TORONTO — Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government passed its budget bill Wednesday, a massive piece of legislation that one lawyer called “contrary to our democratic system.”
The 194-page Protecting What Matters Most Act enforces the government’s spending plan while amending 199 other laws all at once. MPPs got feedback on it for two days during hearings at the finance committee.
The government “corrupted” Ontario’s legislative process by jamming so many amendments into one bill and therefore avoiding debate on specifics, Michael Bryant, executive director and general counsel at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, told HuffPost Canada.
“Many governments and many parliaments have seen omnibus bills but this one sets a new record,” said Bryant, who used to be a Liberal MPP in Ontario’s legislature.
“Truly, the legislature does not know what it voted for … you couldn’t possibly give it the appropriate attention.”
One “particularly troubling” schedule of the bill will make it nearly impossible to sue the Ontario government, Bryant said.
“Truly, the legislature does not know what it voted for.”
Schedule 17 repeals the existing Proceedings Against the Crown Act and replaces it with a new act, the Crown Liability and Proceedings Act.
The new act prevents lawsuits brought against the government if it is negligent or reckless in its operations, Bryant said. It could even extinguish lawsuits that are already in progress.
“The changes are radical and deserve to be a standalone bill,” Bryant said, calling the schedule “an arrogant abuse of power.”
Other lawyers have said the schedule rolls back government liability 70 years.
A spokesman for Attorney General Caroline Mulroney said that the change is meant to stop “frivolous” lawsuits brought by “well-funded” lawyers.
It won’t impact disputes over contracts, constitutional issues, human rights or judicial review of government decisions, Mulroney’s spokesman Jesse Robichaud told HuffPost by email.
“What these changes accomplish is to ensure that the government can make good faith legislative, regulatory and policy decisions without fear of being sued for negligence claims that lack merit, and to ensure that the courts are not evaluating the legislative, regulatory or policy decisions of a government – that is what the ballot box is for,” he said.
In Bryant’s presentation to the government’s finance committee, he mentioned a landmark class action brought against the federal government by residential school survivors. The settlement made survivors of “Indian day schools,” many of whom lost their culture and were physically and sexually abused, eligible for up to $200,000 in compensation.
“Imagine that the federal government had immunized itself from bringing such a class action,” he told HuffPost. “That’s what the provincial government has done with this bill.”
When he raised these concerns with PC MPPs at the finance committee, they did not seem to be aware of the schedule, Bryant said.
“That’s because it was one of 199 bills being changed.”
Some of the other sections of the budget bill:
- Limit growth in government spending to eliminate the province’s deficit over four years
- Introduce a new tax credit for child care
- Give low-income seniors access free dental care
- Cut the province’s spending on legal aid by 30 per cent
- Make sweeping changes to Ontario’s liquor laws.
This story has been updated with comment from the Attorney General’s office.
Earlier On HuffPost: