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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.