Ontario legislators to meet for a rare midnight session on council-cutting bill

The Ontario government will hold a midnight sitting of the legislature early on Monday in an effort to expedite passage of a bill that will cut the size of Toronto's city council.

The bill re-introduces legislation that was struck down by an Ontario Superior Court judge last week

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says the new legislation will invoke the notwithstanding clause to overrule a court decision to strike down an earlier bill. Ford is determined to cut the size of Toronto city council from 47 wards to 25. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

Ontario legislators will meet for a rare midnight session early Monday morning.

The Progressive Conservative government made the announcement following an also-unusual hour-long Saturday sitting in which they debated the controversial Bill 31, dubbed the Efficient Local Government Act.

Premier Doug Ford's Tories have been trying to push through a bill that would cut the size of Toronto's city council from 47 to 25. 

"It's going to be lights on, cameras on, and everything is going to be out there in the open for people to see," said House Leader Todd Smith after being asked if the government was hurrying the legislation through under the cover of night.

"We have a lot of great reasons as to why this bill should be passed as quickly as possible," he added.

The bill re-introduces legislation that was struck down by an Ontario Superior Court judge, who said it violated the charter rights of candidates and voters in Toronto's upcoming election. The new legislation will invoke the notwithstanding clause to overrule the court decision.

Province wants legislation passed by end of week

The government made the rare move because it finds itself crunched for time this week at the legislature. The International Plowing Match in Chatham-Kent, Ont., is set for Tuesday, and each year Queen's Park closes for a day so all politicians can attend.

The midnight sitting will allow the Tory government to reach the needed 6.5 hours on this stage of debate to push the bill forward in the legislative process.

The government hopes to have the legislation passed by the end of the week.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government's move to push the legislation through shows it has misplaced priorities.

"It's pretty clear the government is being very disrespectful about the legislature and what this house is all about," she said. "They're playing silly games at time when we have literally kids in our schools that can't drink the water because there's lead in it."

Toronto election down to the wire

Earlier this week, City of Toronto clerk Ulli Watkiss said that with each passing day it becomes "virtually impossible" to ensure the city provides its residents and candidates with a fair election.

Smith said that the city needs certainty around its election, which is set for Oct. 22, so the bill must be passed quickly.

"Our party, the PC caucus is here to work and get things done for the people of Ontario, so we're going to debate that bill from 12:01 a.m. until the early morning hours of Monday morning," he said.

The government hopes to have the legislation passed by the end of the week.

NDP house leader says bills are too similar

On Saturday, NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson asked House Speaker Ted Arnott to make a ruling on whether or not Bill 31 is too similar to the previous incarnation of the legislation, Bill 5. 

Bisson cited a standing order that forbids the re-introduction of identical motions or amendments that have already been decided on during the course of the same session. 

"The only difference is the notwithstanding clause," he said of the two bills. "We submit that they are the same bill, and the second bill is out of order." 

For his part, Arnott promised to review the matter and to "make my ruling and respond to the house in due course." 

Unanimous consent requested

Smith, along with Deputy Government House Leader Stephen Lecce, also spoke to the media in the hour before Saturday's debate began, stating their intention to ask for unanimous consent from members to move the bill closer to becoming law. 

"We would hope that the opposition members don't delay this very important piece of legislation," said Smith. 

Government House Leader Todd Smith (right), standing next to Deputy Government House Leader Stephen Lecce, told reporters ahead of Saturday's session that his government would use 'all of the tools at our disposal to get the debate done.' (CBC)

That motion was denied amid yells of "No" from various MPPs. 

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said he's asked the government how much it cost provincial taxpayers to call all of the legislators, their staff and workers at Queen's Park back to work for the special sessions and has received no reply.

"This premier said he was elected to save taxpayers money," he said. "He is wasting taxpayers' money with a frivolous political fight against the city of Toronto... How much money is this premier willing to waste for his own personal political agenda?"

Condemnation from former politicians

On Friday, three architects of that clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms condemned the Ontario government's use of the rare provision.

Former prime minister Jean Chretien, former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow and former Ontario attorney general Roy McMurtry say the clause was meant to be used only in exceptional circumstances, and not as a means to circumvent proper processes.