It Doesn’t Work That Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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