Toronto

Ford government pushes through controversial election spending bill with notwithstanding clause

The Ontario government has pushed through a bill limiting third-party election advertising by employing the notwithstanding clause, a rarely used power that allows legislatures to override the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Clause allows legislatures to override portions of the charter for a 5-year term

Opposition politicians are accusing Premier Doug Ford's government of prioritizing the election law debate over more important pandemic issues. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The government of Premier Doug Ford has pushed a controversial bill through the Ontario legislature limiting third-party election advertising by employing a rarely used legislative power.

Bill 307, which used the notwithstanding clause to reintroduce parts of a law struck down by a judge last week, passed Monday by a margin of 63 votes to 47.

The clause allows legislatures to override portions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for a five-year term.

A judge found it was unconstitutional for the government to double the restricted pre-election spending period for third-party advertisements to 12 months before an election call.

The Progressive Conservative government argued the extended restriction was necessary to protect elections from outside influence.

The bill passed Monday afternoon after a marathon weekend debate in which opposition politicians argued the government was trying to silence criticism ahead of next June's provincial election.

"It's obviously a move from a man who's desperate to cling to power," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and the New Democrats spent the day trying to drag out the process by introducing a variety of motions on pandemic-related issues they argued should be the focus of the sitting. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

The New Democrats spent the day trying to drag out the process by introducing a variety of motions on pandemic-related issues they argued should be the focus of the sitting. Ford said earlier on Monday that he wouldn't be swayed.

"We're fighting for democracy," Ford said at Queen's Park. "I'll work all day, all night to protect the people."

Last week, Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Morgan found it was unconstitutional for the Progressive Conservative government to double the restricted pre-election spending period for third-party advertisements to 12 months before an election call.

A bill that took effect this spring had stretched the restricted spending period from six months to one year before an election is called, but kept the spending limit of $600,000 the same.

Morgan found that the government didn't provide an explanation for doubling the limit, and his decision meant sections of the law involved in the court challenge were no longer in effect. 

Unions argued limit infringed on their rights to free speech

Unions had argued the limit infringed on their rights to free speech, but the attorney general argued the changes were necessary to protect elections from outside influence.

The government reintroduced the bill with the override clause last week, and held a marathon debate over the weekend.

Government house Leader Paul Calandra repeated the attorney general's arguments on Monday, saying the amendments were necessary to protect the elections.

"[The opposition] want a system where there are no rules," Calandra said. "We insist that elections be done fairly."

He has also argued that it was necessary to recall legislators from their summer break to attend to the matter, because Morgan's judgment voided all limits on pre-election spending ahead of the June 2, 2022 vote.

Green party leader Mike Schreiner called the move a "dark day for democracy," and said the emergency weekend sitting revealed the government's priorities during the pandemic.

"It showed how quickly the government is willing to act to violate people's charter rights and silence critics to address
government priorities: re-election," he said during debate on Monday.

'A day of infamy'

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, one of the unions involved in the court challenge, said it was exploring its legal options following the passing of Bill 307.

"If Ford believes that passing legislation to restrict third-party advertising will silence his critics, he hasn't been paying attention," ETFO president Sam Hammond said.

The head of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) said Monday was "a day of infamy for Canada's constitution."

"The election gag law in question aids the incumbent government's re-election bid in 2022 by limiting political voices
for the imminent election cycle," Michael Bryant said in statement.

The CCLA was also considering its "next legal steps," he said.

Del Duca: 'A sad day for our democracy'

Reacting to the bill's passage, Steven Del Duca, leader of the Ontario Liberal Party said, "Today is a sad day for our democracy."

Del Duca said Ford has "rammed through legislation," adding that it will "undermine our right to free speech by silencing his critics."

Ontario Liberal Party Leader Steven Del Duca says, 'Today is a sad day for our democracy.' (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

He said Ford's move to push the bill through is nothing more than an attempt to save his own political skin while changing the rules of an election he's already running in.

"Make no mistake, Doug Ford is silencing the front-line heroes — the nurses, doctors, teachers, essential workers, and personal support workers who are speaking out against his government," Del Duca said.

OFL 'outraged' at unprecedented use of clause

Meanwhile, the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) said the legislation is "anti-democratic" and takes aim squarely at critics of the premier and his party. 

President Patty Coates said the OFL is "outraged" at Ford's unprecedented use of the notwithstanding clause to trample Ontarians' Charter Rights.

"The freedom to peacefully express dissatisfaction with the government is a principle that must never be bent," said Coates. 

"The Bill that Ford's Conservatives rammed through today, after it was already deemed unconstitutional, attempts to do just that. It's simply an end-run on our democracy and it is unacceptable. We won't forget this government's self-serving attempt to silence critics and rig the next election in their favour."

With files from Desmond Brown

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