May 122013
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Ontario Liberals and NDP face risks in dickering over principles.

by Geoffrey Stevens

Watching parliamentary democracy at work can be harrowing. During an election, party leaders and their confederates present competing visions (or, more prosaically, platforms) for the electorate to consider. But once the election is over, smart winners don’t simply impose their visions. They have to negotiate with the Opposition.

Smart leaders remember that elections are not decided by partisans (Tim Hudak take note). Core supporters are important, but elections are won or lost on the votes of “loose fish” – uncommitted or lightly affiliated voters – who swim around at election time. More important, smart winners understand that they have not been elected solely to cater to their core; they understand that people who did not (and might never) vote for them are entitled to the same consideration from the government as its partisans.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is a smart leader. She understands this responsibility. (The same cannot be said of the ideologues in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, or in the Republican party in the United States, but let us not go there today.)

Because she is a smart leader, Wynne is suppressing the frustration she surely feels as NDP leader Andrea Horwath keeps coming back for more, ratcheting up the price of her party’s support for the minority Liberal government’s budget. The latest demand is creation of a provincial financial accountability office, patterned after the parliamentary budget office in Ottawa.

As long as the government itself oversees government spending, bad stuff tends to slip through. A parliamentary or legislative budget officer is not a panacea, but the position does introduce an element of transparency and, one hopes, caution and restraint.

Horwath has already snagged some notable concessions, including reduced car insurance rates, more money for home-care, and a youth jobs strategy. Now she wants an independent accountability officer, who would report to the speaker of the Legislature, not to the government, to provide oversight of government spending.

Although Conservatives (and undoubtedly some Liberals, too) think Horwath has moved beyond poker to a different game – to wit, blackmail – what’s so wrong with that? If there had been a system of independent oversight earlier, some of the more egregious spending scandals of the Dalton McGuinty era might never have happened or been nipped in the bud: eHealth, Ornge ambulance, gas-plant relocations, to mention just three.

As long as the government itself  oversees government spending, bad stuff tends to slip through. A parliamentary or legislative budget officer is not a panacea, but the position does introduce an element of transparency and, one hopes, caution and restraint.

It’s worth noting that in Ottawa the parliamentary budget office was created in the wake of the Liberals’ sponsorship scandal by the first Harper minority government, then in its pro-accountability days. The Conservatives got much more than they bargained for as the budget officer, Kevin Page, shone a searchlight on government spending – on the war in Afghanistan, prisons, and fighter jets, among other things.

Page’s term expired in March and he was denied an extension. The office remains vacant while the Tories conduct a leisurely search for a less vigilant watchdog.

At Queen’s Park, Wynne is trying to distance herself from McGuinty’s legacy. Her government still looks and acts too much like his. She needs new faces and new ideas. The spending watchdog is one idea whose time has come. Its projected cost, $2.5 million a year, is almost nothing next to the hundreds of millions wasted in the gas-plant fiasco alone.

So why does Wynne hesitate? Why doesn’t she thank Horwath effusively and grab this shiny new idea? For one thing, she knows that watchdogs have a habit of biting the hand that appoints them. For another, she knows that the more ideas she accepts from the NDP the more she enhances the credibility of a party that is fishing in the same pool of progressive voters.

But to flip that coin over, the risk is just as real for Horwath. The more ideas she insists the Liberals steal, the greater the attraction Wynne’s Liberals will have for her own NDP voters. Why stay true to Andrea Howarth when New Democrats can enjoy the same policies, and have a government to boot, by voting for Kathleen Wynne?

Such is democracy at work.

About Geoffrey Stevens

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at the address below. This article appeared in the Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury.

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