious ― and constitutional. In abstract separation of powers theory, the legislature is supposed to make law (except in those areas where it has delegated this power to the government, or left it to the courts; these are, of course, significant exceptions). In all the constitutional practice of all Westminster-type systems, so far as I know, the government dominates the legislative agenda. It mostly decides which statutes get in enacted and when. Still, the legislature has a distinctive role to play. For one thing, it is where legislation is debated, and debate might have some symbolic democratic value even if votes are ultimately whipped and their outcome is not in question. And for another, the process of committee study is what allows a detailed consideration of the proposed legislation, and also public submissions on it, and perhaps amendments to improve the proposal.

A government that cared about good governance would value this process. It might ultimately force its bills through, but it would at least be open to the idea that they might be improved, at the level of detail if not of principle, by input from backbenchers, members of the opposition, and members of the civil society. By contrast, a government that doesn’t care about good governance, and is only interested in getting its way as expeditiously as possible will see the legislative process, even one whose outcomes it is ultimately able to control, as a nuisance or, at best, as a needless formality. In either case, it will endeavour to deny the legislature the ability to play any other role than that of an extension of the government itself.

A government of the latter sort has a variety of means at its disposal. The amalgamation of multiple unrelated bills in a giant package, which drastically limits, perhaps to nothing, the extent to which each of them can be separately debated and studied is one of these means. Both Mr. Harper’s government and Justin Trudeau’s have been criticized for using and abusing this technique. Bill 100 is not exactly new in embodying it. But it should not be regarded as any less shocking despite this. By amalgamating 61 mostly disparate pieces of legislation, it prevents the legislature from properly considering them ― including those among them, like the Crown Liability and Proceedings Act, 2019 for example, that will become really substantial and very important statutes in their own right, as well as those, like the carbon tax sticker legislation, that have obvious, and ominous, implications for constitutional rights and freedoms. Bill 100 thus demonstrates nothing short of contempt for both good governance and the distinct constitutional role of the legislature. It is, as I have already said, disgusting and outrageous.

We have become inured to violations of what is sometimes described as legislative due process. As lawyers, we tend inevitably to focus our attention and energy where our expertise can make an obvious difference, in coming up with and then pursuing through the courts arguments about why the legislative end-product might be unconstitutional and therefore not law at all. I think this is understandable, inevitable to some extent, and perhaps even not always a bad thing. Still, by not thinking about the way laws are made, we let those who make them get away with the procedural equivalent of bloody murder.

This cannot go on. Those who take a benign view of legislatures and want to celebrate legislative engagement with constitutional issues need to get to grips with the reality of broken legislatures that act as rubber-stamps for executives that despise them. Those who, like me, are wary of legislatures and insist on the courts having a robust role in enforcing constitutional rights and other restrictions against them must nevertheless pay attention to what the legislatures are up to ― all the more so since we are more likely than our friends to take an appropriately skeptical view of the matter. But skepticism may not become indifference. We, along with the legislatures’ fans, with whom we can make peace for this purpose, need to get serious about making sure that our laws are made in a decent way ― and not in the way Ontario is making its laws right now.

Why Governments Are Not Angels

The SNC-Lavalin affair reveals serious challenges to the functioning of all three branches of the Canadian government

This post is co-written with Mark Mancini

Law Matters has approached us suggesting that we write a short piece on the lessons of the SNC-Lavalin affair ― and kindly accepted to let us post it here without waiting for their publishing process to take its course. So, with our gratitude to their Editor-in-Chief Joshua Sealy-Harrington, here it is.

Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of her office, and then resigned from cabinet; fellow minister Jane Philpott resigned too, and so have Gerald Butts, the principal secretary to Prime Minister, and Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council. Ms. Wilson-Raybound and Dr. Philpott have now been expelled from the Liberal caucus. Indeed, the Trudeau government’s future is seemingly imperiled by the SNC-Lavalin scandal. In the unflattering light of these events, Canadians may rightly wonder about the way our government works.

It appears that many of the key decisions in the affair were made by the Prime Minister’s surrogates, who had no regard for the legality of the situation, but were only too happy to advance a political agenda. While the situation is still unfolding, one can already say that it has revealed significant challenges faced by all three branches of our government, and the defects in the ways in which they relate to one another.

Most fundamentally, the SNC-Lavalin affair requires us to take a grittier view of the way government works in Canada. As one of us wrote previously, government in the 20th century was widely perceived as a means to achieve certain substantive ends associated with the social welfare state.  The basic mythology held that, to break the “individualistic” mould of a judicially-developed law focused on upholding property rights and private contractual arrangements, Parliament and legislatures enacted complex legislation, to be administered by expert and efficient tribunals and agencies nested within the executive branch but more or less independent from the supervision of its political masters. This delegation was meant to remove from courts issues of collective justice deemed ill-suited for judicial resolution. The courts, meanwhile, were given a different but even more prestigious role: that of upholding a confined but elastic range of (mostly) non-economic individual rights and liberties.  

This rather Pollyannaish view of government persists today. The executive and agencies are seen as trustworthy technocrats, entitled to judicial deference (regardless of the absence of any real empirical evidence to support this view). Parliament, as the high-minded centre of political representation (at least so long as it is controlled by parties sympathetic to the redistributive project) and accountability. The courts, as the protectors of the rights of minorities. The SNC-Lavalin affair provides strong evidence that this picture is naïve.


The executive branch of government, it turns out, is not only populated by neutral, technocratic arbiters of policy. Rather, politically-minded actors, people like the Prime Minister’s former Principal Secretary, lurk in the shadows―and consider themselves entitled to really call the shots. These are the people who, in the face of an Attorney General’s refusal to cede to the Prime Minister’s pressure, said that they did not want to talk about legalities. They were ready to line up op-eds in newspapers to provide cover fire for their dismissive attitude toward law and discredited legislation adopted by a previous Parliament in which their party did not control the seats.

Instead of being guided by the law, or even (their own conception of) justice, these unelected, unaccountable apparatchiks are only motivated by the prospects of electoral success. Their empowerment means that even those decisions of the executive branch that are ostensibly protected by constitutional principles and conventions mandating their independence (like the prosecutorial function), are perceived as always up for grabs, according to the demands of political expediency.

Meanwhile, some civil servants are a quite prepared to act as the political hacks’ supporting cast, instead of standing up for rules and procedures. Mr. Wernick, the former head of the civil service, certainly was, having apparently had no compunctions about relaying the Prime Minister’s unconstitutional threats to the former Attorney-General and persisting when she warned him of the inappropriateness of his behavior.

But what of Parliament’s role in fostering accountability? Here again, one should not be too optimistic. A government that has the support of a majority of members in the House of Commons will also command a majority on, and thus control the work of, Select Committees, which are key to ensuring that the government is held to account beyond the limited opportunities afforded by the spectacle of question time. Admittedly, the committee supposedly looking into the SNC-Lavalin affair has let the former Attorney General present her version of the events, and it has made public the further documents she supplied, including the damning recording of one of her conversations with Mr. Wernick. Yet the committee is still resisting the calls to allow Ms. Wilson-Raybould to appear again to respond to Messrs. Butts and Wernick’s subsequent attempts to discredit her.

Parliament’s role as a locus of accountability is further compromised by the restrictions on what Ms. Wilson-Raybould is able―as a matter of ethics, at least―to say, even under cover of Parliamentary privilege. The problem is twofold. First, there is some debate about whether Parliamentary procedure would provide the former Attorney General an opportunity to speak despite the opposition of her former party colleagues. Second, even if such an opportunity is available, there is the matter of cabinet privilege, which in principle binds former (as well as current) ministers, even when they speak in Parliament. The Prime Minister could waive privilege in this case, to allow Ms. Wilson-Raybould to speak freely, but he is refusing to do so. 

Finally, the judiciary is unlikely to come out well of the SNC-Lavalin affair―even though it is not directly involved. For one thing, someone―and it is not unreasonable to suppose that that someone is not very far removed from the Prime Minister’s entourage or office―has seen it fit to drag a respected sitting judge, Chief Justice Joyal of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, through the mud in an attempt to cast aspersions on the former Attorney General. (One of us, we should perhaps note, has been more critical than the other of that judge’s views. In any case, the insinuations that Chief Justice Joyal would not follow the constitution are based on, at best, a fundamental misreading of his extra-judicial statements.)

But beyond that deplorable incident of which a sitting judge has been an innocent victim, it is the former members of the judiciary whose standing has been called into question. In particular, it is worth noting that Mr. Wernick, in his conversations with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, seemed to have no doubt that the former Chief Justice would be able to provide support for the Prime Minister’s position―despite his repeated acknowledgements that he was no lawyer. There is no question that the former Chief Justice, and other former judges involved in or mentioned in connection with the SNC-Lavalin affair, were independent while they were on the bench. Yet their willingness to become hired guns once retired, and perhaps to take aim in accordance with the government’s commands, is still disturbing.


One view of the matter is that―despite the gory appearances it projects and creaky sounds it makes― “the system works”. As Philippe Lagassé wrote in Maclean’s, referring to James Madison’s well-known remark in Federalist No. 51 that “[i]f men were angels, no government would be necessary”, the test of a government is not whether its non-angelic members turn out to be fallible, and sometimes unethical, human beings, but whether “our constitutional constructs include checks and balances to deal with their naturally occurring slip-ups”.

And perhaps the SNC-Lavalin affair ought to give new life to the idea that responsible government—and its attendant norms of political accountability and control of the executive by Parliament—provide adequate checks and balances for government in the 21st century. Despite the limitations on Parliament’s ability to hold the government to account, the opposition party has been able to whip up sufficient public scrutiny to force the hand of the incumbent ministry. Notably, the exposure of the roles played by Messrs. Butts and Wernick is a consequence of the opposition’s pressure―as well as, arguably, of the ability of the media, old and new, to involve experts capable of explaining complex constitutional issues in the discussion of political events. Perhaps, if public attention to aspects of our system that we typically do not consider can be sustained once the interest in the scandal at hand subsides, the system will even come out of it stronger than it was, especially if Parliament can, henceforth, put its mind to holding the executive accountable for its exercise of the powers Parliament has delegated to it.

But this view may well be too optimistic. Just a couple of sentences before his “if men were angels” quip, Madison issued a no less famous exhortation: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” The worry is that our constitutional set-up fails to adequately establish this connection; that it does not guarantee that ambition will counteract instead of abetting ambition; and it relies too much on human character being, if not angelic, then unusually virtuous.

As Dr. Philpott observed in a statement following her expulsion from the Liberal caucus, “[i]t is frankly absurd to suggest that I would leave one of the most senior portfolios in government for personal advancement”. Similarly, it seems most unlikely that Ms. Wilson-Raybould would have taken the principled stand she took, rather than doing the bidding of Messrs. Butts and Wernick and the Prime Minister himself, had she been the ordinarily self-interested politician. The ambitious thing to do for someone in her position would have been to take a hint, and to do as she was told.

And what would have happened then? Sure, her decision to overrule the Public Prosecution Service and to make a deal with SNC-Lavalin would have had to be published, and would have generated some negative publicity. But friendly journalists marshaled by Mr. Butts, and perhaps the former Chief Justice too, would have provided cover. It seems reasonable to suppose that the SNC-Lavalin affair, if we would even have been calling it that, would have been over already, and almost a certainty that it not have become the major political event that Ms. Wilson-Raybould has made it.

In other words, it is at least arguable that whether fundamental constitutional principles are upheld by our government turns rather too much on individuals doing the right thing under great political pressure, and despite their self-interest. It is to Ms. Wilson-Raybould credit that she has acted in this way. But it seems unwise, to say the least, to rely on her successors always following her example, or to suppose that her predecessors always have set a similar one.

A more realistic view of government, and of its more or less visible denizens, may thus lead us to conclude that all is not well with our constitutional system. In one respect, Madison (in Federalist No. 48) turned out to be wrong. It is not the legislative branch but the executive that “is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex”. Law enforcement, Parliament, and perhaps even the judiciary, are endangered by its obstruction, threats, and promises of favours. We must recognize the difficulty to have the slightest chance of doing anything about it.

Civics, Feelings, and Politics

Expatriates’ alleged lack of connection to particular ridings is not a good reason to disenfranchise them

When it held, in Frank v Canada (Attorney-General), 2019 SCC 1 (summarized here), that denying the franchise to Canadians who have been resident abroad for more than five years is unconstitutional, did the Supreme Court go with “feelings over civics”? Did it decide the case in a way that ignores the fact that Canadians vote not for national parties but for candidates in local constituencies, to which expatriates are not meaningfully connected, even if they maintain, as the Court’s majority said, a “profound attachment” to Canada? Over at Routine Proceedings, Dale Smith argues that that’s precisely what the Court did. I disagree.

As Mr. Smith sees it, “five of seven justices of the Supreme Court failed to properly understand the importance of constituency-based democracy”. He also faults the government’s lawyers “for not making the case adequately either”, “and virtually all of the commentary” on Frank, including presumably my comment, for ignoring the issue. Yet in his view, it ought to have been a decisive consideration:

[W]e vote for local representatives. We don’t vote for parties, or party leaders, no matter what we may have in mind when we go into the ballot box – we mark the X for the local candidate, end of story. For an expat, it’s not the connection to Canada that should be at issue – it’s the connection to the riding, because that’s how we allocate our votes.

One might, of course, reproach the government lawyers for failing to emphasize this particular rationale for disenfranchising Canadians abroad. The Frank majority, even on this view, is blameless, because it wasn’t at liberty to sustain the disenfranchisement on the basis of a justification that the government did not even put forward. Section 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides that limits on Charter rights, including the right to vote, must be “demonstrably justified” ― and as the Supreme Court has long held, it is the government that must carry out the demonstration. But there are other reasons, based in both what we might (loosely) call civics and feelings, as well as some realism about politics, that mean that, had the government chosen to make connection to the riding as the hill its case would die on, this case would be every bit as dead as it now is.


Start with the civics. Mr. Smith is quite right that, in point of law, we vote for local representatives, not for national parties or their leaders. Whether this ought to matter as much as he suggests, I will discuss below, when I turn to politics. But it’s important to consider a couple of other legal issues.

First, though there seems to be a good deal of confusion or even obfuscation on this point, the Canada Elections Act already takes care of the need for a connection between a Canadian voting from abroad (who may be a short-term expatriate, a long-term one previously allowed to vote, such as a diplomat’s family member, or a newly-enfranchised long-term expatriate). Paragraph 223(1)(e) provides that, when applying to be registered as an elector resident outside Canada and requesting to vote by special ballot, a would-be voter must provide the Canadian address to which his or her vote will be tied. Once the choice has been made, section 224 prevents the voter from changing it. This prevents forum shopping, as it were, and seems a sensible regulation.

Now, there is a range of options for the prospective voter from abroad to choose from:

the address of the elector’s last place of ordinary residence in Canada before he or she left Canada or the address of the place of ordinary residence in Canada of the spouse, the common-law partner or a relative of the elector, a relative of the elector’s spouse or common-law partner, a person in relation to whom the elector is a dependant or a person with whom the elector would live but for his or her residing temporarily outside Canada.

It has been put to me that the breadth of this range is excessive and gives the elector too much choice. If Parliament agrees, it can eliminate some superfluous options by legislation; this should not be constitutionally problematic. But I don’t think that Parliament should do this. On the contrary, giving the voter the ability to tie his or her vote to a former residence or a family member’s one makes it more likely that the elector will choose to vote at the particular place in Canada to which he or she is feels the strongest connection, which will not be the same for all expatriates, and which each voter is much better positioned to figure out when registering than Parliament when legislating.

Second, one must keep in mind that when it comes to voters in Canada, the law does not require any sort of evidence of a connection between the voter and his or her riding other than the fact that the voter resides there. Perhaps that’s because residence is simply deemed to be determinative of the community to which the voter belongs. But this seems a very rough assumption, especially in today’s urbanized world, in which many ridings are quite compact and the boundaries between them, fluid. A voter might be live in a bedroom community or a residential neighbourhood, but work in a downtown in a different riding, and perhaps have other attachments in yet a third one. It is, to say the least, not obvious which of these the voter is genuinely connected to. Residence, arguably, is only the most easily administrable way of sorting voters into ridings (both at the point of counting them through the census and at the point of registering them), simply because it tends to be more stable than other connections. As Chief Justice Wagner, writing for the Frank majority, put it, “residence can best be understood as an organizing mechanism for purposes of the right to vote”. [28] It is nothing more than that.


This brings me to what Mr. Smith might calls “feelings”. He and others who defend the disenfranchisement of Canadians abroad are very quick to demand that expatriates meet conditions that are not imposed on other Canadians to qualify for the franchise. Whether it be some subjective connection to a riding or to Canada as a whole, or knowledge about the local state of affairs, or tax liability, or subjection some undefined but substantial number laws, not all residents will meet these conditions that are said to justify denying the franchise to expatriates. But no one thinks to inquire into whether they really do, and no one, I’m pretty sure, would accept (re-)introducing tests of this nature into our election laws. Expatriates are the only people whom people judge on such criteria.

Indeed, it is not so much a judgment as prejudice. Expatriates are simply assumed to fail such tests ― and arguments to the contrary are dismissed as “feelings”. Mr. Smith guesses that Canadians who live abroad cut themselves off from communities where they used to live, or have family, or intend to return (or all of these things). Why? My personal experience, for what that’s worth, is that I keep up with the news from Québec and Montreal (and occasionally write on Québec-specific issues), more than from other provinces. Do I specifically track the news for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Westmount, where my parents live and I will vote in October, if I can be bothered? Not particularly, but then again, I wouldn’t even if I actually lived there. To say that I’m not a suitable voter for this reason would be applying a groundless double standard.

And speaking of double standards (and, I suppose, of civics), it’s worth noting that pursuant to section 222 of the Canada Elections Act some long-term expatriates are already allowed to vote: namely, members and employees of the Canadian forces, federal provincial public servants, employees of “international organization[s] of which Canada is a member and to which Canada contributes, as well as anyone who “lives with” such voters. The rationale for this is, presumably, that all such persons ― not just public servants, mind you, but their family members too ― are deemed to maintain a connection with Canada that other expatriates lack. Yet even assuming that this is so, is it remotely plausible that such persons (who, if anything, probably tend to be more mobile than the average voter even when they live in Canada) maintain their special connections to their home ridings? I really don’t think this is plausible, and so, the invocation of the riding connection as a justification for disenfranchising some, but not all, expatriates is another sort of unwarranted double standard.


Let me finally turn to politics ― and, specifically, to the need to be realistic about it. If we want to understand the rules of elections and government formation in Canada, we must keep in mind that each voter only casts a ballot for a local representative, not (directly) for a party or Prime Minister. But if we want to figure out whether Parliament is justified in preventing a person or a class of persons from voting, I don’t think it makes sense to pretend, as Mr. Smith asks us to, that this is all that matters. The reality, as he more or less acknowledges, is that what we “have in mind when we go into the ballot box” ― or at least the voting booth, for the less acrobatic among us ― very much has to do with parties and, especially, their leaders, for most voters.

Political parties themselves know this. The big ones tried to prevent to keep the small ones from getting their names on ballot papers, until the Supreme Court wisely put an end to that in Figueroa v Canada (Attorney General), 2003 SCC 37, [2003] 1 SCR 912, because candidates not identified with parties get fewer votes. They give pride of place to party names, logos, slogans, and leaders in their advertisements. They make sure their MPs have lookalike websites in party colours. Local candidates are often little more than props for a leader’s tour. I’m too lazy to look for the relevant research (if it exists) right now, but as a not-so-wild guess, I’m inclined to think that many voters don’t even remember the name of their local candidate when they go vote. This may be regrettable, but the parties themselves have ensured that it doesn’t matter; what does matter is the party identification on the ballot paper.

One key reason for this is that election campaigns are largely national events, not local ones. (By way of thought experiment, imagine we didn’t hold simultaneous general elections, but renewed the House of Commons with staggered elections, one riding at a time. Our politics may well be quite different ― and more local. But of course we don’t do that.) The centrality of leaders’ personalities to election campaigns makes this unavoidable, and an even starker phenomenon than in the past. But even to the (limited) extent that voters are preoccupied with actual issues rather than personalities, the issues are largely national in scope. This is perhaps especially the case in federal elections, since Parliament’s powers are, by design, largely those that concern the country as a whole. Admittedly Parliament doesn’t always keep to its jurisdiction. Even when it does, Justice Rowe points out in his concurring reasons that “federal policy can impact different geographically defined communities in different ways”. [89] Still, federal elections aren’t about the quality of your local school or the regularity of garbage removal from your street. Most voters, especially in federal elections, just aren’t especially concerned with riding-level matters. To say that expatriates, and only expatriates, ought to be disenfranchised because they aren’t is, once again, to apply an unwarranted double standard.


The existing law already ensures that Canadians voting from abroad cast their ballots in the ridings to which they have the strongest connections. At the same time, it does not require the existence of a very meaningful connection between any voters, including those resident in Canada, and their ridings. The idea that expatriates should be prevented from voting because they lack such a connection is thus a double standard. Moreover, Canadian elections, especially federal ones, aren’t local affairs anyway. For all these reasons, had the government argued that Parliament was entitled to deny expatriates the franchise because of their supposed detachment from the ridings in which their votes would be counted, it would have fared no better than it actually did in Frank.

Deuxième Moisson

Tout comme il y a quatre ans, le DGE essaie de censurer une intervention de la société civile dans la campagne électorale québécoise

Les campagnes électorales ont leurs habitudes, leurs rituels. Les autobus, les slogans, les débats des chefs. Certaines de ces traditions sont communes à bien des sociétés démocratiques, d’autres sont plus locales. Une qui est particulièrement québécoise ― mais ne devrait pas pour autant être source de fierté ― c’est la lettre du Directeur général des élections (DGE) sommant un représentant de la société civile qui tente de se prononcer sur les enjeux de l’heure de se la fermer. Le rituel vient d’être renouvelé, comme le rapporte La Presse, avec cette fois Équiterre, dans le collimateur du DGE pour avoir diffusé les résultats d’un questionnaire remis aux principaux partis politiques et portant sur leurs politiques en matière d’environnement.

Je racontais un tel épisode, impliquant les producteurs d’un court documentaire critique du Parti québécois et de sa « Charte des valeurs », alias la Charte de la honte, lors de la campagne électorale de 2014. J’ai dit, à l’époque, que les penseurs et juristes « progressistes » qui ont cherché à limiter le rôle de l’argent en politique en limitant sévèrement les dépenses autorisées en période électorale récoltaient là ce qu’ils avaient semé. Ils s’imaginaient que les limites de dépenses feraient taire les riches, mais en réalité, elles s’appliquent d’abord à avant tout aux étudiantsaux syndicats ou aux individus impopulaires. En 2014, on a visé les défenseurs du pluralisme. En 2018, on vise les environnementalistes. La tendance, encore une fois, se maintient.

Il faut souligner qu’il y a quatre ans, le DGE avait alors fini par faire marche arrière ― au bénéfice de la liberté d’expression, mais au mépris de la Loi électorale. En tordant le sens des définitions pourtant claires de ce qui est et n’est pas une « dépense électorale » (prévues aux articles 402 et 404 de la Loi), le DGE a réussi à éviter l’opprobre médiatique qu’allait provoquer un épisode de censure. Mais la Loi électorale, elle, n’as pas été changée pour permettre à la société civile d’intervenir dans les campagnes électorales. Il n’est pas impossible, je suppose, que le DGE se démène encore pour ne pas censurer Équiterre, même si ce sera, comme je l’expliquerai à l’instant, très, très difficile. Cependant, même si la manoeuvre réussit, la censure ne sera que partie remise jusqu’à la prochaine campagne électorale. C’est à la Loi électorale, et non à son application par le DGE, qu’il faut s’attaquer pour régler le problème une fois pour toutes.

L’article 402 de la Loi électorale définit comme « dépense électorale »

le coût de tout bien ou service utilisé pendant la période électorale pour:

1° favoriser ou défavoriser, directement ou indirectement, l’élection d’un candidat ou celle des candidats d’un parti;
2° diffuser ou combattre le programme ou la politique d’un candidat ou d’un parti;
3° approuver ou désapprouver des mesures préconisées ou combattues par un candidat ou un parti;
4° approuver ou désapprouver des actes accomplis ou proposés par un parti, un candidat ou leurs partisans.

Cette définition s’applique aux dépenses des candidats et des partis aussi bien qu’à celles de la société civile, et il n’est pas surprenant qu’elle ratisse large. La production et diffusion du questionnaire d’Équiterre tombe sous le coup de cette définition, puisque celui-ci vise à diffuser certains aspect des programmes des différents partis et aussi, par l’usage de symboles visuels (coche verte, crois rouge) à approuver ou désapprouver les mesures préconisées par ceux-ci.

Deux problèmes se posent cependant. D’une part, il y a à la fois l’insuffisance et la vétusté des exemptions prévues à l’article 404. Contrairement à la disposition équivalente de Loi électorale du Canada, celui-ci n’exempte pas les communications d’un groupe (par exemple, un syndicat) à ses membres et n’est pas technologiquement neutre, exemptant la diffusion de nouvelles ou éditoriaux « dans un journal ou autre périodique » ou encore « par un poste de radio ou de télévision », mais pas par de nouveaux médias opérant sur internet. En 2014, le DGE a fini par décrire le documentaire en cause comme étant un « média citoyen » pour l’exempter de l’application de l’article 402. C’était, selon moi, à tort, puisque la Loi électorale n’exempte que certains médias, et n’autorise pas le DGE à en inventer de nouvelles catégories exemptées. Quoi qu’il en soit, je ne vois pas comment on pourrait user du même procédé pour aider Équiterre.

D’autre part, la Loi électorale limite excessivement les dépenses électorales des membres de la société civile. En fait, elle les interdit presqu’entièrement, ne faisant qu’une exception minimaliste à l’alinéa 13 de l’article 404, qui permet à un individu (ou un groupe de personnes ne possédant pas la personnalité morale) de s’enregistrer pour, ensuite, engager des dépenses d’au plus 300$ ― mais sans pourtant « favoriser ni défavoriser directement un candidat ou un parti ». Équiterre, si je comprends bien, est une personne morale, et ne pourrait se prévaloir de l’exemption, même si sa part du coût de la production du questionnaire dont on lui reproche la diffusion s’élevait à moins de 300$. De plus, il me semble clair que le questionnaire, même s’il se veut non-partisan, vise à favoriser l’élection de partis ayant des politiques environnementales qui reçoivent l’approbation d’Équiterre et à défavoriser l’élection des autres.

Ces restrictions sont draconiennes. Il est ridicule d’interdire aux acteurs de la société civile de prendre part au débat pré-électoral pour peu qu’ils choisissent d’obtenir la personnalité morale. Il est ridicule d’avoir un plafond de dépenses ― non-indexé, contrairement à celui des partis et candidats! ― de 300$. Il est ridicule d’exiger qu’une personne voulant engager des dépenses tout à fait minimes doive préalablement s’enregistrer auprès du DGE. Il est ridicule d’interdire les interventions qui favorisent ou défavorise l’élection de partis nommés. Même si l’on accepte le principe général de la limitation de dépenses et celui de la primauté des candidats et des partis en période électorale, les restrictions imposées par le législateur québécois sont ahurissantes. Elles ne sont pas justifiées. Elles sont, selon moi, inconstitutionnelles, même si la Cour d’appel du Québec en a déjà décidé autrement.

Ainsi, je pense que le DGE fait son travail en s’en prenant à Équiterre. Il applique la Loi électorale. Cependant, les dispositions en cause n’ont pas lieu d’être. Le législateur québécois devrait s’empresser de les revoir de fond en comble, sinon de les abroger. À défaut, ou d’ici là, c’est malheureusement à Équiterre d’en contester la constitutionnalité. Cette contestation ne sera pas facile, mais, selon moi, elle aura des chances réelles de succès. La Cour suprême a certes avalisé les dispositions de la Loi électorale du Canada limitant la participation de « tiers » aux campagnes électorales, mais, comme je l’ai déjà souligné, celles-ci sont bien plus permissives que celles de la loi québécoise. En attendant, le décret ordonnant la tenue d’élections générales demeure un bâillon.