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Ontario Liberals waste no time playing hardball with opposition

Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa (L) arrives with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to deliver the provincial budget at Queens Park in Toronto, July 14, 2014. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS)

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

The Ontario Liberals have wasted little time throwing around the weight of their majority government.

In the opening days of the new parliament, they demanded six out of nine seats on most legislative committees – even though the seat count in the legislature, mathematically, entitled them to just five. When the Progressive Conservatives protested the move, the Liberals ramped up the pressure. They threatened to have the legislature sit until midnight every night and stay in session through the summer. They also refused to convene a special committee looking at improving services for people with developmental disabilities, a PC priority, until the opposition parties agreed to government dominance of most other committees.

It's not hard to see why the Liberals wanted such power. In the previous legislature, when they had only a minority government, opposition-controlled committees forced them to hand over hundreds of thousands of pages of internal documents and inflicted political damage with an investigation of the billion-dollar cancellations of two gas-fired power plants. Now that the government had its majority back, they were going to bring the committees to heel.

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The Grits argued that committee chairs, who vote only to break ties, should not count as part of the seat totals. This logic runs counter to the committee structure of the previous parliament, where the opposition parties – who held a combined majority of legislative seats – received five seats between them on each committee, regardless of the chair. The PCs argued committee composition should approximate the proportions of seats in the legislature, which would give the Liberals five, and the Tories and NDP two apiece.

It didn't help that Government House Leader Yasir Naqvi looked evasive. At first, he refused to explain why he wanted the extra seats. Later, he scolded the PCs for raising the issue in the legislature, seemingly implying that discussions concerning elected officials should be kept secret. For a government that talks frequently about openness and transparency, the optics were bad.

"They're just punishing us for the fact that we drove some messages when they had a minority," PC House Leader Steve Clark said. "And they're going to try to gag us every step of the way."

It would, of course, be easier to sympathize with the Tories had they not played some similarly cynical parliamentary games in the last session.

The PCs repeatedly delayed and obstructed routine legislation by stretching debates out as long as possible. Perhaps the most absurd tactic the party employed was "ringing the bells" to deliberately waste time: in the middle of a debate, a Tory MPP would suddenly move a motion for the legislature to be adjourned, necessitating that the House's bells be rung for half an hour to alert MPPs to vote on the motion. Even relatively innocuous legislation, including a law banning people under 18 from using tanning beds, got caught for a time in this legislative snarl.

The PCs claimed they were doing this to prove a point: that the Liberals had no serious plan to deal with the province's economic problems, and it was not worth debating any other legislation. But the Tories' more likely motivation was to block as many bills as possible to make the Liberals look incapable of achieving anything.

At the time, Premier Kathleen Wynne tried to take the high road. She met privately with then-PC leader Tim Hudak numerous times, and repeatedly called on all parties to be more co-operative. The Tories were simply abusing the advantages offered them by a minority government to block anything useful getting done, the Liberals argued, and it was hard to disagree with that notion.

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But the moment they got a majority, the Liberals seemed determined to give the PCs a taste of their own medicine.

And ultimately, it worked. Last week, the PCs and the NDP both agreed to the Liberals' committee formula. The Grits did make one concession, giving the NDP the right to chair two committees instead of one.

New Democrat House Leader Gilles Bisson says he agrees with the Liberals that the chairs shouldn't count as part of the government's committee majority. That structure – which leaves the NDP with just a single member on committees they don't chair – doesn't particularly bother him.

"At the end of the day, if it means we're down to one, we can live with that. It's not a big deal. Our members are smart," he said. "Us being one or us being two, it doesn't really matter."

Mr. Naqvi, meanwhile, offered a positive take on the matter.

"The three house leaders, we're working very closely together, we're getting things done," he said.

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Mr. Clark doesn't have quite so rosy a view: "I just can't get over the [Liberals] – they say one thing to you, and then they do something totally different with me."

Whatever the truth of the three parties' relationship behind the scenes, from the outside it looked like the government was flexing its muscle.

There might very well be a valid reason for the Liberals wanting absolute control of the committees – to stop the Tories from trying to needlessly obstruct legislation, perhaps – but they didn't seem particularly concerned with articulating it.

Instead, they resorted to the same hardball tactics they once disparaged.

Adrian Morrow reports on the Ontario legislature.

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