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Three times in this term of office, our City Council has been investigated by the Ontario Ombudsman for potential misconduct. Once was as a whole for going behind closed doors (“in-camera”) to decide the fate of the Occupy London occupation of Victoria Park, and twice as a minority of council for meeting together in a private meeting around the 2012 and 2013 budget processes.
I have tried my best to follow these events, and learn more about the Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin and the role he plays as I went along. I wrote these three posts about the events in 2012, and after the “Billy T’s” incident and investigation were revealed, I recently wrote this post about it, giving a short summation of what lead to this second investigation, and where we are now.
In response to being investigated for the 2012 meeting (for which the group that met were cleared of legal wrongdoing, though the meeting was called “unsavoury”), some members of Council (all having been under investigation for having participated in the Harmony Grand Buffet meeting) said that we should consider opting out of using the Ontario Ombudsman as our closed meeting investigator. This is completely within their legal right as a municipality, though it would mean London taxpayers would be paying the salary of this new investigator, while the province would continue to pay for the Ontario Ombudsman with our provincial tax dollars.
It is against this backdrop that the Ontario Ombudsman published this editorial. He says:
It has never made sense to allow municipalities to opt out of using the Ombudsman and hire an investigator of their choice. Think of it as oversight shopping. It allows municipalities to hire friendly watchdogs — anyone at all, even former councillors or city officials — who will be more inclined to treat them with kid gloves or absolve them of wrongdoing, no questions asked.
This is the concern I and many other Londoners have about the idea of appointing a different closed meeting investigator. I am also instinctively suspicious of any council member that would want to replace the Ombudsman that has been rightfully investigating their conduct with someone else. To maintain public confidence in elected officials, it is their duty to be under appropriate scrutiny.
One major criticism of the Ombudsman’s position is that, though Mr. Marin sells himself as the province’s watchdog, he is “without teeth”. This is because he can only assist and advise councillors that are under investigation, even if misconduct is found. He can say that the Municipal Act has been breached and penalize the councillors in question in the court of public opinion (a ruling that could lose them a re-election bid), but not by any other means. So he goes on in the article to discuss the merits of being able to give out even a small financial penalty:
It makes sense, because this is about enforcing the law. Ontario’s legislation carries no consequences at all. It remains hopelessly toothless in tackling an entrenched culture of backroom dealings in municipalities.
I completely agree. As Mr. Marin states, for some councillors (including those under investigation a second time for the exact same activity), the only way to make the point stick may very well be through the politician’s pocketbook. He concludes:
The solution is simple. First, have one coherent and uniform oversight system that the public can access to hold municipal politicians accountable. Second, fine politicians who flout the system. The fines don’t have to be exorbitant — perhaps they can be in line with the kinds of fines municipalities levy on the rest of us for various infractions. But hitting rogue councillors in the pocketbook would get their attention that the rule of law applies to them, too.
The Ontario Ombudsman has worked hard to push the province of Ontario to expand his oversight jurisdiction, noting that the Ombudsman Act doesn’t give him the ability to investigate in many areas allowed to other provincial ombudsman (this chart on the Ombudsman website gives an excellent demonstration of how it compares). I agree that with his assessment that a universal oversight system should be implemented, and that politicians that don’t follow the rules should be fined.
As the chart shows, currently many jurisdictions (including the extremely controversial ORNGE) have the ability to police themselves, when a third party, impartial judge should be doing the job. And we don’t have to look further than our own London City Council to see councillors that just don’t seem to get it. The electorate are the ultimate authority and judge, but I don’t think we should have to suffer for four years under politicians unwilling to follow the rules. Right now, it seems some members of Council are much more interested in seeing how much they can get away with in their time in office, instead of working in the best interest of London’s citizens. If citizen complaints and investigations by the Ontario Ombudsman are treated with contempt, perhaps the potential for fines are the only language they will understand.
Update (3:30pm 3/20/2013): Since posting this, Councillor Orser has said that having the Ombudsman as the City of London’s closed meeting investigator has created a “culture of fear”, and that after the “Billy T” investigation wraps up, he will table a motion for Council to choose a different investigator. Details can be found here and here.
As the Ontario Liberal Party has battled through several political scandals in the past months (including Ornge, the contempt investigation of Energy Minister Bentley, and now the resignation of Premier Dalton McGuinty), I’ve stood by unsure what to think. Opinions of support/condemnation have been flowing quickly along party lines, leaving me unsure what to think and believe. Discomfort led to confusion and questioning, especially about the validity of the contempt accusations and the surprise resignation/prorogation situation. That news broke out last Tuesday, and Thursday night I published this post.
Little did I know that even as I was publishing it, another political story was breaking very close to home.
The London Free Press broke a story Thursday night that Mayor Joe Fontana may have used federal money to pay for a son’s wedding in London in 2005. That isssue is alone more than enough to fill a blog post, with City Council left to wonder if the mayor should step aside while he is being investigated by the RCMP. However, I want to focus on the issue of partisanship, something that plagues even this issue.
The next day, the issue was addressed in the House of Commons by London North-Centre Conservative MP Susan Truppe. Many Londoners decried the fact that, instead of addressing only the issue, she chose to use the opportunity to attack the federal Liberal Party that Mayor Fontana was a member of at the time. This is her statement.
MP Truppe: “Mr. Speaker, I know families in London, and in fact all Canadians, are worried about the very serious allegations that have been made against their former Liberal MP…The Liberals have not been in government since 2005 and if these allegations are true, then they are still stealing.”
We have seen many examples of partisanship in City Hall, including Councillor Branscombe being slammed for being an Ontario PC candidate, and even a dig at Councillor Armstrong for his marriage to London-Fanshawe NDP MPP Theresa Armstrong. I find this deeply troubling, as I had at one time hoped that municipal politics could be the one arena where issues of party affiliation could be avoided.
The question is, with partisanship creeping into City Hall, how do we reverse the flow? And how do we push back, discouraging it at the local level and lowering the rancour at the higher levels.
Because something definitely needs to be done – this political comic covers the where things stand pretty well. Although it’s American, with the logos changed on the cannons it could describe Canadian politics very well.
Thankfully, things here aren’t quite so extreme. At least yet.
Concern is growing that, as American politics become more caustic, the partisanship and animosity here could increase as well. Pundits have pointed to the rise of Canadian attack ads as an example of the political discourse worsening, and argued it is contributing to growing voter apathy as more voters are turned off from the entire process. Green Party leader Elizabeth May makes a strong case for this in her book “Losing Confidence”.
As someone interested both in politics and encouraging others to participate as well, I concluded my last post with a lot more questions than answers. I was left asking myself “How do we strike a balance? How do we promote political honesty, and foster a political environment all citizens are willing to participate in?”
I ask this as someone as partisan as anyone else. I am a member of the federal Liberal Party, and tend to fall most in line ideologically with their values and policies. I’ve been on the London-Fanshawe riding association board, and have considered being involved with the party in different capacities. I’ve talked with others in and out of the party, and was convinced that the partisan arena of politics is to be encouraged to give rise to strong policies and ideas, while overlooking the more distasteful byproducts, diviseness and distrust.
It is from this partisanship that I write this. I write to vow to myself and others that I will look critically at what is said, and attempt to use equal discernment regardless of who has said it. All too often I have been willing to agree with or dismiss a statement only because of the person who said it, or what their party affiliation is. I know that I will try and fail at this, but I want to be better about this, and encourage others to do so as well.
Examining my own practices as well as those of others, I’ve become confused, disillusioned and disinterested over conflicting reports about events from different partisan and non-partisan groups and media. If we’re going to truly work to foster greater citizen engagement, all need to be willing to work harder to give the honest truth of a situation, no matter how good or bad it makes us look. And we must be as willing to call out bad behavior by someone we support as someone we don’t.
No matter how high or low we place people in our estimation, they’re neither angels or demons. They’re human just like us, and although we may disagree with their policies, their attitude or even character, it’s important for all of us to remember.
I had a strong reminder of this last March. Despite the fact that I had been very critical of her handling of the Electro-Motive lockout situation in London’s east end in January, when my Uncle Ross passed away from cancer, MP Susan Truppe sent me a kind message on Facebook with her condolences.
So – where do we go from here? I think that we must each examine ourselves and decide what our conscience dictates. For me, I think I’ll leave party politics at least for now and focus primarily on what is happening at City Hall. All levels of government are important and by becoming involved in party politics in a reasonable way we can hopefully elevate the conversation, but at least for now that isn’t my place.
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?
There are many problems plaguing Ontario’s public school system. The economy remains fairly stagnant and the provincial government is struggling to find solutions and cut costs, while battling with a minority government situation. For years the London community of Lorne Ave. Public School has been threatened with the closing of their school as resources become tighter and the school has struggled with under-population.
This spring, the provincial legislature battled through passing Bill C-13, the Accepting Schools Act, to tackle bullying, specifically the chronic problem of the bullying of LGBT students (as described here). The major obstacle for the passing of the bill was the Progressive Conservatives and the Catholic School Board opposing it, with the board saying that they would be forced to accept “behavior” that is against their religious teachings.
Things have only become more complicated since then. Over the summer the provincial government struggled to create a new contract with the different teacher unions as their previous contracts were set to expire. The McGuinty government accused the unions of dragging their heels over the summer, creating speculation about whether the school year would start on time. Eventually the government called an emergency session of the legislature, with the threat that they would legislate a new deal if the unions wouldn’t agree to the terms they were willing to offer.
The provincial government has just passed the controversial Bill C-115, The Putting Students First Act. As this article states, “It imposes a wage freeze, the end of sick-day banks and a two-year strike ban, over the objections of unions representing most of the province’s teachers and school staff.” Understandably, the unions are furious, saying that their democratic right to collective bargaining is being taken out of their hands, and are vowing to protest this action.
In retaliation, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) is urging teachers to reconsider staying after school for extra-curricular activities such as sports and clubs, drawing criticism that though their complaint is with government, they’re only punishing students with this action. As well, “ETFO also wants its members to take part in ‘McGuinty Mondays’ in which teachers and educational professionals refuse to take part in school or system-level meetings.”
All of these issues combine into a very volatile situation for the government, educators and students. The government struggles to cut the massive provincial deficit, including by cutting back teacher wages and benefits, yet they seem to be avoiding a difficult but important step to cutting the cost of our education system as well as ensuring it becomes fair for all Ontarians.
To me, there is a very real solution to these issues available: amalgamate the Catholic and public school boards into a single, united secular school board. It would combine all of the schools already owned by the province, make much more efficient use of all of the school resources including buildings, staff and teachers, and produce a truly fair public system.
So far, the Green Party of Ontario (GPO) is the only political party willing to amalgamate the Catholic and public school boards. Though I am traditionally a Liberal supporter I am completely ready to say this, and to say I wish other parties would take the GPO’s lead. GPO leader Mike Schreiner’s views seem very similar to my own; he sees it as an issue of fairness and fiscal responsibility. In his words:
It’s an issue of fairness. In today’s world, it’s unfair to fund one religion school system at the exclusion of all others. The second is fiscal responsibility. When we have a record provincial deficit and we’re talking about cuts to education and attacking teachers, to not look at ending wasteful duplication – I think it’s irresponsible to not look at those savings.
Right now, we have a public school system that contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, both by discriminating student entry and staff hiring by religion, and discriminating by sexuality. As well, in 1999 the United Nations Human Rights Committee condemned Canada and the province of Ontario for violating equality provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In this 2005 report, the Committee restated its concerns and observed that Canada continued to fail to “adopt steps in order to eliminate discrimination on the basis of religion in the funding of schools in Ontario.” Mr. Schreiner again:
I can’t think of any other place in society where we would allow two-thirds of our teachers to be denied employment opportunity. The Catholic board denies employment to non-catholic teachers and I don’t think you see that discrimination in hiring anywhere in Ontario especially by something that is funded by public tax dollars.
That doesn’t mean I believe we should completely eliminate religious teaching in our public schools. Far from it, I actually believe we should have more, as elective classes, and taught objectively instead of through a particular religious lens. As Mr. Schreiner says:
That doesn’t mean you can’t have religious education in the public system, you just can’t do it in a way that prioritizes one religion and excludes others.
This process would be a tremendous battle for our province, but it is absolutely the right thing to do. I hope that all parties will one day see this reality, and push to create a single, unified, fair and efficient school system.