As Bill 83 – the Protection of Public Participation Act – inches closer towards reaching committee level members of the Provincial Ontario Conservative Party have shifted their previous supportive positions.
The Bill itself – built out of an odyssey of proposed legislation that began in 2008 with the NDP party – has been largely on the back burner as successive minority Liberal Governments in Ontario have had to prioritize passing budgets and dealing with a transfer in leadership. Still, there has been significant public pressure to prioritize the legislation with well over 100 organizations across Canada calling for its passage and hundreds of thousands of Ontarians urging MPP’s as well.
Introduced by the Attorney General, the bill had symbolic support across all parties. There is a legal consensus that this legislation is needed in order to stop the backlog of civil litigation known as “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation” (SLAPP suits) in the Ontario court system and to also introduce legal deterrents to engaging in civil litigation in this way. The legal community, the advocacy community, and until very recently all political parties acknowledge that without this legislation there is no legal protection for Ontarians to publicly advocate against practices or businesses that they believe counter the public interest.
As the bill is currently stalled in second reading many in debate this week argued to move it to committee before the March break. The difference this time around though was the position of many in the Ontario Conservative Party. Previously supportive of the Bill, Conservative MPP’s engaged in a range of hostile and obstructionist behaviours in an attempt to sabotage moving the bill to committee.
What did it look like? Conservative MPP from Durham John O’Toole took the opportunity in debate to instead attempt to score political points by claiming that the Liberal Government are “bullies” – muddying the water and moving from debate from the bill to the actions of the Government itself. He went on further to mention “Ornge helicopters and gas plants” before being scolded by the Deputy Speaker, “…please, let’s have some civility in the House.” O’Toole would continue on – accusing the Attorney General himself of being a “bully.”
Not finished – Conservative MPP from Newmarket-Aurora Frank Klees further derailed demanding that the Attorney General actually apologize to O’Toole. Comically, focus was brought back to the Bill itself by another Conservative MPP Ted Arnett from Wellington-Halton Hills, thanking Klees “the member for Newmarket–Aurora, who theoretically responded to my speech. Then, unfortunately, it went a little sideways and there were responses to the responses.”
Undettered – this line of deflecting from the bill and talking about “bullies” would later be picked up by Conservative MPP Rob E. Milligan of Quinte West. Milligan would also attempt to score a point against Bill 83 and the proposed 60 day timeline to have judgement on whether or not a SLAPP suit was actually a SLAPP by confusing criminal and civil courts. Attorney General Gerrsteen corrected him, “This has nothing to do with the way criminal courts are clogged up. It’s in a totally different system. We’re talking about a civil court system here, where civil actions are tried. This is not in criminal court.” This was not before NDP MPP Rosario Marchese for Trinity-Spadina called Milligan, Klees and O’Toole out, “It’s very clear to me, Speaker, that the member from Northumberland–Quinte West doesn’t want to move this bill along. It’s quite clear to me that the defenders of the so-called Conservative Party who support the little guy don’t want to move this bill along…It’s obvious to me. These guys are going to talk forever, because they don’t want to send it to committee.”
Other Conservatives who spoke on the bill – Randy Pettapiece, MPP (Perth–Wellington) – actually urged that the bill go to committee, however, also illustrated industry concerns against the bill – “I can understand that there may be some issues with this, especially with remote areas of our province where time is an issue; logging, as stated, might be an example. It is done in the wintertime, and you have so much time to do these things before spring thaw comes along and leaves logging roads inaccessible.” SLAPP suits and the logging industry have a long history in Ontario – especially as large logging companies frequently ignore free, prior and informed consent on unceded territory i.e. Grassy Narrows, Barriere Lake and Resolute Forest Products.
Also, almost the exact same concern was brought up by Conservative MPP Jerry Ouellete from Oshawa, “For example, in the forestry sector, some have stood up on this particular issue, where the issue is that it could be utilized to stop their process from taking place. What happens in Ontario in the forestry sector is, for example, there are certain periods of time that you can get your wood out. It’s called winter wood. Everything’s frozen, and you’re allowed to get in, do your cuts and bring the stuff out. A 60-day time frame would eliminate that process if that process is shut down. We just want to make sure that these things are not part of what’s taking place here and be sure that all aspects of whatever takes place in this allows the businesses to continue on.”
In the end the Attorney General pleaded with the four Conservatives that were still remaining at the debate to move the Bill to committee, “Please, members opposite: We’ve got four eloquent members of the Conservative Party that are in the House right now. There are four great members here. Do the right thing. Your leadership is gone. You’re in charge. Allow this bill to pass today so we can take it to committee. These are very good members that are here, and I think they will do the right thing.” The pleading was pointless though. The Bill is still stalled in second reading.
Two things are now extremely important – first, tracing the lineage of the Conservatives who have suddenly changed tactics on this bill. Those who spoke about specific forestry concerns are rather obvious. Others, like John O’Toole, have publicly spoken in favour of the for profit captive industry in Ontario – including his home riding captive animal facility Bowmanville Zoo. (Another current SLAPP suit concerns the captive animal facility Marineland Canada – who with the Bowmanville Zoo – are both Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums members). Liberals and NDP MPP’s may be reading that the party is now being whipped to sabotage this bill (O’Toole is the Whip for the Conservatives), while from the range of views it appears more like the Ontario Conservative Party is allowing MPP’s free reign on this bill and certain MPP’s our mouthing concerns, or being openly disruptive for, industry and business already engaged in SLAPP suits. (Or that they are in fact being whipped by certain MPP’s are pretending to still symbolically support going to committee to save face.)
Second, the Liberals and the NDP have to find a way to push forward with this legislation and move it to committee. There is still a consensus among these parties, and it appears among some Conservatives, to move this to committee and to see this bill passed. Any and all concerns mouthed by obstructionist Conservatives can and will be dealt with at the committee level and further stalling by them needs to be exposed.
For Ontarians who want to see this Bill passed to committee and who live in the ridings of Conservative MPP’s O’Toole, Pettapiece, Ouellete, Arnott, Klees and Milligan now would be a great time to contact them urging them to support passage of this bill to committee and to stop with their obstructionist tactics. Their behaviours do not in any way protect or reflect their constituents and they need to know that the public is both watching this debate, and willing to hold them accountable for their actions.
Frank Klees (Newmarket-Aurora) – 905 750 0019 / email@example.com
Ted Arnott (Wellington-Halton Hills) – 1 800 265 2366 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Rob E. Milligan (Northumberland-Quinte West) – 905 372 4000 / email@example.com
John O’Toole (Durham) – 905 697 1501 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Jerry Ouelette (Oshawa) – 905 723 2411 / email@example.com
Randy Pettapeice (Perth-Wellington) – 519 272 0660 / firstname.lastname@example.org
You can find the full debate transcript here
Other Notable Comments:
Liberal MPP Kevin Daniel Flynn (Oakville)- “Speaker, there are two parties that want to move this forward and bring the public in at committee. There’s one party that appears to want to keep the public excluded, and I think that’s too bad.
Liberal MPP Lorenzo Berardinetti (Scarborough Southwest) – “We’ve had over eight hours of debate now in this Legislature over this bill, Bill 83. It’s time to send it to committee, where the real work is done, where we can hear from deputants, do clause-by-clause amendments, if there are any, and then bring it back here for discussion again. I just want to emphasize that it’s time to get this bill moving forward.”
Liberal MPP Hon. Tracy MacCharles (Pickering – Scarborough East) – “Getting back to Bill 83, I have been told that we’ve had nine hours of debate. I get it: Everyone has an opportunity to debate it if they wish. But I’m hearing also a desire to get it to committee, so let’s do that. It’s time to get this bill to committee.”