by Randy Hillier*
Le Québécois Libre, January 15, 2009, No 263.

Link: http://www.quebecoislibre.org/09/090115-12.htm

There is a growing chasm between the political demands and aspirations of rural Ontario on the one hand and urban Ontario on the other. Just take a look at an electoral map of the province: federally and provincially, a red blotch on the north shore of Lake Ontario marks the Liberal urban bastion of Toronto. This is surrounded by a blue mass representing Conservative rural Ontario. These maps tell us something we know to be true, but are hesitant to speak of.

Ontario has become, essentially, home to two competing political communities, with different customs, economies, values and expectations. Unfortunately they are represented by a "unicameral" parliament with no upper house to balance the purely majoritarian legislative assembly. The result is a widening of the gulf between the two communities, with every new law and regulation passed by an urban-dominated Queens Park ill-suited to the needs and wishes of rural Ontario. In fact, the authors of these laws and policies are more often found in the bureaucracy than in the legislature. Nonetheless, the way to correct our unbalanced political landscape is to increase our political representation.

Two Houses Are Better Than One

What we need is a bicameral provincial government with a Senate of fifty elected representatives, one from each county, regional Municipality, and (in the north) district, to lessen this growing urban-rural chasm by tempering urban priorities that cause damage and harm to rural Ontario. Much like the federal Senate, this upper chamber ought to be able to amend or defeat most bills passed by the lower house, but be unable to introduce, alter, or defeat money bills. However, to ensure that they have a greater regard for their communities than for party discipline, provincial Senators ought to be excluded from cabinet posts.

An elected provincial senate whose representation is based on communities of interest, not population, would have the advantages of the federal senate without the failings of political patronage. Arguably, sober second thought and review is more relevant provincially than federally, as there is a more substantial and direct relationship of services between the people and their provincial governments.

The most difficult part of this proposal is that in order to create a provincial Senate, the province must first give constitutional recognition to the boundaries and legitimate jurisdictions of municipalities, counties and districts, just as the federal government does to the provinces. And contrary to popular misconception, this constitutional amendment only requires the passage of legislation in Ontario along with a request to the federal parliament that it be included in the constitution.

Presently, municipalities and counties, the form of government closest to the people, are creatures of the province and can be collapsed, amalgamated, or expanded with the stroke of a legislative pen and three readings. In addition, their responsibilities, funding, and financing dangle on the threads of whatever partisan wind is blowing. Giving them constitutional recognition would free major municipal governments from this faulty master/servant relationship.

Checking Majority Rule

An elected upper house is recognized as a requirement where diverse populations reside in large geographic jurisdictions. They exist in Australia and other successful Commonwealth countries, and in the United States. In fact, many Canadian provinces, including Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and Quebec, originally had provincial Senates. They were discredited and discarded, however, because they were appointed, not elected. A provincial senate representing communities of interest, with staggered elections by preferential ballot, would ultimately reduce the number of flawed and unpopular Bills passed, preserve and respect regional diversity, and mitigate, not replicate, the failings of the lower house elected on the basis of population.

The priorities of Ontario's urban politicians and bureaucracy are bans and restrictions, and they are out of sync with the people of rural Ontario. This has resulted in Ontario going from first to worst in economic performance, a painfully dismal record in health care, high taxes, a ballooning bureaucracy, deficits, reduced individual responsibility and freedoms, and have-not status. This dismal performance is a reflection, not of coincidence, bad luck, or external factors, but of the wrong priorities. In a democracy, people, politicians, and governments are the authors of their fortunes, good or bad. But institutions matter as well as personalities. An improved bicameral political structure is needed so that the urban drum is not always the loudest.

Ontario is too large and diverse to be represented by a single legislative house. The North, South Eastern, South Western, and Central regions are significantly different than the GTA and indeed from each other. Our political system ought to mitigate these regional differences instead of exacerbating regional divisions.

A glance at the electoral map shows that the current system is not doing the job. It's time for a bicameral provincial government to check and balance parliamentary majorities that show little regard for regional diversity.

* Randy Hillier is MPP (Member of Provincial Parliament) for Lanark Frontenac, Lennox & Addington (Ontario).