André Marin Does The Right Thing At Last
By Randall White
Is anyone surprised that former Ontario ombudsman André Marin will be running for the Progressive Conservatives in the as yet uncalled Ottawa-Vanier by-election?
As Marin himself has explained: “The times people said well he's acting like a politician, well now I am a politician.”
Parts of his $3 million wrongful dismissal lawsuit are apparently still unresolved. But now he’s doing the right thing for people who want to make political decisions in a democracy. He’s trying to get elected.
Meanwhile, the rest of us might take this opportunity to wonder whether the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman became a little too politicized under André Marin — in violation of the essential purpose and spirit of the institution when it was first established in 1975.
A glance at the history of ombudsmen in Canadian provinces can be helpful. Donald C. Rowat at Carleton University published his first book on the subject in 1965. Then Alberta and New Brunswick established ombudsman offices in 1967.
The word "ombudsman" originates from 18th and 19th century Sweden. But the crucial context for the establishment of provincial ombudsman offices in Canada during the 1960s and 1970s was the dramatic growth of provincial public sectors after the Second World War.
The Ontario public service had just over 7,700 employees in 1944. Twenty years later, as the postwar service state blossomed, it had more than 41,000! And that number would double over the next 20 years.
When Arthur Maloney was sworn in as Ontario’s first ombudsman in 1975, he declared: “At a time when the role of the public administration has become so great that the impact of its activities affects us all ... citizens will need to turn to an impartial ombudsman when they believe they have been prejudiced by an act or omission of a civil servant.”
Maloney’s appointment was the William Davis PC government’s response to a private member’s bill that Liberal MPP Vernon Singer had been urging since 1965. Singer’s bill called for an ombudsman to “investigate administrative decisions and acts of officials of the provincial government and its agencies.”
The distinction between “administration” and “policy-making” can sometimes be blurry in practice. But the general principle that we elect politicians to make policy decisions, and hire public servants to implement and administer these decisions, remains a pillar of the democracy we are so lucky to enjoy in Ontario today.
Ordinary citizens have access to the elected politicians who make public policy at election time.
What they lack is access to the unelected public servants who administer this policy — and who are now considerably more ubiquitous than they used to be. That is the important job the ombudsman’s office is supposed to do.
This doesn’t mean ombudsmen should only investigate particular complaints about particular bureaucrats or public service organizations from particular citizens.
Ontario’s first ombudsman Arthur Maloney (1975–78) reported on land acquisition for a proposed Pickering airport, and urged that government fairly compensate affected landowners.
Fourth ombudsman Roberta Jameison (1989–1999) reported in a general way on delays in the processing of complaints at the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
Yet André Marin’s term as sixth ombudsman (2005–2015) marked a departure from the previous three decades. And he gave the office its current activist motto: “Ontario’s Watchdog.” (Compare “Promoting Fairness” for Ombudsman Saskatchewan.)
As explained on the ombudsman website, Marin also reorganized the office, to focus on “high-profile, systemic investigations into issues affecting millions of Ontarians.”
Not surprisingly with this agenda (and as explained in a recent CBC News report), André Marin also frequently wound up “criticizing the governing Liberal government's programs and actions.”
Now is an especially good time to wonder whether Ontario wants to continue Marin’s politicization of the office. The scope of ombudsman operations has recently been expanded — to include more of the broader public sector beyond the provincial public service.
A confirmed democrat might say that if we are going to retain the political-activist model of the ombudsman in Ontario, it at least ought to be an elected office.
Then the problem would be how to reconcile this office with our parliamentary democratic political system. And this points to the underlying issue.
In our democracy “high-profile, systemic investigations into issues affecting millions of Ontarians” are supposed to be the job of elected members of the provincial parliament — especially those in opposition, or otherwise not burdened with the responsibilities of government.
And who knows? If the Ontario legislature were a less toxic place in the early 21st century, opposition MPPs might be better able to keep a critical eye on the complexities of public policy for millions of Ontarians.
Then the office of the ombudsman would be free to focus on the less high profile but important work of protecting ordinary individual citizens against the unfair and unjust administration of the many public services that Canadian provincial governments provide today.