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, who 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.

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