Michael Coteau’s bid to recall the legislature was only a stunt — and that’s too bad

OPINION: The Liberal MPP and leadership candidate’s letter to the premier might have been political theatre, but it points toward the need for democratic reform
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 01, 2019
Man hands another man a piece of paper.
On Monday, Michael Coteau tried to hand-deliver a letter to the premier’s office on the second floor at Queen’s Park. (John Michael McGrath)

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Sometimes it takes the personal touch, and sometimes it doesn’t. On Monday morning, Liberal MPP Michael Coteau, who’s running for the leadership of his party, tried to hand-deliver a letter to the premier’s office on the second floor at Queen’s Park. No dice: there was nobody in the office to receive it — premier’s office staff mostly work across the street — so the security guard on duty took charge of it instead.

It was all a stunt.

In the letter, Coteau urges Doug Ford to recall the legislature so that it can debate the government’s changes to education, including an increase to school funding that’s small enough to have triggered job cuts at school boards throughout Ontario. “It is critical the legislature has the opportunity to scrutinize your government’s alarming policies — actions that stand in diametric opposition to your express promise to the people … that ‘not one single teacher is going to lose their job,’” he wrote.

But this (probably) wasn’t the first time the Tories had seen it: he emailed it to the premier’s office last Friday. And there’s no reason to believe that Ford staffers are unable to open an email and read its contents. There’s also no reason to believe that anyone in Ford’s office found the email, or the subsequent in-person visit, terribly compelling. The legislative assembly is currently recessed until October 28, and that isn’t going to change, barring some more pressing emergency.

Another sign that this is all a kind of stunt: even if Coteau were to get his wish, there are hard limits on what opposition MPPs can do to change government policy. Many of those limits have existed for years or even decades, and the Liberals were more than happy to take advantage of them when they were in power. There’s nothing in the political rulebook at the legislature that gives the opposition a real, honest chance to change policy on anything the government disagrees with. The NDP, for example, tried to stop the passage of Bill 5 — the law that cut Toronto city council in half — using a number of strategies, but all came to naught: the law passed in two weeks.

And then there’s the fact that the Liberals don’t currently have official-party status. Even if the legislature were recalled, the Liberals wouldn’t have many opportunities to speak in question period: on most days, the independent MPPs were getting only one question per day. When the ranks of independent MPPs grew to 11, Speaker Ted Arnott adopted a formula to try to guarantee reasonable speaking opportunities for the Liberals and other independents. But the number of independent MPPs has shrunk by two since the house recessed — Liberals Nathalie Des Rosiers and Marie-France Lalonde have both resigned their seats — so it’s possible that the number of chances to speak will also shrink when the house returns.

This is why comparisons to other examples of parliamentary oversight — Coteau invoked the Brexit debates in the United Kingdom — fall apart: as we’ve written before, governing parties have been stripping the opposition of its powers for more than a generation at Queen’s Park. In order for the opposition to have a serious job to do, parties in power will need to grant them serious powers. And, for decades, Liberal, Tory, and NDP governments have weighed their options and decided that, nah, they’d prefer to be able to push their agendas through the legislature instead. The opposition parties at Queen’s Park could not seize control of the policy agenda the way the opposition has in London over Brexit; it would simply never be allowed.

Centralized power works for everyone when they’re in power — the Liberals were no slouches when it came to keeping an iron grip on the agenda, up to and including politically timed prorogations — but, as Coteau is discovering, the thing about elections is that sometimes you lose. Neither the New Democrats nor the Tories are terribly sad about the Liberals’ lot, but, since everyone loses sometimes (in a three- or four-party system, there are always more losers than winners), it’s in everyone’s interests that the rules be fairer to the opposition parties, too.

There’s little reason to think that a reforming spirit will seize Queen’s Park, at least not until the next election, which is currently scheduled for 2022. But the Liberals are in the midst of a leadership race. Coteau’s leadership rival Alvin Tedjo has already told TVO.org that he thinks the legislature could use some more democratic reforms, and it will be interesting to see what (if anything) other candidates propose. The New Democrats, for their part, included a commitment to democratic reforms in the party’s 2018 platform, and, given what’s happened so far in the Ford government’s tenure, they’ll likely reaffirm that commitment in 2022.

So maybe the next time Coteau, or someone like him, goes knocking on the door of the premier’s office, it won’t be just a stunt.

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