Government House Leader Todd Smith let out a brief laugh Thursday morning in a scrum with reporters when he was asked how many times the Tories rang the bells — a common stalling tactic — when they were in opposition and the Liberal government was trying to speed legislation through with time allocation.
"I have no idea," he said, with the laugh. "It was a number of times, on certain issues, certainly not on everything. If it was something that we felt strongly about, if we didn't appreciate the way the government was pushing something through, then we took that opportunity."
It's an arcane bit of legislative procedure: MPPs can stop debate and cause the legislature's bells to ring for 30 minutes by calling for an adjournment of debate. Opposition parties of all stripes have repeatedly used the tactic to register their displeasure with the way the government of the day is pushing something through.
Most recently, the NDP used bell ringing to stall Bill 5 — the Better Local Government Act — for a day.
But, one of a handful of changes to the Standing Orders the government proposed Thursday means MPPs will no longer be able to cause the bells to ring during time allocation debates. (A time allocation motion can be moved after six-and-a-half hours of second-reading debate, and then will curtail the amount of debate that follows before third reading — and during that debate, MPPs won't be able to ring the bells.)
Smith said it isn't hypocritical for his government to end the practice, saying the NDP will still be able to use the tactic — just not during the time allocation debates — and other tactics as well.
"Generally, what we want to do is make sure that the government and the opposition have the opportunity to debate government bills, so that's why we've made the changes."
In a speech to the legislature on the changes, Smith said the NDP had wasted 16 hours of debate — accusing the opposition of causing "an unprecedented level of disruption in this house" — and the goal of the government's changes is to make up that time. The changes would add 40 hours of debate per sitting, according to Smith.
Smith also acknowledged in that speech that the opposition won't like the change, nor does it like it when the government uses time allocation to curtail debate.
"I sure didn't like it when I was in opposition," he said.
In total, the government's changes would:
- expand night sittings to the last three weeks of a sitting, from two weeks, giving the government more time to pass legislation.
- allow one independent MPP to participate in responses to ministerial statements, for up to five minutes.
- allow the government to move an opposition day motion to a Tuesday or Wednesday by changing the scheduled start time from 3 p.m. to 1 p.m. and move the vote after two hours of debate on that motion, rather than 5:50 p.m. The remaining time can be used for government business and allows the government to curtail the power the opposition currently has to delay government business by day by tabling an opposition day motion.
- eliminate the ability for MPPs to move adjournment of the House, thereby ringing the bells, during time allocation debates.
- eliminate the requirement that the house be suspended until the full time for private members' public business has expired, having votes take place immediately after debate on the last item is finished, closing a time gap that has existed since the number of official parties fell from three to two. It also allows the government to have more time on Thursday afternoons to call government business.
NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson said the government is consolidating power in the house with the changes.
"They're not doing it for the good of the House, they're doing it for the good of their own government," he said in the debate on the standing orders.
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said the issues stem from the fact that the Liberals lost official party status in the last election, winning only seven seats in the house, one shy of the current threshold.
He said the extra five minutes the government has given the independent members — currently seven Liberals and the Green Leader, all of whom lack official party status — to speak, is a mere "morsel." He said he has asked Smith to grant the Liberals the same kind of benefits the Liberals offered the NDP in 2003 — it was short of full party status, but gave them funds to support their caucus and fuller rights to participate in debates and sit on committees.
Green Leader Mike Schreiner said the Standing Orders have deteriorated over time, giving the government more power, and that should be reversed. He noted that after he worked with the Liberals on suggestions sent to Smith, but they did not hear back from Smith.
Opposition also considers using Standing Orders in notwithstanding debate
Meanwhile, Bisson said the NDP is also considering raising a complaint with the Speaker that the government's use of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms' notwithstanding clause in Bill 31 — the government's reprisal of legislation concerning municipal elections in Ontario — violates the Standing Orders.
"I believe there are some real concerns with it, vis-à-vis standing orders 23 and 52," Bisson informed the Speaker Thursday morning, adding he intends to pursue the issue when the House next meets.
(That will be Wednesday, as the House won't sit on Monday and Tuesday, when MPPs attend the International Plowing Match near Chatham-Kent.)
Standing order 23 says a member can be called to order by the Speaker if he or she "Refers to any matter that is the subject of a proceeding," or one "that is pending in a court or before a judge for judicial determination... where it is shown to the satisfaction of the Speaker that further reference would create a real and substantial danger of prejudice to the proceeding."
Standing order 52 says "No motion, or amendment, the subject-matter of which has been decided upon, can be again proposed during the same Session."