The K-W By-Election: First Minister Power and Discretion at Their Worst?

On Thursday September 6, Kitchener-Waterloo residents will go to the polls in a by-election to replace long-time Progressive Conservative MPP, Elizabeth Witmer.  Earlier in the year, Ms. Witmer resigned her seat in the Ontario Legislative Assembly to become chair of the Ontario Workplace Safety Insurance Board, a position offered to her by current Ontario Premier and Liberal leader, Dalton McGuinty.

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By-elections happen all the time in federal and provincial politics, but what makes this by-election particularly important is that a Liberal victory on September 6 would instantly transform McGuinty’s minority government into a majority government.

A majority government means that the Liberals will be in power for a full four-year term and that they will be able to pass legislation without having to seek the formal support of the PCs or the NDP. A minority government means that the Liberals must constantly seek compromise with the other parties or risk facing an early election. So the stakes are high.

What’s been most surprising about this by-election has been the lack of scrutiny and analysis of the way in which it came about.  Most of the initial news coverage, for instance, focused on whether Ms. Witmer resigned because she disagreed with PC leader Tim Hudak’s politics and leadership style.

A different interpretation might be that Ms. Witmer resigned because the Premier went looking for an opposition MPP who could be enticed to retire in exchange for a plum post in the Ontario civil service.  In exchange, the Liberals generated a low cost, high gain opportunity for the party.  Specifically, rather than having to fight for a majority government across all Ontario ridings in a general election, in this situation they just have to fight an election in one riding.  And if they win this by-election, they get a majority government.  If they lose this by-election, then the status quo remains, but with the added bonus that they were able to replace an experienced opposition MPP with a new and inexperienced one.

In many ways, this is democracy at its worst.  First, if this interpretation is correct, it’s further evidence that First Ministers in Canada have too much power. In this instance, the Premier may have used his power to appoint an individual to the civil service for his party’s political advantage.

Second, it’s antidemocratic because it means that one riding, which contains approximately 1.5% of Ontario’s population, gets to decide for the rest of Ontario whether the Liberals will have a majority or a minority government.

So what’s the solution?  The common response to perceived undemocratic behaviour in Canada has been to engage in institutional reforms.  So in this instance, for example, the Ontario Legislature could establish rules governing appointments, removing the power from the Premier and transferring it to a non-partisan body.

But institutional reforms can be tricky because sometimes they can be ineffective or have unintended and negative consequences, such as the case with Prime Minister Harper’s fixed election date legislation.

Instead, I think the solution to curtailing this type of First Minister behaviour is to place the responsibility on voters.  Specifically, voters need to punish governing parties that engage in these types of undemocratic practices.