While you weren’t watching, the government and opposition parties quietly agreed on Tuesday morning to speed along some small but important reforms to the way the legislature does its work. (Don’t feel bad: I missed it, too, and I was at Queen’s Park when it was happening.) But it was easy to miss, because, immediately after MPPs agreed to a second reading of Bill 167 — the Legislative Assembly Amendment Act — the first question period of 2020 got rolling, and the Progressive Conservative government managed to trip over the issue of licence plates.
In the 2019 budget, the government announced that it believed Ontario’s licence plates needed a refresh. Fast-forward to early 2020, and there’s a problem with the new plates: they’re unreadable at night, at least under some conditions. This is a problem, since the entire purpose of plates is for police to be able to identify legally licensed vehicles on the Crown’s highways. Unreadable plates could interfere with everything from photo radar to the province’s Amber Alert program (which, after last month’s nuclear snafu, doesn’t need the extra headache).
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The government did itself no favours with its initial attempt at damage control. Government and Consumer Services Minister Lisa Thompson told reporters that the prior “Liberal” licence plates had been unacceptable and needed to be replaced. She was referring to criticism the previous government had faced in 2017 and 2018; her defence of this government’s shoddy purchases seemed to be that Liberal purchases had been shoddy, too. By the time Thompson walked away from reporters, the controversy had a name: plategate.
Days later, the government is doing what it ought to have done in the first place: acknowledging the problems and suggesting that it will recall the defective plates. But let me offer a defence, of sorts, of the Tories at the end of a rough week for them: there’s a direct line connecting their (uncontroversial) reforms to the laws governing Queen’s Park and their (very controversial!) handling of licence plates, and it’s simply that the Tories are still excited about the prospects of changing things at Queen’s Park, and they aren’t sentimental about the status quo.
The licence plates are an example of how that instinct can go badly wrong, but the changes the Tories are making to the Legislative Assembly Act are an example of where it’s serving them well. Bill 167 includes a handful of small but important changes to the law that governs daily operations at Queen’s Park and the buildings around the legislature. Much of it amounts to the kind of housekeeping work that governments should try to stay on top of but that too often gets pushed aside for more urgent priorities.
The changes include: making it explicit in law that, in certain cases, employees of the legislature don’t need to swear allegiance to the Queen and clarifying that MPPs are protected by their parliamentary privileges if they work on the Board of Internal Economy, which duplicates a protection that MPs have federally and brings the province in line with a federal Court of Appeal decision from last year.
None of it is terribly sexy stuff, but then politics needs unsexy reforms and tweaks, too. Reading the Hansard for Bill 167 is a reminder that the most substantive debates at Queen’s Park occur when nobody’s watching and neither party has much stake in the outcome: it’s refreshing to see MPPs asking substantive, civil questions and getting informed, reasonable answers from their colleagues. More than that, Bill 167 is an example of the kind of humdrum but notable work that got put on the back burner during the last years of Liberal control at Queen’s Park, both because the Liberals had other priorities but more fundamentally because the Liberals had, I think, run out of energy to tackle anything that wasn’t seen as an easy win for the next election cycle.
The Tories still have lots of stuff they want to change and two more years before they have to return to voters for a new mandate. This week showed how their instinct to shake things up can go badly wrong for them — and how some stuff is quietly going right.