On Tuesday, Premier Dalton McGuinty stunned everyone by stepping down from his position as Liberal Party leader, and calling for the prorogation of Queen’s Park until a party leadership convention could be held. In an e-mail sent to supporters, he said:
“I feel very good about where we are as a party and a province. But as Liberals, we’re always driving forward. The opposition’s political games are holding Ontario back.”
“We’re also going to consult with the opposition about what they would support to freeze wages. To this end, I’ve asked the Lieutenant Governor to prorogue the legislature to allow those discussions with our labour partners and the opposition to occur in an atmosphere that is free of the heightened rancour of politics in the legislature. And when the legislature returns, we will either have negotiated agreements in hand or a firm sense of what the opposition will support.”
From this, you get the sense that he is taking a much-needed step back, putting the government back in order and ready to tackle the important business of governing our province. And there is no doubt that partisanship at Queen’s Park is at a fever pitch, however, there is a lot of ongoing business that Premier McGuinity needs to answer for, including the ongoing investigation of Ornge and Health Minister Deb Matthews, and the contempt investigation of Energy Minister Chris Bentley. He has now added to these (and past) scandals by proroguing our provincial legislature while his energy minister is under investigation for withholding documents, which could ultimately lead to the government being found in contempt.
What bothers me most about these circumstances is the partisanship behind it. I am a member of the federal Liberal Party, and a supporter of the Ontario Liberals, yet I’ve watched as scandal after scandal has happened in our province. There always seems to be an excuse, mostly that the opposition are out for blood and entirely unreasonable. Not that these complaints are entirely without merit, some sessions of Question Period do look more like a political circus than serious discourse on how to serve us, their constituents. However, the purpose of the opposition parties are to hold the government accountable, especially in a minority situations where less than a majority of the citizens of Ontario have confidence enough to support the Liberal Party.
I’m also greatly concerned to watch excuses being made for actions that are deplorable, as long as they’re being performed by the federal Conservative Party of Canada.
I’m also greatly concerned about the double-standards that seem to be appearing in the way our governments do business. When the provincial Liberals do things that we condemned in the federal Conservatives (e.g. prorogue to avoid trouble, omnibus bills) I am hearing the same excuses from the Liberal supporters that I heard last time from the Conservative supporters. Those excuses didn’t convince me under the blue banner, and I’m still not convinced hearing them coming from the red banner.
This excellent Macleans article by Mark Jarvis covers the prorogation:
Prorogation is not a mechanism designed to afford the current government a political advantage in the exercise of power.
Yet, in recent years we have seen first ministers misuse the power of prorogation to avoid confidence votes, delay reporting by officers of parliament, escape questioning and scrutiny, and side-step accountability for matters of public policy and administration.
This most recent prorogation terminates an ongoing investigation of contempt against one of McGuinty’s ministers and effectively precludes anticipated motions of contempt against an additional minister and McGuinty himself until a new session of the legislature, when McGuinty will no longer be premier.
There is also the contempt situation. With prorogation, “all bills and committees from this short session — such as the committee investigating Energy Minister Chris Bentley for withholding documents on cancelled power plants — die on the vine.” Many are questioning the motives of the premier proroguing this session, when it nullifies the contempt investigation of his energy minister.
And there is the matter of the contempt investigation itself. I have encountered many partisans that are calling the contempt motion an “opposition witch hunt”; yet, when the federal Conservative Party was under investigation for withholding documents on Afghan detainees and prorogued parliament December 30 2009, opposition parties argued the Harper Government was attempting to shut down democracy in Canada. In response, protests were organized across Canada (Sarah and I participated in the one here in London). The arguments I encountered is that the two situations are entirely different. However, I had this conversation with CBC’s Kady O’Malley (an excellent authority on parliamentary procedure) October 2 over Twitter:
Kady: It’s fun to watch Liberals who decried the Conservatives’ refusal to turn over Afghan detainee docs defend the ON Liberals’ contempt.
Me: I’ve been trying to untangle this issue, many have told me this issue is *completely different* than CPC doing it. I had my doubts.
Kady: Yeah, that’s crap.
Me: That was my suspicion, thanks Kady.
Kady: The power of parliament to order the production of papers, people and records is sublimely simple, and absolute.
Me: Makes sense. What I encountered was: documents were produced on time, document request interferred with business in progress etc. etc.
Kady: No, if the documents were produced in time, there wouldn’t have been a prima facie contempt ruling.
Kady: Also, documents are expected to be produced in original, non-redacted format.
Me: Good to know, to me it seemed exactly the same as CPC situation. So what is really different? Just partisanship?
Finally, there is also the practice of passing omnibus budget bills. On this issue I was also reassured that when the Ontario Liberals did it, phrases like “an unfortunate but necessary tactic for a dysfunctional minority situation” were used. They didn’t want to do it, but it was the only way business was going to pass with such a ridiculous opposition.
Meanwhile, with the marathon passage of the last federal omnibus budget bill, the progressive consensus seemed to be something along these lines:
A second federal budget bill is being tabled today, with opposition parties already scrumming to discuss how these kinds of budget bills, crammed with government business that has no business being there, have no place in democratic discourse.
So what do we do with this? How do we move forward?
I understand the importance of parties in the political process. I understand that it is through parties that policy is built, and ultimately influenced in parliament. It is by joining a party that citizens can make their voice heard; sharing ideas, shaping policy and helping to choose candidates and the party leader. Ontario Liberals currently have the unique opportunity to help choose both the next provincial and federal leader of the party.
Yet, we’re frustrated with the partisanship of the party system. Facts become muddied when party loyalty trumps the truth. What should be strategy to best represent constituents becomes a race to forward ideology, with the worthiness of an idea often measured by merely who said it. Voter apathy is high at all levels of government, with only about 60% of Canadians able to vote actually casting a ballot.
How do we strike a balance? How do we promote political honesty, and foster a political environment all citizens are willing to participate in?