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Inside Queen's Park: Process over substance

High-flyer federal bureaucrat Allan Gottlieb recounts in his memoirs how he once gave the following advice to then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau: “Beware of the people who put process over substance . . . there is a whole new breed whose interest is in how [government] is organized, not what government actually decides.

Beware the process freaks.”

Gottlieb’s sage advice came to mind watching Premier Dalton McGuinty, House Leader Michael Bryant, and others muse about a slew of process changes to the Ontario legislature prior to its spring return.

First off the mark was Bryant, who talked about changes to the hours and days the legislature sits and works.

Then came the premier, suggesting the junking of the Lord’s Prayer and its replacement by something that represents the “diversity of Ontario.”

These are process matters, of zero importance other than to substitute for the lack of substance in how the Liberals deal with the serious problems facing Ontario.

How about these substance items, off the top: a manufacturing sector imploding from a high dollar and low productivity; a high-cost public sector emboldened by its (accurate) belief that the Liberals are in its pocket; a justice sector that appears to operate on the premise that the government has nothing to do with how it functions; a health sector so scared of its minister that it has made trembling silence into an art form; a crime crisis in Toronto that the Liberals say will be solved if legal gun owners can be prevented from pursuing their hobby; an inevitable energy crunch as nuclear construction timelines collapse . . .

But let’s get away from substance and back to process.

When the legislature sits, the government is under attack, and last year, rather than have to defend the patronage method by which the Liberals allocate grants to their friends and potential friends, they preferred to dissolve the sitting.

The result was the legislature sat just 40 days last year, which coincidentally is the same year most members voted themselves a 25 per cent wage increase.

This year, although there was talk of an early recall of the house on Feb. 25, it will actually not return until March 17, the scheduled date. One theory has it that the government has nothing to introduce and therefore the delay.

In the meantime, more process.

Hence McGuinty’s Lord’s Prayer pitch, which is basically to junk what is there now - and which has symbolic importance to a lot of people - and replace it with an unknown.

If the premier was consistent, mind you, he’d replace the current non-sectarian Lord’s Prayer with the Roman Catholic version, which would fit his vision of Ontario as being a province where the only religion entitled to public dollars is the Roman Catholic, which it gets for its schools.

But apparently not. Knowing this government, one suspects it will opt to have “diversity” represented every day, meaning prayers from dozens of religions and maybe even non-religions (agnostic’s prayer: “God, if you exist, help me, if you can.”)

How about a Wiccan prayer on the solstice?

Bryant’s proposed changes are even more bumpf.

He wants question period moved to the morning, which must have sent shudders of horror through generations of Queen’s Park reporters, who normally come in late - but also leave late because of the nature of the news cycle.

The suspicion in opposition circles is that the government wants to shut down the preparation time the opposition has to prepare for question period, while allowing extra time for the government to create favourable spin for the supper hour newscasts.

More intriguingly, Bryant wants the legislature to sit a full day from 9.30 a.m. to 6 p.m., with evening sittings only when “absolutely necessary.”

This change appeared to be for five days a week, which would have made a hash of Friday being constituency day, when a voter could be guaranteed to find his or her representative in the riding.

This is not to mention the obvious difficulty of rescheduling what now happens on Wednesday morning (cabinet), Tuesday morning (caucus), and all those other mornings given over to committees, not just legislative but government and party as well.

Hard as it may be for outsiders to understand, when the legislature is sitting, the workday is long and diverse, and having people sitting mindlessly in the legislature listening to what in the main are very bad speeches is not really the best use of their time.

But the essence of this government’s approach can be found in the fact that these process questions were not discussed with the opposition prior to them being dumped into the news media.

As Gottlieb said, when you have nothing of substance to discuss, talk about process, to which might be added the corollary in the political world that you do it unilaterally and publicly for maximum benefit.  

Derek Nelson is a freelance writer who spent 19 years at Queen’s Park. His e-mail is

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