Ontario's Speaker of the Legislature has banned me indefinitely from the province's legislative precincts. My crime was to publicly question the provincial government's authoritarian style. If I disobey the ruling, I'll be charged under the Trespass to Property Act. Being banned from Queen's Park is part of a much larger story -- the story of how the public and now the Opposition members have been squeezed out of Ontario's governing process. Will this spread to other provinces?
When the news about Alberta's Bill 11 emerged in April, I thought how little Premier Ralph Klein had learned from his Mike Harris. Bill 11 was controversial, allowing private hospitals to operate in what many saw as a deliberate flouting of the principles of medicare. But Mr. Klein permitted public deputations at the committee stage, and let people into the Legislature to watch the debate. Of course, when the government declared its intention to push ahead despite the protests, things blew up. Committee hearings were terminated, access to the Legislature was restricted. The debate ended with closure.
But Mr. Harris did these things long ago. He and his advisers realized in 1995 that the Common Sense Revolution could never be implemented within the normal processes of Canadian parliamentary democracy. It was too controversial and the ideology could not withstand reasoned debate. So he cut the public out of the governing process. Now, five years on, virtually every bill the Ontario government introduces is accompanied by a time-allocation motion, which limits debate and public input. This isn't the dreaded closure, which stops a debate that's been dragging on for a long time: This process pre-empts debate.
It's a blitzkrieg style of governing. Last fall, the Ontario Legislature met for a total of 34 days, during which the government introduced and passed 11 bills, most of which were complex and controversial. Public hearings were prohibited on all but one bill, where show hearings were permitted for two hours.
Bill 25, part of that package, amalgamated three urban areas around Ottawa Carleton, Sudbury and Hamilton. It restructured Toronto's city council, and amended about 30 different statutes. When the time-allocation motion was introduced on Bill 25 to prevent committee hearings, I rose in the public gallery of the Legislature to demand that the speaker rule the motion out of order because it silenced people on issues that affected them directly. I was thrown out. The government steamrolled onward.
Now the government has moved to the next stage, shutting out Opposition members. Most time-allocation motions now state that after a certain time (usually 4.30 pm), "the chair of the committee shall interrupt proceedings and shall, without further debate or amendment, put [that is, vote on]every question to dispose of all remaining sections of the bill and any amendments thereto."
Thus, a month ago when the Committee on Justice and Social Affairs was considering the second of 46 amendments suggested to Bill 62, the chair noted it was 4.30 pm, and debate on amendments was not permitted. From the audience, I objected -- in a democracy debate is always possible, and it is one of the jobs of committees. For this intervention I was thrown out again. I later learned that the chair of the Justice and Social Affairs Committee continued to block all debate and comment by committee members, including challenges that certain motions were out of order.
I've been banned because I support public input on legislative proposals and debate among elected members. Who would have thought that dire penalties would result from making such a basic demand anywhere in Canada? John Sewell, a former mayor of Toronto, writes the Citystate column for Eye Weekly.