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Opinion

‘Dying on the order paper’

Published on 26/05/2014

This Maytree Opinion is not a murder mystery, as the title might suggest. Rather it is a look at what happens to the public business when an election is called, as is the case in Ontario at the moment and will be the case nationally next year.

In a parliamentary government, as the Ontario government website says, “when a general election is called, any bill that did not reach Royal Assent is deemed to have ‘died on the Order Paper,’ (i.e., did not become law). Bills cannot be carried over between Parliaments, but similar bills might be introduced by members in the new Parliament.”

This is true not only for legislation before parliament, but for funding arrangements for various programs and institutions which have not been concluded before the election writ was dropped. Routinely government ministries send out letters to the affected advising them that things have been suspended until the election is over and the new government has formed. Fortunately at the provincial and federal level election periods are relatively short, at least compared to municipal elections. In Ontario, campaigns last 28 days. Federal campaigns must be at least 36 days long, and usually last between 36 and 60 days. Thus, the essential business of government is suspended from four to nine weeks, and usually longer as the new government organizes itself to govern.

A look at the list of bills which have died on the order paper in Ontario as a result of the current election reveals what a broad range of public business comes before the legislature.

  • Confirming the value of immigration, inclusivity and cultural diversity in Ontario
  • Giving the City of Toronto the right to adopt the ranked ballet voting system
  • Ensuring Ontario’s minimum wage is adjusted every year
  • Restoring planning powers to municipalities
  • Protecting and restoring the ecological health of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin
  • Protecting vulnerable and elderly people from abuse
  • Amending the Workplace Safety and Insurance act
  • Introducing a number of acts protecting employees

It is easy to think that these bills dying on the order paper is merely a matter for elected officials and public servants, a relatively brief interregnum in their routine. But of course that would be wrong because many others are affected.

Some of them are people who would benefit from the legislation when it is enacted: workers with better protections; the elderly; or people in the Great Lakes basin.

But there are many others who are affected. People who work in organizations whose revenue streams depend on public funding may find their organizations are cash-strapped as they wait for their funding arrangements to be completed. Their necessity of buying groceries for their family doesn’t take a five-to-ten-week election break. And the clients of these organizations face the risk of disrupted service.

There is a still wider impact, however, and that is one felt by our democracy. Almost none of these legislative initiatives are born fully formed. Each one of them has a long history of development, much of it emanating from the community. In most cases thousands of hands have helped form them and usher them from vague aspirations to very tangible instruments of public policy, the kind of thing that can be captured in a bill before parliament and a public policy which can be implemented.

A good example is the Registered Disability Savings Plan, the federal legislation which established an instrument which has been vital for families with a member living with a disability to be able to plan confidently for that person’s future. The RDSP began as a vague idea that something should be done to encourage and leverage the resources families put aside for the care of their member living with a disability. There was much discussion and engagement within the disability community, led by the Planned Lifetime Activity Network (PLAN).

After the idea achieved some consensus support in that community, PLAN began to engage others: the NGO community leadership in Canada (including Maytree), the public policy community in order to give it a policy framework (including Caledon), the financial community in order to get some advice about viable financial products, the advocacy community to help find entry points into government, the public service to formalize the actual instrument, and finally the political world to get it passed into law.

The RDSP is thought of as a triumph in its generation and successful adoption, thanks in good part to the work of PLAN, and there were many hands at work along the way. As such, it is an example of how such work is done, much of it by people engaged as citizens and amateurs.

When a bill dies on the order paper, all that good work is truncated. Once the next government takes office, particularly if it is from a different political party, much of that work needs to be done anew. The arguments need to be made again, the advocacy needs to be remounted, the briefs updated and re-sold. For those whose jobs entail doing exactly those things, this may not be particularly dispiriting. For those whose engagement was as a citizen, trying to create better conditions for their community, this can be very dispiriting. It can seem like all the previous effort and achievement has gone for nought.

In most of these cases they were not working to achieve something of direct personal benefit, but something on behalf of a larger good. Having once again to put their shoulder to the wheel, very often at personal expense, seems a lot to ask. If they decline to do so, saying that they’ve made their contribution, who can blame them?

But we all lose, and our democracy loses. Anything that makes people less inclined to participate and be engaged with their community lessens us all. While not all political parties agree, having people deeply engaged in their community in generating improvements is healthy both for the community and the individual. Nurturing processes that can take these improvements to scale and be implemented at a policy and legislative level is democracy at work.

So maybe “dying on the order paper” is a mystery after all. It is a mystery we need to solve before it claims too many more victims, the ultimate victim being our willingness to engage in our democracy at all.

Summary

When a bill dies on the order paper, all the good work done by community leadership, the public policy community, and by citizens and amateurs is truncated.

Topic(s)

Civic engagement