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Ontario Liberals take ‘drastic’ action to pass anti-bullying bill

Premier Dalton McGuinty says time allocation motion is not anti-democratic

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty was asked about GSAs at Queen's Park in 2011. Credit: Andrea Houston (file photo)

With the clock ticking on Bill 13, and the Progressive Conservatives repeatedly filibustering debate, the Ontario Liberals plan to employ a rarely used tactic to force their anti-bullying legislation into committee and ensure it passes before summer break. 

Premier Dalton McGuinty says the Liberals will use Standing Order 47, better known as time allocation, which will allow each party 40 minutes of debate on the bill before forcing it to committee. He says the PCs are stalling debate by ringing the bells at Queen’s Park, a half-hour delay that happens each time an MPP moves to adjourn debate.

The move has incensed the opposition NDP and Tories, who were attempting to hash out a deal behind the scenes.

Standing Order 47 ends debate on any motion, says NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo. “This is anti-democratic at its core. We never support time allocation.”

But Premier Dalton McGuinty rejects NDP concerns that time allocation is anti-democratic. “No, this is ensuring we can move ahead with the bill. Otherwise, the bell ringing will go on forever. This is something the government is called upon to use from time to time. We want to move ahead with the bill, and this is the way to get it done.”

If the Liberals succeed in their bid for time allocation, Bill 13, the Accepting Schools Act, will be in committee as soon as the second week of May and up for a final vote by the end of May.

MPPs have been debating two anti-bullying bills over the last few months. The Liberal bill would make it law that schools establish welcoming environments for queer youth and provide supports, such as gay-straight alliances (GSAs), if requested by students. The PCs saw their private member’s Bill 14 unanimously sent to committee, although the Liberals have said it is now dead because its sponsor, Elizabeth Witmer, resigned on April 27.

Education Minister Laurel Broten, who was unavailable for comment, wants her bill to reach committee before summer.

Broten sent a statement: “We have seen too much game-playing and bell-ringing in the House. These delay and stall tactics by [Tim] Hudak’s PCs have held up this important piece of legislation. A time allocation motion is the only way we can guarantee that Bill 13 has a chance to pass in this legislative session and be in place in September. We need this legislation to be in place so that we have the tools to make sure that every student, in every school, in every part of Ontario has the supports they need to feel accepted and safe.”

Ontario GSA Coalition lawyer Doug Elliott says he would normally oppose time allocation on principle, but he recognizes that Bill 13 has stalled. “I hoped we could have had some sort of deal before going to this drastic measure.

“This situation has gone on long enough. It’s time to do something. There is a legitimate place for closure motions, and this may be one of those situations. I am concerned that LGBT kids will not get the supports they need. We have a serious problem,” Elliott says. “LGBT kids are being harassed to the point they take their own lives.”

McGuinty tells Xtra he still hopes a consensus of good will can be found among all three parties as they move forward with Bill 13. “What we are after here is making sure our kids [have a space] that is open, accepting, inviting and a safe environment for all our kids.

“What we are trying to do is incorporate a significant part of Ms Witmer’s bill into the government bill through good faith and a sense we are in this together,” he says.

And that’s exactly what happened, DiNovo says, noting that the NDP and the Tories came up with a compromise to bring back Bill 14 and merge both anti-bullying bills in committee. “It’s what the NDP have been hoping would happen for a while now, to put the best parts of Bill 14 and Bill 13 together in committee. The PCs agreed to stop ringing the bells and we can move forward. It was a complete compromise. But the government said no.”

Instead, the Liberals decided to move a motion for time allocation at the end of the day on May 1.

“Here was a compromise that allowed us to actually move forward and stop the bell ringing by the Conservatives,” DiNovo says. “Now it’s the government saying no. A pox on both their houses. It’s like playing with kids in the sandbox. It’s a mess.”

She says the ball is now in the government’s court.

McGuinty tells Xtra he does want to work with opposition parties to incorporate ideas from Bill 14. “Some issues transcend any one of us and speak to the ideals that we all share for our province, the kids of society we are trying to shape. I haven’t met a single parent that doesn’t want to assure that all kids, regardless of sexual orientation, faith, gender, place of origin, culture or traditions, feel accepted and respected in our school system. So I am convinced we will get there.”

But a senior advisor to Hudak thinks the Liberals have walked away from a possible compromise.

The source says that while Broten has repeatedly said she supports incorporating the best ideas from Bill 14 into Bill 13 to create the strongest piece of anti-bullying legislation possible, this doesn’t appear to be the case any longer.

PC MPP Christine Elliott says time allocation sends the wrong message to Ontarians. She says the government should reconsider the compromise. “I hope the community puts some pressure on the Liberals to be reasonable about this. This is something we want resolved and we want moved forward because it is in the public interest.”

Doug Elliott also questions why the proposed deal didn’t appeal to the Liberals, but he suspects there is a good reason. “The compromise sounded good to me, but it could be that there was some hidden booby trap that I wasn’t aware of . . . No government wants to do [time allocation]. You come across as tyrannical and heavy-handed. It has brought Canadian governments down.”

Calling the political climate at Queen’s Park “toxic,” Elliott says a collaborative and cooperative approach is unlikely.

Another concern is that the “lightning speed” of time allocation may shortchange the bill for committee hours, he says. “There may not be a lot of time to consider alternatives to the wording of sections, make additions, or what should be removed. There is a danger when you are pushing something through in a hurry that you end up with a statute that’s got missing pieces.”

That’s potentially a big problem for activists, says Casey Oraa, vice-chair of Queer Ontario, who plans to submit amendments to strengthen Bill 13 once it hits committee.

“I just think this whole situation is really unfortunate,” he says. “At the end of the day, all this bickering and these partisan games are really doing a disservice to LGBT youth. It’s time for all parties to get serious about protecting LGBT youth, which, frankly, is what the government should have done back when the GSA ban was first discovered.”
  Motion for Time Allocation for Bill 13