Sitting in his Queen’s Park office earlier this summer, the House Leader for Ontario’s governing Liberals handed over a list of bills that came before the provincial legislature during its last sitting and the amount of time spent debating each one. Then he pointed to a favourite example, the Local Food Act, which by his count took 20 hours and 35 minutes before being referred to committee.
“Have you read the Local Food Act?” John Milloy asked. “It’s not exactly something that’s going to replace abortion or capital punishment among controversial items.”
Neither, for that matter, will legislation that would allow people to take unpaid leave to care for sick family members, or ban teenagers from using tanning beds, or increase consumer protections. And none of those even made it past second reading before the legislature rose for the summer.
Welcome to Ontario’s disheartening experience with minority government. And know that it’s likely to get even more unproductive this fall, as the men and women elected to run the province bide their time waiting for an election that most of them expect to come in the first half of 2014.
While the government managed to pass only one piece of legislation last spring, it was a big one – a provincial budget that started to put rookie Premier Kathleen Wynne’s stamp on the province, albeit largely by adopting policy proposals by the third-party NDP such as a youth-jobs fund and auto-insurance reform. Before 2013 is out, the government is more or less assured of passing a follow-up bill creating a new financial accountability office. But that could be about it.
In the interview, Mr. Milloy expressed mild optimism that the opposition Progressive Conservatives – who have used an array of procedural tactics to grind legislative business to a virtual halt – would prove less obstructionist when MPPs return. The early signs on that front are not encouraging.
This week, PC House Leader Jim Wilson indicated that his party would introduce a second contempt motion related to the scandal around the cancellation of gas-fired power plants, pertaining to apparent attempts by staff for former premier Dalton McGuinty to strong-arm the Speaker of the Legislature to disallow the first such motion. While there’s good reason to hold the Liberals to account for that, the way the Tories say they’ll go about it – by opposing simply broadening the mandate of the Justice committee, which is already investigating the original matter, and instead creating a whole new set of hearings – seems at least partly intended to create chaos.
However it plays out, that strategy suggests an enthusiasm for continuing to gum up the legislature whenever possible. And if contempt motions prove less successful than last year, when they helped prompt Mr. McGuinty to prorogue the legislature as he fled from office, the Tories can be counted upon to employ the more subtle tactics to which Mr. Milloy was referring, prolonging debates long past their normal lengths even on bills they might ordinarily support.
For all that, the procedural difficulties do not fully account for the inertia. Knowing that they can’t get support from either of the opposition parties, the Liberals are stalling on Ms. Wynne’s most ambitious priority – a still-vague plan to use new “revenue tools” to fund the expansion of transportation infrastructure – until they ask voters for a fresh mandate. And they have been less than forthcoming when it comes to other policy proposals that would help change the channel from the never-ending gas-plants scandal, and more importantly address the province’s daunting economic and fiscal needs.
If those plans were to emerge, some of them could likely be implemented outside the legislature, through orders-in-council. As of now, the Liberals seem increasingly to be resigning themselves to being on borrowed time before they face voters; if they have bold new ideas in the works, which is an open question, it seems likeliest they will be slotted into a 2014 budget aimed at doubling as a campaign document.
That next election may not prove a panacea, since it could well produce a legislature similar to the current one. But it is tempting nevertheless to start counting the days.