WAR OF WARDS – “I was elected … the judge was appointed.” Therein is the crux of Premier Doug Ford’s rationale for taking the literally unprecedented step of invoking the Charter’s notwithstanding clause to resuscitate legislation cutting the size of Toronto City Council. Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba had ruled that the Better Local Government Act (a.k.a. Bill 5) was unconstitutional, concluding that it interfered with freedom of expression by abruptly redrawing Toronto’s ward boundaries for 25 councillors instead of 47 in the middle of a municipal election campaign. Ford was unbowed, opting to recall the Legislature – the second time he’s strayed from the parliamentary calendar for an emergency sitting since being elected in June – to introduce legislation to rescue the previous legislation. This strategy has set off a maelstrom of polarized commentary, with opinions on the wisdom of going down this path basically split along left/right philosophical lines. Section 33 of the Charter, which includes the notwithstanding clause, was meant as a last resort for provinces to push through major policy initiatives stymied by Charter arguments. Whether the size of Toronto council counts as a ‘major’ issue – or if Ford is settling scores against enemies from his term on council – again seems to depend on your political leanings. But if nothing else Ford has served notice he’ll play hardball against his opponents, declaring he “won’t be shy” about using similar tactics in the future.
TAKE THE HINT – While Ford continues to push ahead on his agenda, the specifics of that agenda remain mostly indistinct – at least publicly. As such, in these early stages of policy formulation every public utterance (and some private ones) will be parsed for signs of what’s to come. Cases in point in recent days:
Health Minister Christine Elliott’s references to “system transformation” in a speech at an Ontario Hospital Association conference were immediately seized on by critics, who translated the words to “cuts.” Noting that fiscal responsibility is a key tenet for her PC government, Elliott offered, “That means we are going to have to be innovative.” An innocuous remark to some ears, but the Opposition parties heard a sinister undertone, with NDP Health Critic France Gélinas calling Elliott’s speech “chilling.” Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner chimed in with a statement admonishing, “I am concerned that when anyone from this government talks about ’efficiencies’, it is code for cutbacks.” Elliott’s absence at a subsequent summit on the opioid crisis was similarly construed to be an indication of pending cuts to provincial funding for supervised injection sites.
In a Toronto radio interview about his determination to shrink Toronto council, Ford suggested he might look to do the same in Ottawa. Speaking to Global News Radio 640, Ford said his current focus is on getting through the Toronto imbroglio but then volunteered, “I’ve had numerous calls from Ottawa. I tell you, I don’t know what’s going on out in Ottawa … I’m getting endless calls from the Ottawa region. As a matter of fact, I’ve been getting calls from all over the province.” Later in the week, cabinet minister Lisa MacLeod – the Tories’ senior-most MPP from the Ottawa area – was busy putting out that fire. “People may be calling. I know, having spoken with the Premier’s Office last night, that there’s zero intention to reduce the size of city council here,” MacLeod told local media after a business breakfast at Ottawa City Hall.
Ford’s musings on the future of Ontario Place set off another flurry of analysis, with the most obvious outcome appearing to be another battle with Toronto Mayor John Tory. There’s no love lost between them – Tory beat Ford for the mayoralty in 2014 – a situation exacerbated by Tory’s fervent opposition to Bill 5. Tory, before becoming Mayor, headed up a review of Ontario Place commissioned by the McGuinty Liberals and made recommendations for the waterfront park. Those plans now seem shaky at best, with Ford known to have pushed for an Ontario Place casino when he was a city councillor. Ideally, City Hall and Queen’s Park should be working together to revitalize the property, but at this point cooperation doesn’t look to be on either agenda.
AFTER FURTHER REVIEW… – Largely lost in the constitutional ruckus was a confirmation from Finance Minister Vic Fedeli that he has received the report from a commission of inquiry examining the previous government’s spending. Presumably the Tories will eventually launch it as a blockbuster – we’re guessing that it won’t be kind to the Liberals – but for now Fedeli would only say that the findings will factor into his fiscal strategy moving forward. He is expected to deliver an economic statement in the fall, as a precursor to his first full Budget next spring.
HATCHET JOBS – As always when there’s a big swing in monthly job numbers, there was an equal swing in political spin around those numbers. Back in July, when Ontario experienced significant job growth, the Liberals took a told-you-so stance, portraying the uptick as vindication that their increase to the minimum wage didn’t lead to employment Armageddon as some had predicted. Flash forward a month, and news from Statistics Canada that Ontario lost 80,000 jobs in August set off a very different response. Cue the duelling rhetoric: Economic Development Minister Jim Wilson issued a statement carving both the Liberals and NDP. “The latest job numbers are a reminder of the Wynne Liberals’ 15-year legacy of scandal, waste and mismanagement,” he chided. “While the NDP stood by and propped up the Liberals, the PCs stood up for the people and put forward a plan to get Ontario back on track.” NDP Critic Catherine Fife fired right back, sniping, “The neon ‘open for business’ sign on the border is not an economic strategy – in fact, I think it looks somewhat farcical.” Partisan spin aside, StatsCan reported Ontario’s unemployment rate at 5.7%, up 0.3 percentage points from July but still below that national average of 6%, attributing the job losses as largely due to seasonal fluctuation.
CITY LIMITS – This week’s court decision on Bill 5 and its aftermath had no bearing on another aspect of the legislation, as the cancellation of popular elections of Regional Chairs in Peel, York, Niagara and Muskoka was unaffected. That means at least two former Liberal MPPs – Steven Del Duca and Mario Racco, who were both registered as candidates for the York Region post – have nowhere to run. Other former Queen’s Parkers, however, continue to press forward on their municipal aspirations. Ex-cabinet minister Kathryn McGarry this week kicked off her campaign for Mayor of Cambridge, while former PC Leader Patrick Brown unveiled his safety plan in his bid to be Mayor of Brampton.
IN THE HOUSE
When the House convened on Wednesday, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark reintroduced legislation to shrink the size of Toronto council – now Bill 31, now called the Efficient Local Government Act. The new bill includes provisions invoking Section 33 of the Charter, the notwithstanding clause.
Premier Ford allowed a free vote on Bill 31; every PC caucus member voted in favour of it on First Reading. It passed 63-17, although that count was somewhat skewed in that 28 NDP MPPs were ejected by Speaker Ted Arnott before the vote. The New Democrats kept pounding on their desks to disrupt the proceedings, so Arnott had them escorted out of the Assembly one by one. Protestors in the public gallery were also loudly vocal, compelling Arnott to have the gallery cleared, in some cases forcibly as demonstrators were led away in handcuffs.
To expedite the required debate on Bill 31, MPPs will sit this Saturday. However, they will not be in the House on Monday or Tuesday, as large contingencies from each caucus head to the International Plowing Match (the giant agricultural expo considered big enough to warrant taking time off from the Legislature every year). As such, the time frame for final passage of Bill 31 is not clear – especially given that the Opposition is expected to do everything possible to stall it procedurally.
FOR THE RECORD
Justice Edward Belobaba’s description of government lawyers’ answers to his questions about justification for Bill 5. Some pundits have pegged the language as unnecessarily provocative, further fuelling Premier Ford’s resolve to use the Charter’s nothwithstanding clause to override Belobaba’s ruling.
“A democratically elected government, trying to be shut down by the courts – that concerns me more than anything … [I feel like] I’m sitting here handcuffed, with a piece of tape over my mouth, watching what I say.”
Premier Ford, explaining his determination to fight back against Belobaba’s ruling.
“The notwithstanding provision has, understandably, rarely been used, because of the primacy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for all Canadians. That it might now be used regularly to assert the dominance of any government or elected politician over the rule of law or the legitimate jurisdiction of our courts of law was never anticipated or agreed to.”
Former PC Premier Bill Davis, who rarely gets involved in political controversies these days, weighing in on Ford’s decision to invoke the notwithstanding clause in a TVO interview. Davis is intimately familiar with the Charter and its rationale, as one of its architects.
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