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Question period resumes in Ontario, a tricky challenge for all parties

Ontario's political parties now have to figure out how to navigate the partisan cut-and-thrust of Queen's Park in the COVID-19 era, as question period resumes Tuesday for the first time in two months. 

It's been 2 months since opposition parties had a chance to question Ford government

Premier Doug Ford and some of his Progressive Conservative MPPs sit in the Ontario Legislature on April 14 under physical distancing protocols imposed at Queen’s Park. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

Everyone in Ontario has to do things differently in the era of COVID-19. With question period resuming at Queen's Park on Tuesday for the first time in two months, the province's MPPs now face the prospect of trying to do politics differently. 

Will the political parties adapt their usual partisan cut-and-thrust to fit the new realities of the pandemic?   

It will be a tricky balancing act for all. The opposition parties don't want to be seen as politicizing a virus that has spread rapidly around the world, yet their most fundamental job is holding the government to account for its actions.

Premier Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative government has been in the public spotlight for the past two months. Despite enormous pressure in leading the province's response to COVID-19, Ford's public demeanour has been almost universally calm.

In pre-pandemic times, scrutiny from the opposition occasionally provoked strong reactions from Ford. It's hard to predict how that will unfold now.

Premier Doug Ford has held daily briefings at Queen's Park since declaring a state of emergency in mid-March. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

"You've got to put politics aside sometimes and focus on the betterment of the whole province," Ford said Monday during his daily news briefing. "There's lots of time to get into the mud and all the other nonsense."

Ford said the opposition parties "have been pretty good lately" and thanked them for working with the government. 

"We have bigger fish to fry than argue with each other in the legislature," he said when asked about the resumption of question period. "We'll see what the opposition does."

"We're going to ask questions that no one in that house ever wanted to have to ask," said NDP leader Andrea Horwath later Monday during a news conference at Queen's Park.

"I don't relish the task. I'll be straightforward in my questions and expect Mr. Ford to be straightforward and honest in his answers."

Horwath is calling for two public inquiries related to COVID-19: one focused on the government's overall response to the pandemic, including its preparations, and the second focused on long-term care. 

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath held a news conference Monday from the media studio at Queen's Park. (Ontario Legislative Assembly)

"There are questions that need to be asked of the government," Horwath said. "We are going to do that in a thoughtful respectful way and hopefully the premier will respond in the same thoughtful respectful way and answer those questions. Ontarians deserve no less than that."  

When the legislature convenes at 9 a.m., extending Ontario's state of emergency is slated to be the first order of business

The extension is bound to pass given the PC majority. However, it may not happen as quickly as the PCs want.

Passing any legislation in one quick step — including extending a state of emergency — requires unanimous consent from MPPs attending a sitting. Independent MPP Randy Hillier, a former member of the PC caucus, indicated in a letter Monday that he won't provide that consent. 

Hillier's letter says the emergency orders already issued can be extended, but that no further orders should be issued without the scrutiny of the legislature.     

Toronto Western Hospital's COVID-19 assessment centre, photographed on May 11. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Hillier can't stop an extension of the state of emergency but he can slow it down by forcing a debate.

The legislature has held just three sittings since adjourning on March 12, all of them emergency sessions without a question period.

Tuesday's question period is expected to begin some time after 10 a.m. 

Question period normally runs four days a week when the legislature is in session. Under the rules negotiated between the government House Leader Paul Calandra and the other parties, it will be held once this week and twice in each of the following three weeks.

Under the legislature's usual rules, backbench MPPs from the governing party get to pose what are known as "friendly questions" to cabinet ministers. But under the adapted rules in place, the Ford government is giving up four of those question slots daily to the opposition parties: two to the NDP and two shared among the Liberal, Green and independent MPPs. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C.

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