The Daily Exchange: Can politicians learn to get along?
Why is co-operation a dirty word in politics?
Sesame Street taught me that co-operation makes it happen. That working together is how you get things done. It’s how you make the world a better place.
But here in the strange world of Ontario politics, co-operation is a dirty word.
For Tim Hudak, co-operation is a conspiracy. It’s a spectre. It’s sleazy backroom shenanigans. It’s something you accuse your opponents of doing because somehow, supposedly, this gives you some kind of a partisan edge.
For Dalton McGuinty, who’s on the receiving end of these charges, co-operation is a vile and heinous accusation. It’s something you have to deny in the strongest possible terms. Co-operating is something you would never, ever, never ever do, not in a million-billion-trillion years, not if your life depended on it. Picking up your toys and going home is a far better option than trying to play nice with someone who -- gasp -- might not agree with you on every single thing.
It’s all very absurd.
The other day, I was talking to my five-year-old daughter about the election. After explaining to her how things worked, I asked her: If you were in charge of things, what’s the first thing you would do? Her answer? “Dad, I’d make it so people don’t shout or yell at each other so much. I’d get people to just talk to each other. Then they wouldn’t get so mad and they’d be more happy.” Smart kid.
Over the last four weeks, we have seen a fierce campaign. Inasmuch as the party leaders debated the issues, and focused on the choices before the voters, this has been a good thing. It’s how democracy works.
But with poll after poll after poll after poll suggesting no party will win a majority of the seats in the Ontario Legislature, the reality is that MPPs are going to have to be a lot more willing to work together than they have in this election if anything’s going to get done.
It can be done. Some of the best work of the past legislative session was the result of MPPs working together. A good example is the all-party select committee on mental health and addiction. Liberal MPP Kevin Flynn, PC Party MPP Christine Elliott and New Democrat MPP France Gelinas put partisan differences aside. They brought a focus to bear on this hugely important issue. And they put forward sensible, achievable recommendations that are being put into action and making a positive difference.
In this election, I think voters need to ask themselves: Which of the three party leaders can you count on to put a stop to the sandbox politics, reach out to others, and make constructive consensus politics work for the people of Ontario.
Is it Dalton McGuinty, who this weekend attacked NDP Leader Andrea Horwath’s character, who launched more negative attack TV ads, who issued goodness-knows-how-many attack news releases, and who attacked the very idea of politicians working together, saying he’d rather quit than do that?
Is it Tim Hudak, whose supporters started the weekend by attacking the lack of focus on policy then proceeded to spend the weekend attacking a dreamed-up coalition?
Or is it Andrea Horwath, who has run a positive campaign, whose events focused on positive ideas (including her plan for her first 100 days as Premier), who is running positive TV ads and nothing but, who has refused to engage in sandbox politics, and who has graciously shrugged off all of her opponents’ attacks and expressed a willingness to work with others?
At stake now through October 6 is who wins the election. But starting October 7, the stakes become much higher. Then, it stops being about people attacking each other, and it starts to be about MPPs of all stripes attacking Ontario’s jobs challenge, attacking problems in health care, and attacking the high cost of everyday life.
These are issues bigger than parties. They are bigger than politics. If we’re going to surmount them and build a better Ontario, we need a Premier and government that doesn’t see co-operation as a fatal flaw but rather as Ontarians’ greatest strength.
--Jeffrey Ferrier, former communications director for the Ontario NDP
Response from Guy Giorno, former chief of staff to Mike Harris and Stephen Harper:
You’re right, Jeff. We need greater cooperation in the Legislature. The parties can do many things to make Queen’s Park work better for Ontarians. I’ll return to that point in a moment.
In the meantime, as you correctly observe, voters are in the process of deciding the composition of the next Legislature. Most pollsters predict a close race; every Ontarian who has not yet voted should do so.
It’s worth noting that one pollster has broken with consensus to show a large Liberal lead. Of course, this pollster’s federal election prediction was way, way off. Then again, maybe this time he’s right when the whole world is wrong.
While we agree on the importance of co-operation, the effectiveness of the Legislature is determined by the voters’ choices. The federal experience is instructive here.
During minority parliament, the Conservatives and the NDP cooperated to pass the Conservative’s anti-corruption law. I am sure that the same thing could happen at Queen’s Park, since both the PCs and NDP want to clean up government in the wake of McGuinty-era scandals. They might even stop tax-funded bodies from using your money to make political donations, a serious problem I blew the whistle on five years ago.
Who knows? Perhaps the PCs and NDP will cooperate to correct our election laws, so that parties aren’t handcuffed by spending caps while third parties are free to assault them with unlimited ad buys. Or maybe they will close the ridiculous loophole that allows businesses and trade unions to pay the full salaries of partisan campaign “volunteers,” without this significant corporate or union support counting as a political contribution. (See page 25 of the Elections Ontario handbook, bottom paragraph.)
But minority Parliament also demonstrated the limits of cooperation. When most of the seats are held by high-tax parties (read Liberals and NDP) they can combine to outvote the low-tax party (PCs). We have also saw the Liberals and NDP unite to block tough-on-crime reforms and to frustrate attempts to cut regulatory red-tape on job creators.
And don’t expect parties that would enforce the census with jail terms to understand what’s wrong with the Big Brother intrusiveness of Smart Meters.
So even assuming cooperation among MPPs, the composition of the next Legislature will matter a lot. The more Liberals, the smaller the prospect of change. As between the two “change” parties, the choice also matters greatly: Will it be change toward low taxes and a solid plan for the economy, or change toward a high-tax, high-spending party whose job-killing policies repelled employers and investors during the 1990s?
The choice matters. And so everybody should vote.
Response from Erika Mozes, former senior adviser to George Smitherman and Gerard Kennedy:
I’ll tell you when “cooperation” became a dirty word in Canadian politics: Dec. 1 2008.
On that day, Liberal leader Stephane Dion and NDP leader Jack Layton signed an agreement that would have seen a Liberal-NDP coalition government, acting with the support of the Bloc Quebecois. The agreement was viciously attacked by the Conservatives in Ottawa ; terms like “unholy alliance” and “socialist-separatist coalition” were thrown around like confetti. The 2008 election was fought and won (and lost) on that issue.
I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that working together is a bad thing in politics. Our parliamentary system of government is based on the idea of legislators, working together, to reach conclusions about the nation’s policy direction. That’s in part why there is such a focus on debate in a parliamentary system. That’s why the “mood of the House” matters.
Good public policy can – and often does – result from politicians being forced to put aside their ideological frames. Centrist parties like the Liberals, and centrist politicians like Premier McGuinty, have a natural affinity and aptitude for working in this way.
The other two parties cannot put aside their ideological bias. The NDP is now touting “let’s all play together” talking points because they understand they will not form the next government. But they could play a big role in the next government if there is a minority situation.
But, NDP, let me ask you where was this working together mantra when you voted with the PC party of Ontario 183 times? Where you working together when you voted against full day-kindergarten, increased funding for hospitals, re-training programs and infrastructure stimulus spending?
Premier McGuinty has ruled out a formal arrangement with other parties: “no accord, no coalition, no entente, no agreement — formal or informal — or any other linkage of any kind.” Ontario Liberals do believe in working together – we have done so with legislation in the past, and believe in good public policy – we have proven how working together can be done in a legislative situation. The NDP, on the other hand, have not. They may be saying something different today based on poll numbers, but take a serious look at their voting record.
The fact is Ontario needs a strong stable Liberal government. More, the province needs a government that will make tough choices and will ensure that good public policy is implemented over ideological bias. The world is facing economic uncertainty. As I said in a past post we are potentially on our way to double dip recession. Now is not the time to gamble on a minority situation.
Ottawa survived years of minority governments without a formal coalition, or agreement. Both leaders Tim Hudak and Dalton McGuinty have ruled out a coalition in Ontario if the votes come in on Thursday and there is a minority situation. Only the NDP is hoping for a balance of power situation.
But again, let’s wait to see what happens when all the votes are cast before pre-determining balance of power talk.