The embattled Progressive Conservative government is going on a midnight run.
Amid a circus-like atmosphere on a rare Saturday sitting, Government House Leader Todd Smith announced the legislature will resume Monday at 12:01 a.m. to debate a controversial bill slashing the size of Toronto council.
With the Oct. 22 city election hanging in the balance, Premier Doug Ford’s fledgling administration is scrambling.
Smith tried and failed to get unanimous consent Saturday for further debate on Bill 31, the Efficient Local Government Act, and there was not enough time to secure Sunday proceedings in the legislature.
“We’re going to bring the House back at 12:01 a.m. Monday. That way we will be able to begin debate on this bill,” he told reporters after a 46-minute session that saw protesters in the public gallery denouncing Ford.
The House leader said the second-reading debate would continue “till the early morning hours of Monday morning.”
“Then we’re going to return for question period (at 10:30 a.m. Monday) … then our intent is to be able to head off to the International Plowing Match,” he said, referring to the Chatham-Kent rural expo that most MPPs annually attend.
Queen’s Park has been plunged into uncertainty since Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba ruled last Monday that Bill 31’s previous incarnation was unconstitutional because it infringed on Charter rights in the middle of an election.
That forced the Tories to reintroduce the bill invoking the Charter’s “notwithstanding” clause, which allows the government to overrule the courts in order to proceed with its legislative agenda.
It’s the first time an Ontario premier has resorted to that nuclear option and constitutional titans like former prime minister Jean Chrétien, former premiers Bill Davis, Bob Rae and David Peterson, and former justice ministers Roy McMurtry and Roy Romanow have denounced it.
Ford, who never once mentioned reducing Toronto council to 25 from 47 members during the June 7 election campaign, was unrepentant for pushing a measure he maintains should save $25 million annually.
“We were given a mandate by the people to reduce the size and cost of government, while delivering services more efficiently and effectively,” the premier said on Twitter after the House rose Saturday.
“Our government will be working this weekend to ensure that the people of Toronto get the better government they deserve,” he said.
NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson — who wants Speaker Ted Arnott to rule Bill 31 out of order because it is virtually identical to Bill 5, which is against the rules — said the havoc will be familiar to Torontonians.
“Listen, Ford has created this mess. He’s created this chaos. This is more of what we saw at city hall when the Fords were there,” said Bisson, referring to the premier’s tenure as a city councillor when his late brother, Rob Ford, was mayor between 2010 and 2014.
“They were really good at creating mayhem. This is mayhem at Queen’s Park a la Ford,” he said.
Arnott, for his part, said he will rule on Bisson’s concerns “in due time.”
If second reading can conclude Monday, the bill could pass third reading on Wednesday or Thursday presuming MPPs still break Tuesday for the plowing match.
“Right now, we want to go to the plowing match on Tuesday because we are committed to our rural constituents as well as to show that the government supports rural Ontario,” said Smith.
The government is also hopeful Bill 31 may be moot if Attorney General Caroline Mulroney is successful at the Court of Appeal on Tuesday and wins a stay of Belobaba’s ruling.
That would effectively neutralize the judge’s decision that Bill 5, the Better Local Government Act, was unconstitutional, rendering Bill 31 unnecessary and nullifying the need for the notwithstanding clause.
Scores of legislative staff were called in on overtime Saturday, including security officers and those working in broadcast and recording services, the cafeteria, and the Hansard transcription bureau.
There will be additional costs incurred with Monday’s midnight sitting, but the government did not have a tally of the tab being foot by taxpayers.
Green Leader Mike Schreiner asked, “How much money is this premier willing to waste for his own personal political agenda?”
“The government manufactured this crisis. The only reason Toronto elections are in doubt is because the premier has a personal political vendetta against the city of Toronto,” said Schreiner.
“This is all about his battle with the city of Toronto. He manufactured this crisis,” he said.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said “we think there are more important things to deal with” that dealing with the number of Toronto councillors.
“There’s one easy way to stop this circus from happening and that is to simply withdraw Bill 31, allow Toronto’s elections to go forward the way the way that they were supposed to and let’s move on …” she said.
Horwath said it was “laughable” for the Tories to try to blame the crisis in the legislature on the opposition parties when the premier is clearly still smarting from losing the 2014 Toronto mayoral race to Mayor John Tory.
“Mr. Ford has a singular focus on his grudge match. All of this is because of his petty vindictiveness and … it’s no way for a premier to behave.”
Liberal MPP Nathalie Des Rosiers, a co-author of The Oxford Handbook of the Canadian Constitution, said she’s “discouraged and outraged about the cavalier nature in which this is proceeding.”
“To have debates at 1 a.m. and expect that people will listen carefully and ponder? The uncertainty that they’re creating, the precedent that they’re creating for all Ontarians — and for Canadians as well — continues to appall,” said Des Rosiers (Ottawa-Vanier).
When the House adjourned at 1:46 p.m., two protesters were handcuffed and led from the public gallery amid of shouts of “shame” toward the Tory benches.
Toronto city clerk Ulli Watkiss has warned that a fair municipal election was “becoming virtually impossible to carry out.”
Court filings made Friday by Watkiss, who has hired her own outside legal counsel, say that in order to print a planned 2.6 million ballots on time, the printers would need to work 14 hours a day for seven days and the “current schedule does not provide any room for slippage for unanticipated issues or the correction of errors.”
A contingency plan includes reduced testing and cancelling advanced voting days that had been set to begin Oct. 10, which could “increase the risk of irregularities with the election.”
The clerk had originally planned to have all ballots printed, testing done and ballots and tabulators “locked down” for the October election by now. But ballots have yet to be printed because it remains uncertain whether there will be 47 council wards or 25.
With files from Jennifer Pagliaro