Randy Hillier thinks Ontario’s state of emergency has gone on long enough, and he’s going to do what he can, as the MPP for Lanark–Frontenac–Kingston, to stop it. He says he’s going to vote against extending it when MPPs meet at Queen’s Park on Tuesday — and deny the unanimous consent that has previously allowed the government to speed legislation through the house, often in a matter of hours.
“I fundamentally believe that the legislative assembly and representative democracy should now take part in the determination of public policy in this province,” he says.
Hillier, who was expelled from the Progressive Conservative caucus in March 2019, informed the government and Premier Doug Ford of his intention in a letter earlier on Monday: it’s now up on his constituent website. The government had been expected to present a motion to MPPs on Tuesday asking them to assent to an extension of the current state of emergency until June 2. Unanimous consent — literally, the absence of a single nay vote on an item — is used by governments in normal times but has been used during the pandemic to speed emergency legislation (and minimize the time MPPs need to spend in the chamber at Queen’s Park).
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The state of emergency, Hillier says, has given the government too much authority, for too long, without its having to face the scrutiny or approval of the legislative assembly. Since the premier declared a state of emergency in March, the cabinet has had wide powers to make emergency orders — such as those that have closed non-essential businesses and limited the size of public gatherings — that haven’t required the consent of elected MPPs.
“As I’ve stated to the house leader [Paul Calandra], and as I’ve said in that letter, although there’s merit to those orders to continue for some defined period of time, I don’t see any merit or justification in continuing to grant the premier that authority to make orders without legislative oversight,” Hillier says.
He adds that, if the government wants his yea vote, it’ll have to show why the state of emergency is necessary — something he says it’s failed to do. (At publication time, the government had not responded to TVO.org’s request for comment.)
Hillier points to section 7.0.8(4) of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act (the law that grants cabinet its emergency powers), which says that, even if a state of emergency is terminated or disallowed by the legislature, the orders made under that act can be renewed for 14 days at a time. The orders currently in place would be allowed to continue, but the government wouldn’t be able to make any new ones without some kind of input from Ontario’s elected body.
This, however, could pose a problem for Ontario’s plan to gradually, incrementally reopen the economy. Instead of being able to modify the existing rules to slowly allow more and more of public life to return to normal, the government would be left with a binary choice: extend the current orders or let them expire altogether.
Hillier, though, proposes a third option: the legislature itself could affirm the government’s emergency orders.
“The premier’s office has no powers extraordinary to the legislative assembly. Whatever he can do, the house can do,” he says. “The house can make those decisions now — that’s what representative democracy is.”
It’s also possible that Hillier may simply be out-voted by the rest of the legislature. Indeed, the government still holds a majority of the seats at Queen’s Park, and all Hillier can do is deny the government the fastest possible passage of its policies in the legislature; neither he nor any other single MPP can stop a decision by the majority. The government could still get its way and force a motion to go through the normal stages of debate; it would simply take longer.
Hillier acknowledges that he could still be defeated in the end.
“That’s right,” he says. “But it would still have to go to a debate.”