01/17/2012 01:42 EST | Updated 03/18/2012 05:12 EDT

Ontario Liberals Cheat Their Way to a Majority


The Baltimore Orioles -- the inventors of "inside baseball" -- had that now infamous term applied to their style of play only in retrospect. At the time people just thought they played dirty. Poetic and appropriate to Ontario. Let me tell you why.

It's a cold, snowy day at Queen's Park, the legislature is recessed, and it seems more quiet than usual. And that's not just because the radiators are behaving themselves. It's because there should be committees of MPPs working on all sorts of issues and legislation, but the Liberals haven't struck them. Why? Because rather than getting down to business, they're trying to finagle something out of committees that voters didn't give them: a majority.

Since the election New Democrats have been clear: We will work the government to put people first. We want to get down to work. It makes the lack of committees all the more curious.

A little primer for those of us whose primary exposure to legislative procedure has been the ironic viewing of "Schoolhouse Rock" (or it's pal that's more my speed): In the Westminster system, committees review and approve legislation moving a bill from second to third reading. They are made up of all parties proportional to the number of seats they have in the house. It means if New Democrats have about 20 per cent of the seats in the legislature, they get about 20 per cent of the seats in the committee.

Here's where it gets tricky: committee chairs are obliged to vote with the government; they have to be impartial. In a minority government this means that opposition chairs (which would be the deciding vote) are obliged to vote with the government, and not with their conscience. It means that opposition loses a vote.

In government-chaired committees, the opposition has a majority that reflects the outcome of the election -- which is fair -- but in opposition-chaired committees the liberals have a majority that voters didn't give them. They are trying to get a majority by playing games because they couldn't get one from voters.

It's tricky. It's inside baseball in the original sense, and, equally important, the neologic and metaphoric sense. So where do we go from here?

Minorities are not new. It reminds me of one of my favourite TV shows: All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. The fact of the matter is that there is an established practice for committees in a minority. There are solutions that maintain integrity of our democracy, but to get there is going to require all three parties to work together.

Instead of following the established practice, the Liberals are trying to be sneaky and too clever by half. The irony is that they need committees up and running to pass their own legislation. It's like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Liberals should remember 1990, the last time they decided to get just a bit cute.