New rules for democratic discourse in the Legislature

By MPP Toby Barrett

Many of us who have been elected to serve in Ontario’s provincial parliament feel we have a bit of an outdated set-up and we operate under somewhat obscure procedural protocol. That will all change next week as we head back to the Ontario Legislature.

There’s nothing wrong with admitting that there are better ways of doing business as we continue to find better ways of doing debate in the Ontario Legislature.

After a summer of consulting with the clerks of the Legislature, the NDP and independent MPPs, a bill was developed to modernize the Legislative Standing Orders.

These changes, I feel, will help enhance debate, and increase opportunities for all MPPs to engage in the legislative process on behalf of the people they are elected to represent.

It makes sense, for example, that the same bill be debated in the afternoon as was in the morning – I am not sure why there’s a rule against that. When was the last time a bill passed in one day? Unless other procedural measures are brought in, as used by the NDP government to pass the one-day ammunition bill in the early 90s.

Based on practices set out in Ontario’s first Legislature in 1792 – and British Parliament before that – the way we conduct business in the Ontario Legislature is steeped in tradition.

I am an advocate for history and tradition; however, I have long thought the proceedings of the Legislature can always be streamlined.

I am heartened to see that, following prayers on the first sitting Monday of each month, the Canadian national anthem and the royal anthem shall be sung in the Chamber.

Under the new system, a Member in a wheel chair would no longer need unanimous consent from the legislature to vote without standing, rather the Speaker would be able to grant this exception.

The use of laptops and cellphones, which is common place and most members are doing already, will be a recognized in the Standing Orders. 

Currently, members deliver their statements in the afternoon, after Question Period, when the chamber is nearly empty. The whole purpose of a Member’s Statement is to enable an MPP to share with the public important issues and events happening in their riding. Under the new rule, member’s statements will be presented at 10:15 every day, just before Question Period, ideally in front of a full chamber and the media.

A further change will allow night sittings in the final 18 sessional days – so there is less packed into the last 12 days.

The format of debate will be altered from two-minute question and answers, to one-minute Q and A. The intent of this is to encourage more active debate and response to questions.

The requirement for a verbal referral of a question from one minister to another during Question Period will end under this legislation. Ontario is the only province still using this practice.

Other changes will allow more co-sponsorship of Private Member’s Bills, no matter what party members are from.

Nothing is constant but change – and that principle can, on occasion, be applied to the time-tested procedures we follow to conduct our province’s business.

I trust MPP’s respect for these new rules will contribute to our respect for our system of parliamentary democracy.

Toby Barrett is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk