TORONTO — It was during a debate about the Beer Store that Ontario MPP Gilles Bisson brought up Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
“What’s his name? The German in the Second World War. Oh my god,” Bisson said, wracking his brain for the name of the man who converted the German masses to Nazism before the Holocaust.
“Joseph Goebbels. It was Joseph Goebbels … who as a propagandist used to say, ‘If you say something often enough, loud enough, eventually people will believe it,’” the NDP member said in the legislature on Monday.
“That’s all this is: ‘9,100, 9,100, 9,100,’ he said, referring to a study that found 9,100 jobs could be created if Premier Doug Ford’s government breaks a contract with the Beer Store and allows convenience stores to sell alcohol.
“There’s no 9,100 jobs.”
Progressive Conservatives were dismayed.
“MPP Bisson’s comments are repugnant and a trivialization of the systematic murder of six million Jewish people at the hands of the Nazi regime,” PC deputy house leader Stephen Lecce said in a statement sent to reporters by the premier’s office.
“These comparisons have no place in our political debate and only contribute to the degradation of the discourse in Ontario’s political landscape.”
PC Daryl Kramp said the former Liberal government’s promotion of its Green Energy Act was “soul-crushing propaganda of which Joseph Goebbels would have been proud.”
By the end of the day, both Bisson and Kramp had apologized.
It was not the first time things got heated in Ontario’s legislature this year.
NDP MPP Marit Stiles apologized on March 18 for calling PC Dave Smith a “f**king a**hole” during debate. And after NDP Leader Andrea Horwath referenced the premier’s brother’s public struggle with drugs and alcohol, Ford slammed her question period comments as “disgusting.”
The tone of debate in Ontario’s legislature needs to improve, politicians from the three major parties tell HuffPost Canada. But opposition members blame the government — and Ford in particular — for setting a confrontational tone, while government members say the opposition has been unwilling to collaborate.
I’ve been here since 1990, I have never seen the house and a government act in the way that they do.MPP Gilles Bisson
Bisson, the NDP member who apologized for invoking Goebbels, told HuffPost that PC MPPs are the worst behaved of the politicians he’s seen in nearly 30 years at Queen’s Park.
“I’ve been here since 1990, I have never seen the house and a government act in the way that they do,” he said. “There are no answers to questions. There are flippant remarks. And the amount of heckling that goes on, and the tone of heckling as well, is really beneath what this legislature’s all about.”
He said Ford enjoys being “the bull in the china shop.”
Ford and many of his supporters don’t believe that government is the solution to social problems, Bisson said.
“Part of what they’re doing here is they’re trying to diminish government and I think diminishing the confidence that the public has in government is part of the game.”
Horwath agreed that the tone has deteriorated under Ford.
“There’s no doubt the tenor of debate has reduced in terms of its collegiality,” she told HuffPost. “It’s obvious.”
She acknowledged there are definitely times when her own members could be more respectful, but blamed the PCs for setting a bad tone.
“There’s no doubt that once the environment in the legislature starts to deteriorate, it becomes more likely for everybody to get sucked into that kind of negativity.”
A search of the legislature’s transcripts suggests that Ford has withdrawn more “unparliamentary” comments from the record than the previous premier.
MPPs are asked to withdraw comments when they accuse another member of lying, speculate about another member’s motives, or use profanity.
Ford withdrew 25 comments from the record since September 2018, while Horwath withdrew 10. Former premier Kathleen Wynne was not asked to withdraw any comments during roughly the same time frame last year.
A spokeswoman for the premier did not respond to HuffPost’s questions by deadline.
But Lecce, the government’s deputy house leader, said he “rejects” the suggestion that Ford has lowered the bar for debate.
“I think every member of the legislature has a role to play in elevating the debate. I will note that the opposition is, like all members, often warned in the house for decorum that is not parliamentary,” he told HuffPost in an interview.
Opposition MPPs have refused to co-operate when the government has asked for support on a number of issues, he said, including: opposing American tariffs on Canadian products, asking the federal government for funding to build more subways in Toronto, and challenging the Justin Trudeau government’s carbon tax.
“We’re saying look, put politics aside, put party aside, put province first,” Lecce said. “Join us in speaking with one voice.”
They only got backup on tariffs, he said. But maybe next year NDP, Liberal and Green MPPs will join one of the PCs’ public spats with Trudeau.
We’re saying look, put politics aside, put party aside, put province first.MPP Stephen Lecce
“I remain hopeful that opposition members will join the government in the defence of our economic interests,” Lecce said, “especially in the face of a prime minister who is undermining the competitive advantage of our industry.”
Question period has always been contentious, NDP MPP Taras Natyshak said, but things have changed under Ford. Natyshak, who has been asked to withdraw 12 comments since September 2018, is arguably the NDP’s most confrontational member.
“He brings a lot of anger into this building, it seems,” Natyshak said of the premier. “I would say that his caucus and his cabinet feed off of that. It’s something we haven’t seen before.”
It’s fair that the public may sometimes see clips from question period and wonder how the government can still be functional, he said, but people who are “suffering” because of the government’s decisions want to see their MPPs speak up.
“Sometimes, when you see that passion, when you hear the voices get a bit louder, that’s what we’re trying to do,” Natyshak said. “We’re their voice.”
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser also pointed the finger at Ford.
“That’s all leadership. It’s all based on tone and the approach of the government, the approach of the premier,” he said. “The tone has been very adversarial.”
It’s not only opposition MPPs who are on the receiving end of the government’s hostile attitude. It’s the public too, Fraser said, and that’s why Ford’s popularity has dipped.
He noted that Lisa MacLeod, the minister of community, children, and social services, characterized a group of parents of children with autism as “professional protesters” and that Ford has said people who demonstrate against his policies “are the same people that have their hands in the public trough.”
“Who says that?” Fraser told HuffPost.
“If you don’t agree with the government, then you’re vilified or you’re marginalized.”
When Ford’s government adjourned the legislature for an extra-long summer recess Thursday, government house leader Todd Smith said MPPs would be taking the time to reconnect with constituents and decide on next directions.
Asked if that meant the PCs would adopt a new style come October when the legislature resumes, the premier said no.
“I don’t know different tone, different style,” Ford said Friday.
“We’ve done an incredible, incredible job for the people of Ontario. We’re going to continue making sure that this province prospers and grows and thrives the way it has been over the past year.”