TORONTO — A former Progressive Conservative legislator ousted from the party caucus for voting against a sweeping new law that extends pandemic emergency orders said she opposed the measure because it gives Premier Doug Ford's government too much power.
Belinda Karahalios said Bill 195 removes key checks and balances imbedded in the legislative process. The Cambridge, Ont., legislator said her internal attempts to change the bill failed, prompting her to break ranks with her party on Tuesday and vote against the new law.
"It takes advantage of the people of Ontario during a time when they're feeling especially vulnerable, when there's a lot of fear of the unknown," Karahalios said. "I question how much thought went into this."
Bill 195 was introduced two weeks ago and fast-tracked through Ontario's legislature, passing into law Tuesday night. It allows the government to extend or amend some emergency orders a month at a time, for up to two years.
The province has issued dozens of emergency orders since the start of the pandemic which cover everything from health care worker redeployment to regional lockdowns. They also include public health orders limiting social gatherings.
The government has said the law also introduces additional reporting requirements to bolster oversight. The government will have to report any emergency order extensions to a legislative committee once a month and table a report on the use of the law six months after it expires.
Karahalios said the new law permits the government to lock down regions again with very little debate or oversight from the legislature.
"I understand the need to be able to be flexible ... but if you're going to, for example, lock us down again, I need to be able to have a say at that table on behalf of the people of Cambridge," she said. "Every (legislator) should have a say in that because our communities are going to feel very differently about a second lockdown."
Premier Doug Ford defended the bill and his decision to oust Karahalios from the caucus on Wednesday, saying he could not tolerate her voting against the law.
Ford said the emergency measures need to remain available to his government in case of a surge of COVID-19 cases.
"This is one of the single most important pieces of legislation to protect the people of Ontario, bottom line, full stop," Ford said. "It's about making sure that we protect people in long term care, making sure our hospital system keeps moving."
Ford denied that the bill has caused any internal rifts within his party.
"Within a caucus we have some good comments, good heated discussions," Ford said at his daily news conference. "But at the end of the day, you come out united. This is about working for the people and making sure you represent the people. But when you get into politics you're part of a team."
But Karahalios said some of her colleagues were concerned that the bill went too far and were warned that they would be kicked out of caucus if they voted against it.
"There were numerous colleagues of mine who were quite uncomfortable," she said. "They knew that they should vote no, but didn't because they were afraid of what would happen. They were afraid of getting kicked out."
Ford said Wednesday that Karahalios never voiced any concern to him about the bill, something she denies.
Karahalios said she expressed unease with the bill to Ford's staff, even requesting changes and a phone call with the premier himself, but contended he never reached out.
She decided to vote against the bill after hearing "resoundingly" from her constituents that they opposed the bill, she added.
"It was screaming at me that something was wrong with (the law)," she said. "And as much as it was a hard decision because I knew that there was going to be some form of retribution, at the end of the day, I know I did right for my constituents."
The new law has been decried by people on both sides of the political spectrum as a violation of charter rights, with several unions saying they are contemplating a legal challenge.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath praised Karahalios for standing up for her principles and voting against her own government's bill.
"Mr. Ford simply cannot tolerate a difference of opinion, and he punishes people severely when they dare to stand up to him," she said.
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said he admired Karahalios for sticking to her values and voting against the government law.
"Doug Ford previously stated that his MPPs would be allowed to vote freely on non-spending bills," Schreiner said in a statement. "Now he has ejected ... Karahalios for doing exactly that. You don't get a healthy democracy by dictating votes and punishing free expression."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2020.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press