Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause to override a provincial court ruling, without clear argumentation for doing so, and his subsequent move to change the legislature’s rules of procedure, are worrisome indicators of creeping authoritarianism.
A quick re-cap:
This past summer, Ford’s Progressive Conservative (PC) government introduced Bill 5, the Better Local Government Act, to reduce the size of Toronto city council from 47 to 25 councillors. That bill was passed by the PC majority in the legislature and received Royal Assent on August 14.
This past Monday, September 10, the Ontario Superior Court ruled that the government’s bill violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The judge stated that Bill 5 "interfered with the right to freedom of expression for both candidates and voters," and that it was "hurriedly enacted to take effect in the middle of the city’s election without much thought at all, more out of pique than principle."
On Wednesday, the Ford government became the first government in Ontario history to use Section 33 of the Charter, the notwithstanding clause, to override the court’s ruling and re-introduced Bill 5 as Bill 31, the Efficient Local Government Act.
In doing so, Ford offered no counter legal argument to the ruling, or a case for the need to contravene Charter rights, or even for the urgency of the legislation, rather he highlighted that the move would save $25 million and that his government had the power to invoke the measure.
Then on Saturday, the Ontario legislature met in an extraordinary session in order to expedite passage of this legislation by the week of September 24.
There is a chaotic aspect to all this, given that the municipal election began in early May using the current city wards (47 rather than 25), advance voting starts on October 10, and election day is just around the corner on October 22.
Ford says that he is moving forward with the cutting of Toronto city council in half because it is the will of the people (even though it has been widely reported that Ford never explicitly mentioned his intention to do this during the June 7 election).
It also glosses over the reality that only 58.4 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in that election and of those only 40.5 per cent voted for the Progressive Conservatives. It also obscures that while the PCs received 2.3 million votes, the NDP (which is opposed to Bill 5 and Bill 31) came in a very close second with 1.9 million votes.
Furthermore, the NDP vote added to the vote received by the Liberals and Greens, who are also opposed to the legislation, means about 3.3 million voters didn’t vote for the political party that claims to represent the will of the people.
The Ford government has also not offered a coherent argument for why Toronto's city council has to be reduced, but not those of other cities in Ontario.
Beyond expressing a willingness to use the notwithstanding clause again, the Ford government has now taken another action that diminishes the role of the provincial legislature.
CBC reports, "The PCs are moving to change the legislature's rules of procedure, formally called the standing orders. These rules control such things as when bills can be introduced, when opposition parties get to put forward motions, and how much debate must take place before a bill goes to a final vote."
That article adds, "A simple majority vote of the legislature is needed to approve them, which means they are certain to take effect."
It’s hard to see how opposition parties will effectively challenge this so-called "simple majority" (a product of our flawed electoral system in which 40.5 per cent of the vote results in 61 per cent of the seats in the Legislature and 100 per cent of the legislative power), so innovative social movement direct action strategies are likely to emerge.
While the size of Toronto city council may or may not be a top of mind issue for many in the province, and the legislature’s rules of procedure may seem obscure, the implications of Ford’s roughshod approach are likely to be felt all the more intensely as further issues come to the fore, including public health care, Indigenous rights, climate protection, and social services.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.
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