The Progressive Conservative who referees Ontario’s legislature is asking fellow MPPs — including in his own party — to dial down confrontational behaviour when they return from an extended summer break or risk alienating voters.
Without naming names or parties, Speaker Ted Arnott singles out “repeated and contrived standing ovations” in the legislature’s daily question period, noting they “do not lead us to a higher standard of parliamentary decorum.”
Tory MPPs, led by Premier Doug Ford, have been criticized for setting a rancorous tone by jumping to their feet to clap at every response from the premier or his cabinet ministers. In retort, the official opposition New Democrats occasionally do their own standing ovations.
“There has been a noticeable difference in the level of toxic partisanship when the premier is in question period and when he’s not in question period,” Green Leader Mike Schreiner said Monday.
“The bottom line is the premier’s going to set the tone and I hope he comes back in the fall and sets a more respectful one.”
Ford’s office did not comment on details in the speaker’s memo but spokeswoman Ivana Yelich said “our government will continue to follow the advice and rules set out by the Speaker.”
“Our caucus is an enthusiastic team, proud of our plan to get Ontario back on track. We are excited about the kind of changes we are making to ensure Ontario is open for business while ensuring the best outcomes for all Ontarians.”
Arnott spent several months working with three deputy speakers — one is fellow Progressive Conservative MPP Rick Nicholls; the others are New Democrats Jennifer French and Percy Hatfield — on the note sent to members in July. Sixty per cent of MPPs were newly elected in the 2018 provincial election and the legislature resumes sitting Oct. 28, a week after the federal election.
An MPP for 29 years who no longer caucuses with the governing PCs, Arnott said he recognizes the value of old-fashioned heckling, but is now drawing a line.
“All of us enjoy a good-natured or humourous interjection during debate. However, members understand that when it becomes mean, excessively rude, or nasty, Ontario’s voters are not impressed favourably,” he wrote in the eight-page memo.
“No question is enhanced by a gratuitous personal insult, and no response is elevated by the dismissive avoidance of a legitimate issue raised. During debate on bills and motions, no speech is more likely to be noticed if it ignores the relevant issue, or is merely an attack on another member or party.”
Opposition MPPs pointed to a question period last May when Ford and his ministers stonewalled questions from across the aisle, answering them by reading from a list of unrelated government announcements including the fizzled “buck-a-beer” policy.
Ford, who never served in the legislature before his sudden ascension to the party leadership and winning the 2018 provincial election, has also threatened to go door-knocking in the ridings of opposition members challenging him on government policies.
The NDP research office said Ford has been singled out by the speaker and “called to order” 23 times for unparliamentary remarks and other concerns.
“I don’t know if it’s just Doug learning how to debate as a parliamentarian — he’s never held the role — or he doesn’t know the rules around what proper behaviour and decorum is,” said New Democrat MPP Taras Natyshak, who concedes all members need to watch their behaviour.
“We hear it when we go back to our ridings that people can’t even turn on the legislative channel because they’re sort of disgusted by the tone.”
In other examples, a number of New Democrat MPPs have been “named” and ejected from the chamber for rowdy behaviour, such as desk pounding. Conservative MPP Roman Baber landed in hot water with his own party last March for shouting “Why are you still here?” at former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne. Conservatives accused the NDP’s Gilles Bisson of mimicking a Tory MPP’s Pakistani accent last summer, which Bisson denied.
Arnott said he and his deputies crafted the memo after hearing of a similar one sent to British MPs, who have been wrestling with inflamed passions surrounding Brexit.
He acknowledged he could have been tougher after being elected speaker by MPPs over a year ago.
“There are people who would say the speaker should take a harder line or crack the whip sooner. And maybe that’s true. I was, in the first few weeks as speaker, quite overwhelmed,” Arnott added.
“Perhaps I should have been able to respond to it more effectively.”
Schreiner said he’s hopeful of a more temperate atmosphere in the legislature now that Ford’s former chief of staff Dean French — who was known to encourage clapping, which was in turn monitored by the premier’s office — is gone after leaving the premier’s office in a cronyism scandal.
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“Even a lot of members of the Conservative caucus are feeling embarrassed by the whole trained seal, clapping on cue. It’s beneath most of them and I don’t think they enjoy it. There may be a change BDAD — before Dean, after Dean.”
Arnott told the Star he has received a positive response to the memo, but chuckles with a qualification.
“The people who are letting me know it’s a good thing are not necessarily the ones who are chronically misbehaving.”