Ontario’s Irresponsible Government

by Peter Russell

Peter RussellIt is entirely Dalton McGuinty’s business to decide when it is time for him step down as Premier and Leader of the Ontario Liberal Party.

But it was wrong for him to advise the Lieutenant Governor to prorogue the legislature for the convenience of his party.

In doing so he put the interests of his party ahead of the principles of parliamentary democracy.

In the circumstances before us now in Ontario that threat is very real.

The main business of the present session of the Legislative Assembly is far from over.

Among other things, the House has sent a motion of contempt against one of the government’s ministers to the Finance Committee for investigation. The government is wrestling with the largest deficit in the province’s history and has told us that a key component of its plan to deal with that deficit is to pass legislation curtailing free collective bargaining in the public sector. That plan is under attack by both opposition parties.

To tell us, as Mr. McGuinty did Monday, that he asked the Lieutenant Governor to prorogue the legislature “to allow these discussions with our labour partners and the opposition parties to occur in an atmosphere that is free of the heightened rancour of politics in the legislature” is to show contempt for parliamentary democracy.

When parliamentary democracy is functioning, the great issues of the day are thrashed out in the legislature that the people have elected and to which the government is responsible.

Debate in any parliamentary chamber can no doubt become raucous and full of rancour.

But we didn’t fight two world wars for a democracy in which the governing party can shut down the elected legislature to escape the heat of parliamentary debate.

Two points should add to our concern about this prorogation.

The first is that it is doubtful that Premier McGuinty’s government has the confidence of the legislative assembly.

His party does not have a majority in the legislature, and it seems likely that if his government faced the legislature now, and refused to abandon or modify its Protecting Public Services Bill, it would be defeated.

So here, as with Steven Harper in December, 2008, Dalton McGuinty appears to be avoiding a confidence vote.

But what makes his request for a prorogation worse than Harper’s is that it is open ended as to time.

The prorogation request that Governor General Jean granted Mr.Harper in December, 2008 came with the condition that prorogation would last for only a few days longer than the normal Christmas/New Years recess. Moreover, Mr. Harper undertook to face a confidence vote as soon as Parliament reassembled.

So far as we know, Lieutenant Governor Olney attached no time limit to the prorogation of Ontario’s Legislative Assembly.

It appears that parliamentary democracy will not be restored in Ontario until the Liberal Party has a new leader.

When parliamentary democracy is reduced to whatever is convenient for the governing party, we are coming very close to losing it.

Peter Russell is one of Canada's leading constitutional experts, advisor to Governors-General and Professor-Emeritus in Political Science at the University of Toronto.

About Peter Russell

Peter H. Russell is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is one of Canada’s leading constitutional scholars, has published widely in the fields of aboriginal policy, the judiciary and parliamentary democracy, and is a frequent commentator on Canadian government and politics. He is the founding Principal of Senior College at the University of Toronto. Peter Russell is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Posted date : October 17, 2012

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