Mr. McGuinty’s hidden agenda

Dalton McGuinty has a hidden agenda. Well, let’s qualify that: For those who studied the details of the Liberal platform in the recent Ontario election, the details were open to all. But those who followed the campaign through media headlines and sound bites may be surprised.

With a turnout of just half of eligible voters, and campaign coverage shaped primarily by party leaders, much of the province probably leans toward surprise. The leaders’ debate in particular served to crystallize and simplify: Ernie Eves’s lower taxes, Howard Hampton’s public hydro, and McGuinty’s core priorities – health and education.

Indeed, in promising to hold the line on taxes, slay the deficit and invest in essential public services, the new premier can be misperceived as cautious in staking a middle ground – as Liberals do. What is obscured by such a narrow focus on the politics of spending (more or less) is wider debate, including some far-reaching proposals put forth by McGuinty and his team.

Many initiatives centre less on policies and spending and more on power and process. Digital government, although virtually ignored during the campaign itself, features prominently, albeit with more attention placed on “government” than on “digital.” Two areas of reform – citizen participation and transparency – are potentially of great consequence, and technology permeates both.

With respect to citizen engagement, McGuinty often spoke as Leader of the Opposition on the need to renew political life and re-energize not just the legislature but the citizenry as well. He pointed to rising cynicism, declining voting rates and the now common theme of concentration of power. Accordingly, he promised to share power, proposing measures that would invariably mean less direct authority and control.

Critics scoff; he was doing what those in opposition do, and anyway, cynics may add, nobody really listened. This latter point is not without merit, as surely the years of relative obscurity in opposition drove home the theme of centralized power. In fact, a paradox of today’s digital age is that the new Liberal majority is now credited largely to McGuinty. Recognition is an issue no more – and so it will be interesting to watch the premier’s views on leadership evolve from within.

How to revive political life? First and perhaps foremost, the Liberals pledged to follow B.C.’s example on electoral reform, introducing a public consultation to potentially redesign the rules of the game: proportional representation is mentioned specifically as an option to study (it’s noteworthy here that B.C. has now formally established a citizen’s assembly, empowered to propose change independent of politicians).

If a purely proportional system had been deployed in the most recent election, McGuinty may well have found himself negotiating his way to the premier’s office (albeit on the strength of a leading Liberal result). Similarly on the federal level, the Progressive Conservative and Alliance parties might choose collaboration over (a rather painful) fusion. Here lies the essence of reform: proportional schemes more fairly and accurately distribute power, facilitating compromise, alliances and greater inclusion.

If such a public process were put in place by the new government, technology should be a key theme for reflection. The Liberals have already promised to introduce online voting in time for the next election. McGuinty’s interest in Ontario’s children is not unrelated here – as he surely understands better than most the shifting attitudes of youth and their refusal to accept any notion that cyberspace ends at democracy’s door.

The Liberals have even offered a clever benchmark for progress – a 10 per cent increase in voter turnout for the next election (clever, since judgement will follow the election itself). Yet voting is a relatively limited and passive form of engagement – insufficient to galvanize interest and strengthen participation.

The Liberal response is the introduction of new participatory forums designed to empower citizens with a real say in policy making. Such bodies, says McGuinty, should include both the public and politicians working in tandem with resources and meaningful mandates. The objective is to broaden decision-making and remove the shackles of central agencies: the hope is greater trust and confidence by extending spheres of influence.

Of course, there are reasons for scepticism. The campaign itself was silent on such issues, calling into question the public’s appetite for involvement. Much depends on the new premier’s office, as more than anywhere else this new approach to governance implies nothing short of culture shock. And in a digital world, a television media driven primarily by sound bites and scandal could not be more ill suited for real experimentation.

Can the Internet serve as a vehicle to galvanize reform? Much depends on transparency, another important theme of the Liberal platform fraught with both promise and danger, and such is the focus of the next column…

Jeffrey Roy ( is an Associate Professor of Governance and Management at the University of Ottawa.