On June 6, 2019, Bill 108, the More Homes, More Choice Act received royal assent in the Ontario Legislature. The bill, which amended thirteen pieces of legislation, sparked much objection from dozens of environmental organizations, municipalities, and other public interest groups. Yet, while its impacts on the natural environment and the lives of Ontarians are deeply concerning, the strategies employed by Doug Ford’s provincial government to ensure that this bill was passed without delay also merit serious consideration. In many ways, it illustrates the ways democratically elected governments today are increasingly employing tactics which undermine democracy.
Our government’s decisions should reflect the will of the people. In order to ensure that this happens, the people must make their voices heard beyond the electoral season through processes of public consultation. In this case, however, the law was passed at utmost speed and with only the appearance of public consultation. Furthermore, minimal time was allowed for debate in the Legislature and consideration of concerns. An example of an ‘omnibus bill,’ it dealt with multiple laws at one and the same time, making it difficult for the public or the opposition to effectively respond and have their input considered. Where a bill addressing only one issue would allow all parties concerned to put in the necessary time and energy to respond, an omnibus bill forces individuals and organizations to prioritize what they want to respond to based on very particular areas of expertise. For example, if this bill were only focused on amendments to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the larger environmentalist community would be able to offer thoughtful and relevant input. But, because this bill addresses a number of laws relevant to environmentalists, the attention of the community was forcibly divided. Additionally, the government’s public statements about the bill largely misrepresented its actual content.
While the Ford government claims to be “restoring, accountability, and transparency,” they deliberately misled the public with regard to the content and implications of Bill 108.
With regard specifically to changes made to Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, considered groundbreaking legislation in species protection when it was passed in 2007, the Ford government’s official stance is that they improve outcomes for at-risk species: “Changes will also support a modern ecosystem-wide approach to species protection that balances a healthy environment with a healthy economy and is effective and efficient.”
However, 96 public interest organizations signed a joint submission analyzing the proposed ESA changes, stating that the changes would “strip Ontario’s most vulnerable plants and animals of crucial legal protections. They are inconsistent with the purpose and intent of the ESA, which is to protect and recover species at risk in this province.”
The submission was made on May 18 during a supposed public consultation about what should be included in the amendments to the ESA. However, it was destined never to be considered by the government, as Bill 108 was introduced into the Legislature on May 2, partway through the pubic consultation period. The public had little time to respond. Even though many municipalities called on the provincial government to allow more time for consultation, they were ignored.
According to Toronto city councillor Krisyn Wong-Tam, Ontario’s so-called ‘government for the people’ is “enriching powerful developers at the expense of local community planning, heritage conservation and endangered species.” In other words, this legislation reflects neither the will nor interest of the people, but instead the interest of developers.
This erosion of democratic values is nowhere near unique to Ontario’s provincial government. It can be observed in the blocking of former American President Barack Obama’s supreme court nominations, in the Canadian federal government’s omnibus budget implementation bill, in President Donald Trump’s deliberate undermining of public trust in journalism, and in many more examples across the world. These underlying problems of party over country politics, impediments to public input in policy-making decisions, and threats to systems of accountability are all warning signs of the decline of democracy. While this is extremely troubling, it presents a unique opportunity for community groups and citizens of democratic states to unite across diverse issues in opposition to threats to democracy. Perhaps not everyone considers the weakening of Ontario’s ESA to be a pressing issue, but every person interested in living in a transparent and effective democracy should be concerned with this blatant disregard for the voices of the public in policy-making.