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Coyle: Ontario deserves more than Muppets

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In Governance
Nov 27th, 2010
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By Jim Coyle Toronto Star November 22 2010
He wasn’t the first, or the last, to make the case but former Progressive Conservative MPP Morley Kells probably put it as well as anyone.
It was in the early 1980s. Premier William Davis had just won a majority after a spell of minority government. Freshly empowered, his office dropped fully formed policy decisions onto Tory MPPs far below.
Government backbenchers, Kells complained, were treated like a bunch of Muppets — expected to speak and vote as ordered — and he was Kermit the Frog.
Since then, the shift of power from the Legislature into cabinet, then into the leader’s office and the hands of a royal guard of gatekeepers and advisers has not stopped.
It’s happened under all parties. It disillusions MPPs, diminishes the institution to which they are elected and, in the long haul, isolates and corrupts the few who actually wield power.
At the Ontario Legislature, a creepy kind of Kremlinist language has even taken hold. The premier’s office is known as “The Centre,” its occupant “The P.”
How hopeful, then, that a forceful bellow of “enough!” was loosed last week in a Queen’s Park committee room against autocracy, court government and the hyper-partisanship that enables them.
Speaker Steve Peters appeared before the standing committee on the legislative assembly, to which he’d referred a complaint by Tory MPP Christine Elliott that a provision of the Local Health System Integration Act of 2006 requiring a review of the act within four years of its passage had been breached.
The deadline for starting the review was in March. When it passed without action, the House was in a position of non-compliance with its own statute.
Peters said it was not the first such instance of non-compliance and he expressed “serious concern” at the state of affairs.
There was really no need for such parliamentary review provisions, he said, since governments could refer matters to committee for review at any time. They were generally included, he suggested, as political window-dressing.
In all, he concluded, such cavalier non-compliance was disrespectful to the House and its members.
Peters — feeling liberated, perhaps, after announcing recently he will not seek re-election — spoke about the disempowerment of MPPs that is the heart of the matter.
Not much will change in the unsatisfying way parliaments now operate, he said, “until we collectively around this table, of all stripes, are prepared to take this place back to who it belongs to: 107 members.
“It doesn’t belong to somebody sitting in a corner office . . . Until we collectively take this place back we are always going to be at the whim of the control of The Centre.”
Then a telling reaction kicked in, as his remarks were read into Hansard.
“I’m sure I’ll probably pay some price. But I’m quite comfortable, as somebody going out the door in this place, to say some of these things.”
Peters said the recent select committee on mental health and addiction had done excellent work because MPPs from all parties — who usually keep assiduously to their own kind — got to know each other and worked together.
No one was “being whipped or having notes sent in from behind me,” Peters said, alluding to the political staff seated behind during House proceedings.
“We don’t do enough of that around this place.”
Then, Mr. Speaker apologized “for a bit of the rant.” But he needn’t have. His words needed saying. And they need heeding.
Anyone thinking of running in the election next year, and who receives the great honour of their community’s trust, should really ask themselves if it’s good enough to be just another Muppet.

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