Is yet another Ontario election blowing in the autumn leaves of 2012?

Oct 2nd, 2012 | By | Category: In Brief

There is certainly a case for minority government as a democratic tonic these days, especially in “Westminster” (ie British-style) parliamentary systems like Canada’s — and Ontario’s. And no one makes it better than Peter Russell.

At the same time, the no doubt very small band of we the too-concerned people of Ontario, who have been watching the provincial Legislative Assembly on TV lately, might be excused for a few heretical second thoughts on the subject.

A report by Rob Ferguson at the Queen’s Park Bureau of the Toronto Star captures some of the more recent desultory democratic adventures in Canada’s most populous province: Mr Ferguson begins: “The minority Liberal government’s latest push to freeze public sector wages appears dead after Tim Hudak called it ‘toothless’ and said his Progressive Conservatives won’t back it.”

For her part New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath feels the bill may have too many teeth “should public sector unions take the government to court for limiting their rights to collective bargaining, as has been threatened … She has strongly suggested the NDP won’t support the bill — which also would implement her proposed cap of $418,000 on executive salaries in the public sector … but said she’s waiting to see a final version.”

Mr. Ferguson’s report also explains that finance minister Dwight “Duncan now has to decide whether to bring the bill forward in its current form or amend it after a week-long standoff in the legislature ended late Monday afternoon with Liberals looking grim-faced … Tory and New Democrat MPPs outmaneuvered the government in a vote of 53 to 37, ending debate on a motion to have the finance committee determine whether Energy Minister Chris Bentley should be censured for contempt of parliament.” (And if you really must know what that is all about CLICK HERE for Rob Ferguson’s full report.)

Meanwhile, whether you also agree with Professor Russell that, under Premier McGuinty’s current minority regime, “the Ontario government’s assault on public sector unions now threatens to turn Ontario into Canada’s little America” may depend on your own employment history. Some not protected by public sector unions may be forgiven for thinking that the Ontario politician who really wants to mimic the (Romney-Ryan) American nightmare is Tim Hudak. (While Premier Dad just wants to drive up the middle, between the too right-wing Hudakians and the too left-wing Horwathians — in the grand old Canadian Liberal tradition of “a public sector wage freeze if necessary, but not necessarily too cold.”)

* * * *

Meanwhile again, yesterday morning both Mr. Hudak and Ms. Horwath made themselves available to questions from the Queen’s Park press gallery. I personally caught TV coverage of Ms. Horwath’s appearance on the excellent cp24 in the provincial capital city (best TV source for Ontario politics — beyond or even including the Legislative Assembly channel).

I also caught an ensuing cp24 discussion on the issues at stake between Ann Rohmer (lovely daughter of etc, etc) and Stephen Le Drew (former bow-tie-wearing president 1998–2003 etc, etc). They seemed to agree that what both Mr. Hudak and perhaps especially Ms. Horwath are doing at the moment is testing the waters of public opinion for yet another Ontario election.

Minority government, that is to say, can be a very good thing for democracy, when both the governing and opposition parties somehow find reason enough to co-operate and collaborate. In Ontario the Liberals and New Democrats finally managed to do this on the current provincial budget (though not without some last-minute drama queen moments), and more recently the Liberals and the Conservatives briefly came together on a teachers’ wage-freeze bill.

Now, however, some polling numbers seem to suggest that — after failing to gain a kind of bare majority government themselves, in the Kitchener-Waterloo by-election they engineered — the McGuinty Liberals are vulnerable.

Last Thursday the Toronto Star’s Queen’s Park Bureau Chief Robert Benzie was reporting that “Premier Dalton McGuinty’s austerity push is hurting him politically even though Ontarians are sympathetic to the need for restraint, a new poll suggests … The Forum Research interactive voice survey of 851 Ontarians on Monday [September 24] shows the Liberals have fallen to 20 per cent support — well behind Progressive Conservatives at 37 per cent and New Democrats at 35 per cent …While polling between elections is a fickle predictor of eventual vote outcomes, Forum president Lorne Bozinoff said the results reflect the Liberal dilemma … ‘People are saying if I want restraint, I want the real deal, I’m voting for the Tories. Or if they’re for the teachers, they’re voting for the NDP,’ said Bozinoff … ‘It’s become polarized in Ontario — the centre is disappearing.’ … In terms of the major party leaders’ personal approval numbers, Andrea Horwath is at 48 per cent, Tim Hudak is at 26 per cent and McGuinty is at 20 per cent.”

Whether these kinds of numbers would withstand a call for a fresh election, following a defeat of the McGuinty government on a matter of confidence, would seem to be — according to Ms. Rohmer and Mr. LeDrew in any case — what the opposition parties are now testing.

Depending on your point of view, it will be either a full year or a mere year this coming Saturday since the last Ontario election. And there are of course reasons for scepticism about both the popular thirst for a fresh election just yet — and its outcome if it actually happened.

Ontario, eg,  is not traditionally a place where aggressively polarized politics have lingered. Just the week before last Brian MacLeod was arguing in the Sudbury Star that : “Polarized politics leave room for Liberals … Ontario politics are moving from partisan to polarized, and the only one that’s standing aside from an ugly debate during the next election is a re-emerging Premier Dad … And despite the polls, don’t count out Dalton McGuinty just yet …”

Martin Regg Cohn has similarly and more recently urged in the Toronto Star: “The record suggests it’s never wise to underestimate McGuinty’s survival instincts — for as long as he chooses to stick around.”

Just what all this means for the theory that minority government is good for democracy, on the other hand, seems to me a bit ambiguous at best. Personally, I think it would be wonderful if the current situation in Ontario were somehow breeding constructive new forms of Liberal-NDP co-operation. But for the moment at any rate, that just seems like dreaming the impossible dream.

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