Let’s Vote for Provincial Governors (Shockingly Doable!)

Why do we only get to vote for MPP? Why can’t we vote for who gets to lead the province’s executive? The short answer is that there’s no good reason. The good news is that amending provincial constitutions is shockingly doable. Other provinces have done it!

First, a short primer to address the whys: In 1791, the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada — the precursor to Queen’s Park — had less power than a neighborhood association. The Executive Council, which included the Governor, the Treasurer, and Attorney General among others, was appointed by the British government. It wasn’t until 1848, when Colonial Secretary Lord John Russell sent a confusing dispatch to Nova Scotia — which was misinterpreted! — did elected MPPs begin to snatch up roles in the Executive Branch.

This was clearly an improvement. But have we needlessly stopped short? Canadian reformers had the example of elected executive offices in the United States, but there was no way Britain would have signed off on that at any point in the 19th century. The UK’s own peoples’ House wouldn’t firmly establish itself over their aristocracy until the 20th century. Remember, the British North America Act, 1867, creating Canada had to be passed by the UK legislature (which included the House of Lords). We didn’t patriate our constitution until 1982! The founding fathers went as far as they could.

But we can go further. While changing our federal government is a constitutional nightmare, it’s always been open season to mix things up at the provincial level.

Imagine this: June 7th, 2018 — Today, for the first time following passage of the Constitution of Ontario Act, Ontarians go to the polls not only to vote for who will represent them in Queen’s Park, but also to vote directly for the first-ever elected Governor of Ontario. The Governor’s race has seen a close contest featuring candidates from the traditional parties, as well as a handful of independents hoping to follow in the footsteps of France’s President Macron, who successfully ran last year as an independent to become the country’s chief executive.

Whoever is elected as Governor is expected to appoint a Cabinet with individuals from a variety of backgrounds. While Premiers were free to create and assign Minister Portfolios to loyal MPPs however they saw fit, the Governor can only appoint department heads for Ministries and Agencies established by law. The Governor will also have to find temporary accommodations, as renovations are still underway for Casa Loma to be repurposed as a Governor’s Mansion and Executive Office.

Throughout the campaign, MPPs from all parties, now free from party leadership controlling cabinet appointments, have pledged to vigorously monitor how taxpayers’ money will be spent, and to tighten purse strings wherever they see waste in the new administration. No longer condemned to shadow or snipe Cabinet Ministers sitting in the heart of the legislature, MPPs look forward to a new era of cross-party committee work.

Alongside the Governor and their local MPP, Ontarians will also be voting for the Attorney General of Ontario. Fed up with damming yet ignored Auditor General reports, and inspired by the progressive fight for responsible government in the District of Columbia, whose residents won the right to vote for their own elected Attorney General in 2015, Ontarians asked “why not us too?”.

Separation of powers is one of those bedrock democratic concepts that should appeal to everyone. But, is it possible in Ontario? Yes! These changes don’t affect the constitutionally protected yet entirely ceremonial provincial Lieutenant Governors who represent the crown; the ‘Lieutenant’ part is because they report to the Governor-General of Canada, not anyone in the province. Meanwhile, the concept of having a “Premier” running the executive is found nowhere in our constitutional documents.

Did you know that the constitution requires Quebec to have a bicameral legislature, but Quebec abolished it in 1968 and no one blinked? “Whatever”, they probably said; provinces are masters of their own house. In 1998, following a provincial referendum, Newfoundland amended the constitution to abolish their parochial schools. Constitutionally speaking, it’s been smooth sailing for provinces looking to evolve their governance.

As for why we should make this move, well — the case for separation of powers has been eloquently articulated since antiquity by history’s greatest minds. Google it! America doubles down on this principle through bicameral independent legislatures, leading to heavy gridlock by design. But with a unicameral Queen’s Park and a separate Executive office, we’d be in that sweet Goldilocks spot between our current concentrated Wizard of Oz power practice and America’s manifold separation of powers. Only Nebraska has the setup envisioned, and they love it. You know how in Ontario we’re used to wondering why we can’t have nice things? I submit to you that it starts with not getting this one big thing right.

Ask a retiring MPP about their work (Steve Paikin does), and they’ll likely tell you the sad truth. They’re expected to mercilessly heckle their colleagues across the aisle for soundbites, and tow the party line like a fundamentalist. If they don’t, they don’t make Cabinet, and are viewed as failing. Meanwhile the status quo breeds cynicism and disdain from the public for the function — and even the character — of the people we elect. Carving out the executive will see a legislative renaissance.

Finally, for those thinking, “nice thought, but it’ll never happen”, do me a favour: buy a $10 membership to your preferred provincial party. Go to your riding-association meeting (bring friends!) Start the discussion, and link up with can-do minded people in other parties. Ontarians are at record high levels of dissatisfaction with what we’ve got. MPPs themselves hate it. If just a few hundred citizens belonging to each of our provincial political parties can get a cross-party motion adopted at their policy conventions, we’ll get it done.

2017 is Canada’s sesquicentennial; let’s make the next 150 even better than the first. Vote for Provincial Governor!