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Ontario passes election spending bill with notwithstanding clause

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TORONTO —
Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives employed a rarely used legislative power on Monday to pass a bill limiting third-party election advertising amid shouts of “shame” from the opposition.

The government used the notwithstanding clause to pass Bill 307, which reintroduced amendments to the Election Finances Act that a judge struck down as unconstitutional last week.

The clause allows legislatures to override portions of the charter for a five-year term.

The opposition parties argued the legislation was an attempt by Premier Doug Ford’s government to silence criticism ahead of next year’s provincial election.

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“It’s obviously a move from a man who’s desperate to cling to power,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

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.

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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an explanation for doubling the limit, and his decision meant sections of the law involved in the court challenge were no longer in effect.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 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.

“They (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 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.

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“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.

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 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.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 14, 2021.

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