Premier Doug Ford is facing accusations of using the response to COVID-19 as a guise to advance his political interests.
Two new pieces of legislation that the government portrays as helping the province recover from the effects of COVID-19 contain provisions unrelated to the pandemic.
The government’s proposed Better for People, Smarter for Business Act — framed as boosting the economy by reducing red tape — would transform Canada Christian College into a university with the power to grant bachelor of science and arts degrees.
The college is run by the prominent conservative evangelical pastor Charles McVety, a staunch ally of Ford and opponent of previous Liberal reforms to Ontario’s sex education curriculum.
On Tuesday afternoon, the government tabled a separate bill to shield organizations from legal liability for spreading COVID-19, provided that they tried to follow public health guidelines. Included in that bill is legislation to ban Ontario municipalities from using ranked ballots in the 2022 elections for mayor and council.
“To the extent that they’re using the pandemic as cover for these controversial initiatives, it just stinks to high heaven,” said Emmett Macfarlane, an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.
The politics of omnibus bills
Governments of all political stripes — both at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa — have long used so-called omnibus bills to pass measures without the level of scrutiny they would receive in standalone legislation.
By putting unrelated items into bills that are supposed to be about COVID-19, the Ford government’s tactics could be considered worse than the typical omnibus bill, says Macfarlane.
“It does make one wonder to what extent the government was trying to sneak certain controversial amendments through,” he said in an interview with CBC News.
The move to give Canada Christian College university status is coming under fire in large part because of McVety’s political ties, his stance on sex ed and his views on same-sex marriage.
The Progressive Conservative campaign team selected McVety to be among the few attending the first leaders’ debate in the province’s 2018 election campaign. The reverend sat with some of Ford’s top advisers. McVety did not respond on Wednesday to CBC’s requests for an interview.
WATCH / Doug Ford on Canada Christian College:
“I have a lot of friends within churches and in colleges,” Ford said Wednesday when asked about McVety. “He went through the process like every other college, and the process is independent.”
However, CBC News has learned that Canada Christian College has not actually completed Ontario’s official independent process for approving degree programs.
The province’s Postsecondary Education Quality Assessment Board, the independent agency that considers applications for new degree programs and makes recommendations to the minister for approval, is in the midst of considering two applications from Canada Christian College.
One of the applications is to change its name to Canada University and School of Graduate Theological Studies. The other proposal, submitted last month, is to create new Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degree programs. In both cases, the board is yet to make any recommendation for approval.
A spokesperson for Colleges and Universities Minister Ross Romano said the college’s applications are currently under review by the board and said the legislation will not come into effect until after the reviews are complete.
The college seems to think approval for the arts and science degrees is in the bag.
“The present legislation governing the college has disallowed further enhancements of our educational offerings in the liberal arts and sciences,” says the college’s 2020-25 academic plan. “We expect this situation will be rectified in the coming months.”
Canada Christian College currently has the legal authority to grant degrees only in such fields as theology, religious education and Christian counselling.
“Charles McVety has a history of making Islamophobic and homophobic statements and for using Canada Christian College, of which he is the president, to host Islamophobic speeches,” the NDP’s anti-racism critic, Laura Mae Lindo, in question period this week.
“Why does this government continue to use the cover of a pandemic to make good on back room deals with the Premier’s friends?” Lindo asked
The government’s response didn’t directly address her question.
The province is “establishing an equal playing field for our post-secondary institutions to compete and attract world-class talent from around Ontario and abroad,” said David Piccini, parliamentary secretary to Romano.
Canada Christian College “simply isn’t on par with any other university in the province,” said Macfarlane. “This seems to be nothing more than a reward to a friend of the premier in a bill that that is presumably about COVID.”
The government is also facing criticism over its other recent move to insert unrelated legislation into a COVID-focused bill: scrapping ranked ballots at the municipal level.
In that system, voters rank all candidates in an election instead of simply choosing just one. If no one is ranked first on 50 per cent of the ballots cast, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and their votes go to the second-ranked candidate on each ballot. The process is repeated for multiple rounds until someone surpasses 50 per cent of the votes.
London used ranked balloting in its municipal election in 2018. Voters in Kingston and Cambridge approved plans to switch to the method for 2022, and other municipalities have been considering such reforms.
Ford won PC leadership on ranked ballot
The existing first-past-the-post system typically sees candidates win with far less than 50 per cent of the vote, but ranked ballots are “a small and simple change that make local elections more fair and friendly” said Dave Meslin of Unlock Democracy Canada, an electoral reform advocacy group.
Ontario’s existing legislation for municipal elections “lets cities decide if they want to use ranked ballots or not,” Meslin said in an interview with CBC Radio’s Ontario Morning.
“What Doug Ford is doing is more of an iron fist approach, saying, ‘Well, we’re just going to ban ranked ballots. No one is allowed to use them anywhere.'”
Ford says first-past-the-post is simple and voters “don’t have to be confused” by another system.
“We’ve been voting this way since 1867. We don’t need any more complications of ranked ballots,” the premier said Wednesday.
Almost every political party in Canada uses a ranked ballot system to choose its leader. Ford won the Ontario PC leadership on a ranked ballot vote in 2018.
“This is another gross abuse of power from a government that continuously undermines local democracy with snap decisions,” said Green Party leader Mike Schreiner in a statement. “These overnight changes totally disrespect the rights of municipalities to improve democracy and encourage diversity on city council.”
There’s some evidence the government was hoping the move would slip under the radar.
The day before the legislation was tabled, officials with the attorney general provided multiple media outlets (including CBC News) with advance copies of the news release, so that stories about the COVID-19 liability protection measures could be published as soon as the bill was introduced.
Those advance copies of the news release did not mention the provision to ban ranked ballots.
What you need to know about the coronavirus right now
Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:
Indian variant spreads around globe
India’s tally of coronavirus infections climbed past 24 million on Friday, amid reports flowed that the highly transmissible variant first detected there was spreading around the globe.
The Indian B.1.617 variant has been found in eight nations in the Americas, including Canada and the United States, said Jairo Mendez, an infectious diseases expert with the World Health Organization.
Britain will adapt its vaccine rollout to protect people more quickly in areas where the Indian variant has emerged, the vaccine minister said on Friday.
Nearly half the 150 passengers booked on Australia’s first repatriation flight from India were barred from boarding on Friday, after they or their close contacts tested positive.
Lab leak theory cannot be ruled out
The origin of the novel coronavirus is still unclear and the theory that it was caused by a laboratory leak needs to be taken seriously until there is a rigorous data-led investigation that proves it wrong, a group of leading scientists said.
“More investigation is still needed to determine the origin of the pandemic,” said the 18 scientists, including Ravindra Gupta, a clinical microbiologist at the University of Cambridge, and Jesse Bloom, who studies the evolution of viruses at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable,” the scientists said in a letter to the journal Science.
Singapore brings in strictest curbs since lockdown
Singapore announced on Friday the strictest curbs on social gatherings and public activities since easing a lockdown last year, amid a rise in locally acquired infections and with new coronavirus clusters forming in recent weeks.
The new measures announced by the health ministry, which will be in force from Sunday to mid June, include limiting social gatherings to two people and ceasing dining in at restaurants.
“This is clearly a setback in our fight against COVID-19,” said Lawrence Wong, the minister for education who co-chairs Singapore’s coronavirus taskforce.
Japan adds 3 prefectures to state of emergency
Japan said on Friday it would declare a state of emergency in three more prefectures hit hard by the pandemic, in a surprise move reflecting growing concerns about the virus’s spread.
The latest state of emergency declarations would come as Japan grapples with a surge of a more infectious strain of COVID-19 just 10 weeks before the Tokyo Olympics are due to start.
Hokkaido, Okayama and Hiroshima will join Tokyo, Osaka and four other prefectures on Sunday under a state of emergency until May 31.
Taiwan community transmissions spread
Taiwan reported a record rise in domestic COVID-19 cases on Friday with 29 new infections, as community transmissions in part of central Taipei spread and the government called for people to be tested.
While Taiwan has reported just 1,291 cases, mostly imported from abroad, a recent small rise in domestic infections has spooked a population long used to the island’s relative safety.
Health Minister Chen Shih-chung told a news conference that of the 29 new domestic infections many were connected with an outbreak in Taipei’s Wanhua district, an often gritty area of old temples, trendy shops and hostess bars.
(Compiled by Linda Noakes; Editing by Giles Elgood)
Hong Kong freezes listed shares of media tycoon Lai under security law
Hong Kong authorities on Friday froze assets belonging to jailed media tycoon Jimmy Lai, including all shares in his company, Next Digital – the first time a listed firm has been targeted by national security laws in the financial hub.
Also among assets targeted were the local bank accounts of three companies owned by him, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security John Lee said in a government statement.
The statement, issued after the market close, said Lee had issued notices “in writing to freeze all the shares of Next Digital Limited held by (Jimmy) Lai Chee-ying, and the property in the local bank accounts of three companies owned by him”.
Lai was sentenced to 14 months in prison for taking part in unauthorised assemblies during pro-democracy protests in 2019.
He faces three alleged charges under a sweeping new national security law imposed by Beijing, including collusion with a foreign country.
The move against his assets was also made under the security law, which criminalises acts including subversion, sedition, collusion with foreign forces and secession with possible life imprisonment.
The decision by authorities to use the law’s powers for the first time to target a Hong Kong listed company could have repercussions for investor sentiment.
There have been signs of capital flight since the law was imposed last June, to foreign countries including Canada, according to government agencies, bankers and lawyers.
Beijing said it imposed the law on the former British colony to restore order after months of pro-democracy, anti-China protests in 2019.
However, critics say the law has been used by China‘s Communist leaders to suppress freedoms and pro-democracy campaigners – scores of whom have been arrested and jailed, or have fled into exile.
The chief executive officer of Next Digital, Cheung Kim-hung, told the Apple Daily that Lai’s frozen assets had nothing to do with the bank accounts of Next Digital, and that their operations and finances would not be affected.
The firm’s employees pledged to continue to “uphold their duty and keep reporting”, in a statement posted on the Facebook page of Next Digital’s trade union.
Under Hong Kong stock exchange filings, Lai is Next Digital’s major shareholder and holds 71.26 percent of shares that were worth around HK$350 million ($45 million) based on Friday’s closing share price.
The value of the other “property” assets frozen by the authorities was not immediately clear.
Next Digital runs the Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s most influential pro-democracy newspaper that has long been a thorn in the side of Hong Kong and Chinese authorities.
Senior Hong Kong officials have recently warned Apple Daily about its coverage and have spoken of the possible introduction of a “fake news” law. Critics say this is all part of an ongoing crackdown on the city’s media.
The Taiwan arm of Apple Daily said on Friday it would stop publishing its print version, blaming declining advertising revenue and more difficult business conditions in Hong Kong linked to politics.
($1 = 7.7658 Hong Kong dollars)
(Reporting by Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang and James Pomfret; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Gareth Jones)
Wall St sees chance of higher bid for Kansas City Southern from Canadian Pacific
Wall Street is expecting Canadian Pacific to raise its offer for Kansas City Southern even at the cost of more debt to win the bidding war with larger Canadian railroad rival Canadian National.
In the latest twist to the takeover saga, the U.S. railroad operator on Thursday accepted Canadian National’s $33.6 billion offer, leaving Canadian Pacific just five business days to make a new offer.
Analysts said Canadian Pacific was unlikely to let go a chance to be the first railway spanning the United States, Mexico and Canada easily even though it had said it would not leverage its books to outbid Canadian National.
“If CP is willing to compromise a bit more on the leverage ratio, it could…match or potentially beat CNR’s latest offer,” Scotiabank analyst Konark Gupta wrote in a note.
It all started in March when Canadian Pacific agreed to buy Kansas City Southern in a $25 billion cash-and-stock deal, but Canadian National topped the offer in April.
Canadian Pacific’s shares have added about 3% since its March 21 offer, while Canadian National has fallen about 9% from its April 20 bid.
This gives Canadian Pacific room to cut down the size of any potential debt that it would need to outbid its rival. As of Thursday’s close, the implied value of its offer rose to $286 per share from $275 per share, according to Gupta.
That is just $39 per share below Canadian National’s offer of $325 per share. To match it, Canadian Pacific would need to stretch its leverage ratio to as much as five times, from about four times currently.
It had a long-term debt of about C$8 billion ($6.61 billion) as of March 31, while it was C$13 billion for Canadian National.
A final outcome for either combination would still hinge on a regulatory approval by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB), which oversees freight rail.
“The true power in this saga remains where it always has been…with the STB,” Cowen analyst Jason Seidl wrote in a note.
Shares of Kansas City Southern were down 1% and Canadian National 3.5%, while Canadian Pacific was up about 1% in early trading on Friday.
($1 = 1.2096 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by Ankit Ajmera in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur)
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