Keeping MPPs honourable

Published June 16th 2005 in The Ottawa Citizen
Dalton McGuinty's government continues to focus-group its way into the future, instead of leading in the way self-respecting politicians ought to do.

The Ontario Liberals have already distinguished themselves by their reluctance to do anything significant without first holding months of public consultations. Rent control, Greenbelt legislation for Toronto, reforming electricity delivery, pit bulls -- all areas in which the premier and his cabinet should have firm, principled views.

Now, it's electoral reform. When the legislature sits again in the fall, near the top of its job list will be a bill authorizing the plucking of names from the provincial voters' list so the government can put together uber-focus groups that are close to statistically perfect samples of Ontarians. There would be a Citizens' Assembly on reforming our election system generally, and a Citizens' Jury on reforming the way our provincial politicians finance their campaigns and, if they win, their aides and offices.

The assembly part makes some sense. It's a copy of what British Columbia did, with a representative group of citizens spending 2004 deciding whether B.C. should adopt a form of proportional representation for its legislature and, if so, which one.

But for the much more mundane matter of financing political parties and campaigns, the minister responsible, Attorney General Michael Bryant, ought to be able to put some ideas together for himself. That's why he has a staff of researchers and analysts: to take the principle he's putting forward (reducing the influence of money on politics) and turn it into policy proposals that MPPs can accept or reject, knowing they'll eventually have to explain their choices to the voters.

The new bill allowing the random selections lasts only until 2007, when the next election is due, so in its current form it's only meant for the assembly and the jury. But the Liberals' 2003 campaign platform contains a vague promise to convoke citizens' juries " to provide advice on a broad range of issues," ironically right before a promise to leave elected MPPs more power at Queen's Park.

While it's very Athenian to refer complex questions to citizens chosen by lot, that's not our system. We elect representatives to do what they think is best and answer to us for their judgments in a way randomly selected Ontarians will not. A spokesman for Mr. Bryant says the MPPs will ultimately be responsible, but that can only be in a technical sense -- they'll be investing so much in these groups that the legislature will have a very hard time going against anything they propose.

Asking the people of Ontario what they think is a refreshing change from the years during which the Tory premiers Mike Harris and Ernie Eves asked their professional communications consultants what they thought the people of Ontario wanted. But the Liberals are taking it too far: they should do what they think is right, and stand or fall on their decisions, like honourable legislators.