The young Progressive Conservative government is going to put its own spin on an old tradition at Queen’s Park — by changing the rules of debate at the legislature in a way that increases its own power and weakens the opposition.
Earlier this week, the Tories submitted Government Motion 5 to the house. When it passes the legislature (it’s a foregone conclusion that the Tories will use their majority to get it through), the motion will, for the remainder of the 42nd Parliament — that is, until the next election — amend the standing orders that govern Queen’s Park. The proposed amendments extend some existing caps on debate time for Opposition motions and prevent anyone from moving “adjournment of the house” during time-allocation debates. Adjournment is one of the few tools that the Opposition can use to really irritate the government — it forces a vote that interrupts debate, and the bells at Queen’s Park must be rung for 15 minutes.
The Tories used adjournment votes extensively during the Liberal minority of 2011 to 2014 under then-leader Tim Hudak. They’re not the first party to have discovered that the tools of the Opposition are inconvenient when you sit on the government side of the chamber.
Indeed, the last 30 years at Queen’s Park have seen the rights of the Opposition progressively whittled away under all three parties, and if the changes that Todd Smith (the government house leader) is proposing this week seem marginal, it’s because few options remain: there’s almost nothing left for the Opposition to do when a government has a majority.
This wasn’t always the case. Into the 1980s, the Opposition had substantial formal powers. But the 40-year-long reign of the Progressive Conservatives had been cozy and cordial — periods of real rancour were relatively rare. Everything started changing when the Liberals and the NDP unseated the Tory minority after the 1985 election.
Under David Peterson, the Liberals made substantial changes to the standing orders. Initially, though, they didn’t have an outright majority in the house, so the changes didn’t harm Opposition rights. By 1989, however — after Peterson had led the Liberals to a massive majority government — the Liberals had responded to what they called “unprecedented” NDP obstruction by adopting new rules limiting debate.
Bob Rae’s NDP government then faced a new round of unprecedented opposition, this time from Mike Harris and the PCs. To protest the NDP budget of 1991, Harris introduced a bill whose title included the name of every body of water in Ontario — Andrea Horwath’s NDP used a similar tactic this year to stall Bill 5. In response to massive resistance from the Tories, the New Democrats introduced their own sweeping changes to the standing orders.
After 1995, Harris led a majority government in the legislature, and he, too, found Opposition rights to be inconvenient. After the government was forced to endure a days-long filibuster of the bill to amalgamate the six cities of Metropolitan Toronto, the Tories introduced another round of changes to the standing orders, ensuring that the Opposition could never again obstruct passage of such a bill.
All of which is to say that neither Todd Smith nor Doug Ford started this particular ball rolling. From 1989 to 1997 — across three legislatures led by three different parties — the powers of the Opposition went from being substantial to barely existing.
The one caveat to all of this is that in a minority legislature — such as the one the Liberals faced from 2011 to 2014 — the powers of the Opposition can still matter. The government has ultimate control in the house, but in committees, Opposition MPPs can vote to amend government bills or hold the government to account in other ways, such as by questioning ministers and public servants. The Tories and the NDP did both to the Liberals during the minority years.
Overall, though, Opposition MPPs in Ontario have far less power than their counterparts in Ottawa, and they’ve got less power now than at any other time in living memory. Every party that wins government promises that it’ll release the vise-like grip on debates at Queen’s Park. Predictably, though, those governments end up finding that it’s easier to get their work done if they tighten the vise just a little bit more.
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