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                          Is A More Constructive Legislature In the Cards? 

                                Or Is That Just Wishful Thinking?


By Randall White

According to Allison Jones at the Canadian Press, the return of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario “marked the beginning in earnest of Liberal majority reign” at Queen’s Park.

Some have noted the Ontario legislature evolved into an increasingly toxic and boring battleground for narrow partisan conflict after the election of the so-called Liberal “major minority” government in the fall of 2011. 

This trend reached authentic shock-and-awe proportions during the late winter and spring of 2014 - leading to a more decisive provincial election than many expected this past June. 

Now that the honourable members are back, fools who rush in are bound to wonder: will it be different with the new majority reign? Or is it pointless to have any realistic hope for a more constructive and interesting tone in the legislature at Queen’s Park over the next four years?

In the current climate of governing from the activist centre, the best answer to this question is probably Yes and No. Or vice-versa. 

No, that is, if you drew your information on the resumption of the first Session of the 41st Ontario Parliament last week mostly from reports about Question Period in the print media.

Yes (well, maybe) if you had so little to do with your time that you actually watched second reading of Bill18, the Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act, on the Ontario Legislative channel.

In theory, a more constructive and interesting tone in the legislature could attract greater public interest and strengthen Ontario’s parliamentary democracy.

But in practice, we live in an era of vast cynicism about almost everything. 

That cynicism was on evidence even in the more positive media reports on the Legislature's fresh beginning last week.  The Globe and Mail’s Adrian Morrow wrote that as Question Period began on October 20 “In perhaps a sign of the tone to expect in the legislature this session, as Ms. Wynne stood to answer the first question, PC MPP John Yakabuski called out: ‘What planet are you buying next?’”

Mr. Yakabuski was of course alluding to the “MaRS loan.”  Some still believe the Liberals are vulnerable, as in the never-ending gas plant controversy that took up so much time of the minority legislature elected in 2011.  

The main objective of the not-for-profit MaRS corporation, founded in the year 2000 under the Mike Harris Conservatives, has been to help commercialize innovative medical and other scientific research in Ontario. (The name “MaRS” derives from the phrase “Medical and Related Sciences.”)

The crux of the current alleged scandal is a $224-million loan (and more) the Liberal government made to MaRS in 2011 for a Toronto office tower project still said to be more than two-thirds empty. 

Even New Democrat leader Andrea Horwath worried that: “We don't even know if they did a business case analysis on the loan to this organization, to MaRS ... It seems to me this government's got a lot to hide ... “ 

The chairman of the board of MaRS, Gordon Nixon, former CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada, has subsequently waded into the debate. Not surprisingly, he is on the government’s side.

Yet the substance of the argument did not appear to be the main concern about MaRS in the Ontario legislature last week. 

The opposition parties almost seemed to have forgotten the June election. And it is true enough that Liberals only won five more seats in 2014 than in 2011- up to 58 from 53.

But in the real world where 54 seats constitute a bare majority, and democracy means majority rule, things really have changed.

There did seem some more credible recognition of the new reality by the second day. The legislature left the partisan rigors of Question Period, and gave second reading to Bill 18, the Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act, 2014.

The irrepressible Mr. Yakabuski also figured here. But his manner was more genial and respectful. Among Conservative, Liberal, and New Democrat members there was some exchange of humour and even guarded good feelings, as well as the usual clash of opinion from which the truth is supposed to emerge, according to John Stuart Mill.

At any rate, there do seem to be a few vague hints that there may be a more constructive and interesting Legislative Assembly in the future.

We can always hope.

Some improvement in the tone of the clash of opinion at Queen’s Park over the next four years would be better for our democracy.

And it’s not quite asking for the moon. 







About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : October 28, 2014

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