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onw COLUMNISTS

Opposition Leaders Need Lessons In 

Minority Government

by Peter H. Russell

Here we are, not yet half-way through the life of the Legislative Assembly the citizens of Ontario elected in October 2011, and we seem to be on the brink of having another election.

As we await the vote on the budget, it's all in the hands of the NDP.

Why is this?

Well, certainly it's not because the people of Ontario want another election.

The reason Ontarians are threatened with .an election they do not want is the difficulty opposition party leaders are having in learning some basic lessons about the realities of minority governments.

Lesson number one is that Ontario has a four-year election cycle.

A few years ago fixed-date election legislation was passed, establishing that beginning in October 2007, elections in Ontario will take place every four years.

Leaders of political parties should respect the four-year election cycle so long as the legislature the people have elected is workable, and there has been no major shift in the  popular support for the political parties.

Premier Kathleen Wynne has been much more adept in living with the realities of minority government than her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty.

In developing her government’s first budget, she recognized that her party lacks a majority in the House.

So she reached out to incorporate a number of the NDP’s policies.

That is the approach to governing which is essential in parliaments where no party has a majority.

Only pig-headedness on the part of NDP leader, Andrea Horwath, will render this Legislative Assembly unworkable.

Nor has there been any significant change in the popularity of Ontario’s political parties.

An election this spring would likely produce a legislature that is pretty much a duplicate of the one we have. 

Lesson number two is that threatening to bring a government down after it has made numerous important concessions to your party’s point of view amounts to playing a foolish game of political chicken.

It is foolish because it really doesn’t fool anyone. Everyone knows that Andrea Howarth knows it would be political suicide for her party to force an election now.

As well, playing political hardball only makes it more difficult to find common ground with the Liberals.

Ms Horwath would be well advised to consider how Stephen Lewis’s NDP worked with the Bill Davis Conservatives to maximize the NDP’s leverage on government policy from 1975 to 1981.

It wasn’t by constantly threatening to bring the government down.

As for Conservative leader Tim Hudak, having made his point about the budget’s failure to address growth in Ontario’s fiscal deficit, he should stop hollering that all he wants now is an immediate election.

He and his caucus should settle in to working hard over the next two years at finding policy issues on the Conservative agenda that the Wynne Liberals might be willing to address.

Horwath and Hudak are still practising a style of leadership in which the sole measure of political success is winning a majority of seats and heading a single-party majority government.

Unfortunately, the distortions of our first-past-the-post electoral system continue to make success of that kind a possibility.

But even with the distortions of our electoral system it is not a strong possibility for parties whose electoral support, at best, is in the mid-30s.

The opposition party leaders should take a leaf out of Premier Wynne’s book and learn how to make the most of “hung parliaments” in which no party has a majority.

The key skill this requires is standing firm for policies fundamental to your party’s raison d’etre while working pragmatically with government in finding solutions to pressing  problems.

Not every policy issue requires a partisan political solution.

Canadians are fed up with the excessive partisanship that pollutes their politics these days and creates the environment of a perpetual election campaign.

Its time for Ontario’s opposition leaders to adopt an approach to politics that responds to our times and our wishes.

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 : May 07, 2013

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