Forget Doug Ford, our government doesn’t even know how government works

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We really need to do something about the Ontario government.  And I don’t just mean play musical chairs.

We are blessed to live in a functioning democracy, for all its discontents, so we get to vote roughly every four years on who shall overspend wildly, meddle ineptly and spin soothing fables about it.  Thus, with our 42nd provincial election looming on June 7, I received a natty black and yellow “2018 Ontario Election Handbook” that chirps “We make voting easy”.

Which is true.  Voting in Ontario is mercifully simple and friendly.  And the handbook seeks to explain the basics for new voters or people who just weren’t paying attention.  Thus after explaining that anyone 18 or older as of election day who is a Canadian citizen and Ontario resident can vote, it says “You are voting for a registered candidate in your electoral district to represent you as a Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario”.  Which is good to know.

It also explains that there are 124 MPPs, one for each riding.  Which seems obvious though in Canada as in Britain we did once have some ridings with multiple members and some electoral reform enthusiasts want to bring back such arrangements.  But here’s the thing that’s not good.

The handbook immediately proceeds to say, “The party that wins the most seats across the province becomes the governing party, and its leader becomes the Premier of Ontario.”  Oh, so I’m not voting for an MPP after all?  I’m voting for a party and a premier.  You don’t say.

Or rather, you shouldn’t.  Because this claim is just plain wrong.

The party that wins the most seats does not become the “governing party” for two reasons.  First, there is no such thing as a “governing party”.  There is a ministry that holds office as long as it retains the confidence of the legislators we do in fact elect.  Second, if the party that wins the most seats does not get an outright majority, it can easily happen that others form a coalition that sustains a premier and ministry not drawn from the party with the most seats.  As in BC right now.

The leader of the party with the most seats does not automatically become Premier even if that party wins a majority not a mere “plurality”.  Rather, the queen’s representative summons the person most likely to be able to win confidence votes, particularly on the Throne Speech then budget bills, and asks them to form a ministry and face the House.

Now it is true that as a rule, in Canada, that person is the leader of one of the major parties.  And here leaders are not chosen by caucus, as they once were and still are in Australia, but by party members or in some hyper “democratic” systems, anyone who wanders in personally or virtually with or without a token fee.  Andrew Scheer, for instance.  Or Justin Trudeau.  But as Stockwell Day can testify, if caucus bails on a leader they are done regardless.

All this may seem like pedantry.  But how your government really works is not pedantry.  Especially not when your government consists of three branches, namely the legislative that makes rules, the executive that carries them out and the judiciary that settles disputes about them, and you only elect the first.

This system is in some disarray at present.  Far too often the legislature delegates rule-making authority to the executive through broad legislation that authorizes regulation.  Far too often the executive “whips” its party caucus and dictates what the legislature shall do instead of answering to it.  And far too often the judiciary only pretends to care what the laws say.  But the correct response is not to throw up our hands and say fine, from now on we choose the proverbial “person on horseback” in a quadrennial plebiscite, and in between they can do whatever they want.  It is to combat institutional chaos by combatting the mental kind, and restore popular control of the state by reinvigorating our legislatures.

Which is why it’s important to realize why there is no such thing as a “governing party”.  There is a party or coalition that increasingly dominates the legislature, and the very top of the executive branch is chosen from its ranks.  But the “government” includes the judiciary, which is not partisan (or we are in deep trouble) and the executive consists mostly of the professional civil service broadly conceived, from managers to police to teachers, all of whom are meant to be impartial.

Now, now, you may say.  That’s quite a tirade over one election handbook.  But they care enough to hand-deliver it to my house and before that to draft, revise, debate, design, proof-read and print it.  Knowing government, it passed through dozens of highly-paid, highly educated hands.  And nobody noticed, or cared, that it badly misstated how our system works in ways that favour those in power.

If you asked for a list of things to fix in the Ontario government, election handbooks would be well below the budget, energy, health care etc.  But when even this document contains sloppy errors on key facts, it shows how rotten things are from top to bottom.

I shall vote for an MPP I hope will try to fix it.  Not a “governing party” or an omnipotent Premier.  And yes.  It matters.

More from John Robson.    Follow John on Twitter at @thejohnrobson

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