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.

Australia 1:0 Canada

Canadians have much to learn from the Australian High Court’s take on election spending limits for “third parties”

The High Court of Australia has just delivered Unions NSW v New South Wales [2019] HCA 1, a decision that should be of interest to readers who are concerned with freedom of expression in the electoral context ― a topical issue in Canada, given the recent imposition of further restrictions in this area by the recently enacted Bill C-76. The decision resulted from a challenge by a number of labour unions to New South Wales legislation that reduced the maximum amount a “third party” ― that is anyone not a candidate at an election or a political party ― is allowed to spend on campaigning in a nearly-six-month period preceding an election, from 1,050,000AUD (jut under a million Canadian) to 500,000AUD. The High Court unanimously held that the legislation was contrary to the implied freedom of political communication, which it had previously read into the Australian constitution‘s provisions requiring “representative” government.

The plurality judgment, by Chief Justice Kiefel and Justices Bell and Keane, finds that the third party spending limits are unconstitutional. That they restrict the ability to communicate is not in dispute. And while the plurality is prepared to assume that these limits are imposed for the legitimate purposes of levelling the campaigning playing field and preventing the wealthy from “drowning out” the voices of the less fortunate, they are not justified. Experts consulted prior to the enactment of the legislation provided no particular justification for recommending that the then-existing spending limits be reduced. A Parliamentary committee, however, recommend that the legislature look into the actual spending needs of third parties, and this was not done either. As a result, there is no reason for saying that the reduced limits are “reasonably necessary”.

Justice Gageler agrees with the plurality’s disposition of the case. He is persuaded of the legitimacy of the state’s pursuit “of substantive fairness in a manner compatible with maintenance of the constitutionally prescribed system of representative and responsible government”. [91] This might, in principle, justify much lower spending limits for third parties, which campaign on single issues, than for parties that must address a broad range of issues in their quest to form a government. However, “[i]t is not self-evident, and it has not been shown, that the cap set in the amount of $500,000 leaves a third-party campaigner with a reasonable opportunity to present its case”. [101] Absent such a showing, the restriction on the freedom of communication is not justified.

Justice Nettle’s conclusion is similar. He accepts the legitimacy of the objective of creating a level electoral playing field ― one on which political parties will be primary players ― and agrees that a legislatures may from time to time review the measures it takes to ensure fairness, including by lowering spending caps previously enacted. However, there must be a justification for whatever measures it takes from time to time. Such a justification is missing in this case. Although it was recommended that more evidence on the needs of third parties be collected, “for reasons which do not appear, that recommendation went unheeded. It is as if Parliament simply went ahead … without pausing to consider whether a cut of as much as 50 per cent was required”. [117]

Justice Gordon, like the plurality, assumes that restrictions on third party spending pursue a legitimate purpose, which she characterizes as the privileging of political parties and candidates. However, in the absence of evidence about the actual need for restrictions set at their current level, “the Court … cannot be satisfied that the level of the expenditure cap is reasonably appropriate and adapted to achieve the asserted constitutionally permissible end”. [150] It was for the State to show that the restriction it seeks to impose was justified, and it has not done so.

For his part, Justice Edelman considers that the reduction in the spending limits imposed on third parties, even as the limits imposed on political parties rose, cannot be explained by the purposes of maintaining a fair and corruption-free electoral system. Rather, it must have had an “additional purpose”, which “was to ensure that the voice of third-party campaigners was quieter than that of political parties and candidates”. [159] In other words, the reduction’s aim was “to burden the freedom of political communication of third-party campaigners”. [160] Justice Edelman considers that, although laws that rely on the relative silencing of some views in order to ensure that all can be heard are legitimate, to aim only at silencing some voices “is incompatible with the maintenance of the constitutionally prescribed system of representative and responsible government”, and legislation so motivated is “invalid”. [160]


Needless to say, I am not qualified to comment on whether the High Court is correct as a matter of Australian law. What I can do is compare its decision with that of the Supreme Court of Canada in Harper v Canada (Attorney-General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 SCR 827, which addressed much the same issues. (Readers will recall that I am not a fan of Harper, to put it mildly, and included it in my list of the Supreme Court’s five worst decisions of the last half-century in this blog’s recent Twelve Days of Christmas symposium.)

This is most obviously so on the issue of deference to the legislature on the issue of the appropriateness of a limitation of the freedom of (political) expression, and the evidence required for the government to make this case. The Harper majority insisted that courts should approach legislative choices with deference. In its view, “[t]he legislature is not required to provide scientific proof based on concrete evidence of the problem it seeks to address in every case”, and that “a reasoned apprehension of … harm” [Harper, 77] is sufficient to restrict fundamental freedoms protected by the Canadian constitution.

This approach is explicitly rejected in Unions NSW. While the Australian judges avoid directly criticizing the Harper majority, both the plurality opinion and Justice Nettle explicitly side with the “strong dissent” of Chief Justice McLachlin and Justice Major (joined by Justice Binnie). The plurality takes a dim view of the submission “that Parliament does not need to provide evidence for the legislation it enacts [and] is entitled to make the choice as to what level of restriction is necessary to meet future problems”. [44] When legislative choice are made in a way that burden the freedom of political communication, they must be justified. Similarly, Justice Gageler speaks of the need for a “compelling justification”, and insists that “[i]f a court cannot be satisfied of a fact the existence of which is necessary in law to provide a constitutional basis for impugned legislation, … the court has no option but to pronounce the legislation invalid.” [95] Justice Gordon insists that “the Court must … be astute not to accept at face value the assertion that freedom of communication will, unless curtailed by a reduction in the cap to $500,000, bring about corruption and distortion of the political process”. [148]

Another point of contrast between Harper and Unions NSW is the treatment of the so-called “egalitarian model of elections” designed in part to favour the interests of political parties and candidates over those of the civil society groups, disparagingly consigned to the status of “third parties”. According to Harper, election campaigns must focus attention on parties and candidates, including by ensuring that any other participants in the public debate, except the media, will behave unobtrusively. By contrast, the plurality opinion in Unions NSW explicitly rejects the submission that candidates and parties deserve preferential treatment, advanced in part on the basis that elections are “not a choice between ideas, policies, views or beliefs except insofar as such choice may be reflected in the electoral choice between candidates”. [39] Rather, the plurality says, “ss 7 and 24 of the Constitution guarantee the political sovereignty of the people of the Commonwealth by ensuring that their choice of elected representatives is a real choice, that is, a choice that is free and well-informed” [40] ― including by third parties. Justice Gageler, of course, takes the contrary view on this point. Justice Edelman’s position is more complex. He explicitly endorses “a Rawlsian, egalitarian model” [178] in which spending limits prevent some speakers from “drowning out” others. However, he also considers that it is not legitimate to target particular speakers for silencing apart from such an anti-drowning out purpose.

A last difference between Harper and Unions NSW worth highlighting is recognition by Justice Gageler of “the propensity of an elected majority to undervalue, and, at worst, to seek to protect itself against adverse electoral consequences resulting from, political communication by a dissenting minority”. [66] Justice Gageler refers to prior cases where the risk of a government legislating to limit political competition the better to maintain itself in office was explicitly adverted to. Such legislation, he notes, is incompatible with presuppositions of the Australian constitutional order. Although he finds that, in this case, “[t]here is no suggestion of abuse of incumbency” [85] by one party against others, this clear-eyed position is in contrast to that of the Harper majorityr, which ignored the possibility that incumbent governments favour legislation that excludes “third parties” from electoral campaigns in order to avoid unpleasant criticism and so reduce the odds of losing power.


There are more interesting things in the Unions NSW decision than I have room to discuss in this post. For example, Justice Gageler’s comments about the role courts in finding facts that are relevant to deciding whether a statute is constitutional are in contrast to the position of the Supreme Court of Canada in cases such as Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 SCR 1101, and should be very nutritious food for thought for those who are skeptical of the Bedford requirement of deference to trial judges. Justice Eledman’s comments on identifying statutory purpose (and in particular the role of general statements of purpose in the legislation) are also very interesting.

Overall, based on this one decision, I think that Canadians have a great deal to learn from Australians. Admittedly, the length of the High Court’s decisions is a deterrent ― Unions NSW is about 85 pages long, and I take it that it’s pretty short by Australian standards. That’s the cost of so many judges delivering full individual reasons. But the upside is that interesting ideas don’t get swept under the carpet in the process of getting to a set of reasons many judges can sign onto. I’m not saying the Supreme Court of Canada should go back to having each judge deliver his or her own reasons (though I wonder sometimes) but, at any rate, reading the Australian decisions may well be worth our while. In particular, the willingness of the Australian judges to keep a legislature accountable for imposing limits on the freedom of political expression without justification is a welcome reminder that their Canadian counterparts can do much more to protect individual rights in the electoral realm, and elsewhere.

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.

 

Remarks on Bill C-76

Freedom of expression issues in an electoral reform bill

Earlier today, I had the chance to address the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, which is currently studying Bill C-76, a significant reform package for the Canada Elections Act. I am very grateful to the Committee for inviting me ― though I wish I’d been given more than just a few days to prepare ―, and also to its staff for making it possible for me to speak from an ocean and a continent away.

My remarks focused on the freedom of expression issues that C-76 fails to address or indeed amplifies in what I think is a dangerous quest to stop the “permanent campaign” ― dangerous because the only way to really stop the permanent campaign would be to impose permanent censorship on political debate. (Scott Reid, a Conservative member of the Committee asked me about this, and I said that I hope that Parliament will not go that far ― but I am worried that accepting the principle of regulating political speech outside of the electoral campaign period, we will not stop at just a couple of months, as C-76 does, for now.) More generally, my point was that members of the civil society ― whom election law denigrates by describing them as “third parties” ― should be heard, even at election time.

Here are my remarks. (The Chair’s reference to a miracle is due to some technical issues that prevented me from connecting to the meeting on time… but all’s well that ends well!)

The Law of Permanent Campaigning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Permanent Censorship, Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pré-Censure

La restriction de dépenses pré-électorales est injustifiée et possiblement inconstitutionnelle

Comme le rapporte La Presse, le Directeur général des élections du Québec, Pierre Reid, a dit dans un témoignage devant la Commission des institutions de l’Assemblée nationale travailler sur une proposition d’amendement à la Loi électorale en vue de limiter des dépenses « pré-électorale » ― c’est-à-dire celles engagées en vue des élections, mais avant le commencement de la campagne électorale officielle. Pour l’instant, ces dépenses ne sont pas limitées par la Loi. Or, la date des élections étant maintenant connue à l’avance (sous réserve de la capacité du Premier ministre de violer les dispositions sur les élections à date fixe, comme Pauline Marois l’a fait en 2014), la tentation de faire de la publicité tout juste avant l’entrée en vigueur des limites de dépenses applicables en campagne électorale va être plus forte que jamais. Nous l’avons vu au niveau fédéral, et nous risquons de le voir au Québec avant les prochaines élections. M. Reid s’en dit « préoccup[é] ». Moi, c’est plutôt son désir de limiter ces dépenses qui me préoccupe.

Notons, pour commencer, que M. Reid n’a pas pris la peine d’expliquer en quoi les dépenses pré-électorales sont préoccupantes. Or, une limite aux dépenses sur la communication politique est, comme la jurisprudence de la Cour suprême en la matière le reconnaît, une limite à la liberté d’expression. Il faudrait donc, avant d’imposer de telles limites, avoir une raison, une justification, un tant soit peu sérieuse. Pourtant, M. Reid n’en offre pas, et les députés présents ne lui ont posé aucune question à ce sujet. Pour ce qui est du devoir des élus et de l’administration de respecter les droits constitutionnels, on repassera.

M. Reid a également été flou sur la portée des restrictions qu’il souhaiterait faire adopter par l’Assemblée nationale. Il n’a pas été en mesure de préciser la durée de la période pré-électorale pendant laquelle les dépenses seraient limitées, par exemple. Cependant, il semble songer à une période de plusieurs mois, voire davantage. Il n’a pas, non plus, précisé si ces nouvelles restrictions s’appliqueraient aux seuls partis politiques ou également aux « tiers » ― c’est-à-dire aux individus et organismes, autres que les partis ou les candidats, souhaitant se prononcer sur les enjeux politiques. Là encore, notons que les députés n’ont pas demandé à M. Reid de préciser sa pensée.

Cependant, il est difficile de s’imaginer que les restrictions ne viseraient que les partis politiques. Si M. Reid ou les membres de l’Assemblée nationale sont préoccupés par ce qui s’est passé ou a failli se passer l’été dernier, juste avant les élections fédérales, ils ne sont pas sans savoir que les « tiers » ― notamment les syndicats (et non pas, contrairement à une certaine mythologie populaire, les multinationales) ont cherché à faire de la publicité « pré-électorale » autant, sinon davantage, que les partis politiques eux-mêmes. Et, généralement, le modèle canadien de réglementation des dépenses électorales suppose que l’on restreint davantage les dépenses des tiers que ceux des partis, afin de s’assurer que ceux-ci puissent dominer le débat public.

Or, si constitutionnalité des restrictions des dépenses pré-électorales des partis politiques n’a jamais encore été contestée devant les tribunaux, de telles restrictions n’ayant jamais encore été imposées au Canada, celles de restrictions similaires imposées aux tiers a, quant à elle, fait l’objet non pas d’une, mais de deux décisions de la Cour d’appel de la Colombie-Britannique. Dans  British Columbia Teachers’ Federation v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2011 BCCA 408 et ensuite dans  Reference Re Election Act (BC), 2012 BCCA 394, ce tribunal a jugé inconstitutionnelle la limitation à 150 000$ des dépenses d’un tiers pour une période pré-électorale de 60 jours dans la première décisions, et d’au plus 48 jours dans la seconde. Ces décisions, contre lesquelles la province ne s’est pas pourvue devant la Cour suprême, ne lient évidemment pas les tribunaux québécois, mais auraient tout de même une autorité persuasive non-négligeable.

On peut, il est vrai, se demander, comme je l’ai fait ici en commentant la plus récente de ces décisions, si la Cour d’appel n’y est pas allée un peu trop loin en soutenant que la logique de l’arrêt de principe de la Cour suprême au sujet des dépenses électorales des tiers Harper v. Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 S.C.R. 827, ne peut être étendue à la période pré-électorale. En principe, cette logique voulant qu’il faut limiter la capacité des tiers de communiquer leur message aux citoyens afin de s’assurer que les partis politiques puissent être entendus et afin d’égaliser les ressources des différentes forces en présence pourrait s’étendre au-delà de la campagne électorale, d’autant plus si les dépenses des partis sont limitées, elles aussi. Cependant, une telle extension du principe est loin d’être garantie. Comme je le soulignais dans un billet pour Policy Options où je discutais une idée similaire exprimée par Justin Trudeau, les juges majoritaires dans Harper ont insisté sur le « fait qu’aucune restriction ne s’applique à la publicité faite par les tiers avant le début de la période électorale. En dehors de cette période, les limites à l’intervention des tiers dans la vie politique n’existent pas » [112]. C’est notamment pour cette raison qu’ils ont conclu que la limitation très stricte des dépenses des tiers pendant la campagne électorale état une « atteinte minimale », et donc constitutionnellement permise, à la liberté d’expression. Si la liberté d’expression complète en période pré-électorale n’est pas respectée, l’évaluation que fera la Cour suprême des restrictions imposées aux tiers pourrait bien changer.

Au-delà du pronostic incertain sur une éventuelle décision judiciaire, il faut cependant se rendre bien compte de ce qu’une réglementation des dépenses des tiers en période pré-électorale signifierait. La réglementation, ne limiterait pas seulement la capacité des acteurs de la société civile ― des syndicats, des ONG, des mouvements sociaux, des « médias citoyens » ou de simples individus ― à s’exprimer sur les enjeux politiques. Elle imposerait aussi à tous ceux qui voudraient le faire, même à l’intérieur des limites de dépenses permises par la loi, d’onéreuses obligations de s’enregistrer auprès du Directeur général des élections et de lui faire rapport sur toutes les dépenses encourues pour faire passer leur message. Comme je l’ai dit dans Policy Options, l’extension de la limitation des dépenses des tiers au delà de la campagnes électorale serait un pas vers l’imposition d’un régime de censure politique à grande échelle.

Et même en ce qui concerne la limitation des dépenses des partis politiques, comme l’a écrit le grand spécialiste du « droit de la démocratie » américain, Richard Pildes, sur l’Election Law Blog, une fois qu’on cherche à étendre la limitation des dépenses au-delà d’une période bien circonscrite de campagne électorale, la situation devient trouble. Pourquoi limiterait-on la période pré-électorale à quelques mois, voir à une année? Or, les limites à la liberté d’expression qui semblent acceptables lorsqu’elles sont exceptionnelles, ne le sont plus forcément si elles deviennent permanentes. Et c’est vers ce scénario, qui me paraît inacceptable, que M. Reid et nos députés risquent de nous entraîner. Lorsque nos dirigeants ne se préoccupent guère de la liberté d’expression, nous sommes déjà en situation de pré-censure.