Ontario’s proroguing travesty

Recently resigned Ontario Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty prorogued the provincial legislature to spend more time walking slowing in hallways, holding the hands of his wife. Photo courtesy the Premier's Office of Ontario.

Recently resigned Ontario Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty prorogued the provincial legislature to spend more time walking slowly in hallways, holding the hands of his wife. Photo courtesy the Premier's Office of Ontario.

“Ho-hum, it’s politics.”

Within hours of the announcement last week that Dalton McGuinty has resigned as the Premier of Ontario, this was the refrain that rang out – no, sang out – no, murmured consistently – around Ontario. It’s politics. Of course it is. But it’s more:

McGuinty’s announcement means that a race for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party is underway. And, luckily, to accommodate that race, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario has been prorogued until an unspecified date.

Ho-hum? It’s politics?! Where’s our anger, our outrage? We need more anger. But maybe we’re missing context:

McGuinty resigned and prorogued the Ontario legislature because of a mounting controversy, and pending contempt charge, over his government’s failure to release documents to a committee of the legislature. This is not the first time a head of government has prorogued a legislature to avoid a contempt charge stemming from a refusal to release documents. But the last time it happened people got very angry.

In 2010, Stephen Harper prorogued the federal parliament because a committee was about to return a finding of contempt for his refusal to release documents on the handling of Afghan prisoners. In short, parliament was about to assert its supremacy over the government. That was inconvenient for the prime minister, so prorogation became the fly-swatter with which an annoying opposition could be, well, swatted.

On 8 January, 2010, I attended an ad hoc meeting of concerned citizens to oppose Harper’s actions as part of the “No Prorogue” and “Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament” movements. The meeting had representation from supporters of all parties. It had representation from people who supported no party at all, but were angry their democracy was being attacked. In two weeks, the movement raised several thousand dollars and, on 23 January, hosted an over-5,000-person-strong rally on Parliament Hill in concert with 21,000 people rallying across Canada. People turned out in the middle of winter to protest Harper’s attack on democracy, his dismissal of accountability, and his abuse of power.

This month, Dalton McGuinty found himself needing a fly swatter. The Speaker of the Legislative Assembly had determined there was a prima facie breach of privilege over the failure to release documents related to the cancellation of two new electricity generating stations. Already on their heels with one contempt motion, the opposition was preparing a knockout punch with a second contempt motion against McGuinty himself. A committee was struck to investigate the first contempt motion against energy minister Chris Bentley and return a finding by 19 November.  There was a strong chance that committee would have found Bentley in contempt.

The house would have adopted that opinion. A government would be found in contempt. The checks in our system were about to bring about a balance, and quite possibly a snap election.

If allowed to occur, the damage to McGuinty and the Liberal brand would be swift and long lasting. In unparliamentary parlance: that shit sticks. Instead of facing up to his government’s mistakes McGuinty chose to delay the release of 20,000 more documents and lay the blame on public servants. Instead of adhering to values of peace, order, and good government (italicized to remind us of the presence of these words in the constitution), McGuinty chose to subvert the power of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition by hiding that a second search for documents was underway. Instead of doing the right thing McGuinty chose his lesser evil and pulled the plug on our democracy.

Democracy in Ontario has been damaged and put on hold. The executive branch’s power to suspend the legislative branch’s oversight powers damages our democracy over the short and long term. This continues a trend of suspending legislatures at the whim of a government: federally under Harper in 2010, in BC by Christy Clark in 2012, and now under McGuinty in Ontario. This trend is deeply disturbing. When there are no repercussions, future premiers will be tempted to avoid censure by dissolving the public’s official court of opinion.

Ho-hum? Quite the opposite.

Ontario is damaged, for probably the next six months, while the news cycle is dominated by the Liberal leadership race instead of by the rancorous institutionalized adversarialism that is our fundamental source of accountability. Our elected representatives no longer have a venue to press the government on its actions. For half a year, those who oppose the government will have to do it from outside the halls of power. Sure, I may not agree with PC and NDP MPPs on everything, but I value that someone can oppose the government on issues of the day.

The essential power of the opposition has been taken away, for months, because it is inconvenient for McGuinty to face an official opposition. Spinning stories in the media is much easier, as is operating behind closed doors. Proroguing the legislature has saved the Liberal brand from worse damage, but the cost of prorogation will be borne by our democracy. An economist might say the Liberals are externalizing the cost of their government’s mistakes by shifting the damage to our democracy as a whole. Millions of Ontarians will pay a small price, bear the burden of a small damage to their democracy, thus saving McGuinty and his government’s ministers from bearing the full cost of their actions.

I submit to you that the price is too high. I value my democracy more than that.

There is no simple solution to this. In decades past we relied on governments to follow the rules and respect the traditions of our system. Incrementally our governments have abandoned both, coincidentally in step with voters losing respect for politicians.

If we can no longer trust our governments to follow the unwritten rules of our parliamentary democracy we need to change the system that elects governments instead. Moving to proportional representation is a vital part of an overall solution. When parties cannot gamble on the chance to win a majority they have a motivation, an incentive, to find workable solutions and avoid brinksmanship politics.

Now a late disclosure: I’ve been, and hope to be again, a Green Party candidate in Ottawa. I’m the party’s deputy leader in Ontario. I admit a vested interest in supporting electoral change, but I’d wager that anyone who looks at our first-past-the-post system sees it as the anachronism it is. Why do we elect our MPPs using first-past-the-post when none of the parties use it to elect their leader? We need something better.

In 2007, Ontario held a referendum on electoral reform and voters chose to stick with the first-past-the-post system. Do not take that as a permanent and well-informed decision. Fair Vote Ontario considered the referendum flawed, accusing the Liberal government of delaying the process, executing an inadequate public education campaign, and setting the success threshold too high. I concur.

Ontario must revisit electoral reform in order to stabilize our democratic system. When the number of MPPs for each party better reflects their popular support, everyone has an incentive to compromise and find solutions. I have no problem with forcing MPPs to sweat the details a little more at work.

Stable coalitions also provide an effective bulwark against unaccountable, false-majority governments, Liberal and Conservative alike. It’s clear we cannot rely on backbench MPs or MPPs to balk when their leader goes too far. Electoral reform makes it more likely the government would be a coalition, with a smaller party and its leader with a firm hand on a deadman switch, ready to take down a government that gets away from itself.

Sadly, this thought is purely academic, at least until the NDP, Conservatives, and Liberals support electoral reform. Until then, we’ll continue to see a fight for the whole pie and increasingly frequent prorogations that shut down the whole kitchen when the head cook makes a mess.

The status quo is all too likely to prevail, ugly as it is, until our answer to “does prorogation make you angry?” is a definitive, shouted, “Yes!” and we make electoral reform a ballot issue.

 Kevin O’Donnell is an Ottawa-based community activist and deputy leader of the Green Party of Ontario. Read his blog at kevino.ca.

*Updated 10:30 a.m., 22 October, 2012 to include correct spelling of BC’s premier’s name.