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John Holtby

Inside The Pink Palace - Ontario Legislature Internship Essays. Graham White, editor, The Ontario Legislature Internship Programme/The Canadian Political Science Association, Toronto, 1993, 309 pages.

In the mid 1970s the "Trinkets" took the Ontario Legislature by storm. Not a musical group, the Trinkets were the first band of interns who pioneered a new partnership between provincial politicians and the academic community. They were given that nom de guerre by a veteran Queen's Park columnist who saw the interns within the context of a political culture which he probably felt was expanding excessively and losing the intimacy of the men's club of yesteryear. He labelled the interns the latest trinkets in an expansion of the services and facilities for MPPs. Only five years earlier members were provided with individual offices, half a secretary and a telephone. The expansion was getting to be a bit much - more trinkets!

Patterned after the successful internship program in the House of Commons under the auspices of the Canadian Political Science Association, the Ontario program had several goals. For the M.P.P. the interns would provide badly needed additional staff capacity. The intern would see the real world of the provincial politician. The community, particularly the academic community would learn more about the legislature and its political denizens. The dearth of authoritative writing about the provincial legislative assembly would be supplemented by a requirement that each intern submit to the academic director, a paper on some aspect of the legislature.

Inside the Pink Palace is a compilation of some of the papers Interns prepared between 1987 and 1992. They cover the predictable field of Ontario legislature life. The editor of the volume is the current academic director Graham White, one of the original Trinkets. His own internship paper remains an important chronicle of the development of the contemporary Ontario legislature.

Remembering that the Interns are named by the selection committee for a variety of reasons one should not expect these papers to be doctoral dissertations. Thankfully they are not, although some are heavy with academic theoretical debate and references which will be of interest to political scientists. The goal of the paper is a tough one - to illuminate an aspect of political reality from the privileged position of the trusted fly on the wall.

The devastation wrought upon our Parliaments by a fickle electorate brings a high turnover in the membership of these bodies. It results in much re´nvention of the wheel by newcomers. It is therefore not surprising that some themes have remained constant over the years, such as the inordinate time and resources focused by both opposition and government on preparation for the oral question period and the dependence on the Queen's Park media to communicate party messages. The oral question period is traditionally defended as a great democratic accountability session. Christopher Jones describes an interesting scene from inside the NDP caucus before that party came to power. It is one in which the leadership and the caucus researchers dominate question period with minimal involvement by private members who may wish to raise questions of peripheral news value or of important local interest. The victory of partyism over the needs and interests of local representatives is familiar in many Canadian parliamentary bodies.

Other aspects of legislature life are new and the interns examination is a useful one. Those who feel that members of legislatures should have a role in the scrutiny or ratification of order-in-council appointments to government posts should read carefully the contribution of Valerie Moore and Heather Plewes. Several Canadian parliamentary bodies have attempted to involve themselves in the scrutiny of political appointments or have attempted to expand their role to share the Crown's authority to make political appointments. When parliamentarians attempt to cross the dividing line between Crown responsibility and parliamentary scrutiny the results are inevitably unsatisfactory.

There is a thread running though these papers, although it is not likely intentional. It is the angst of parliamentarians coming to grips with the parliamentary form of responsible government in a society which is profoundly influenced by American congressional democracy. While reading Catherine Curtis' and Gordon Wong's comparison of the Rae NDP caucus in opposition with the Peterson government Liberal caucus, and Gerard McDonald's assessment of the Rae government NDP caucus I recalled one former Ottawa MP telling of his expectations after getting elected. "I thought I would come down to Ottawa, sit in a big chair and make decisions about how the country would be run." Canadians generally do not know much about their parliamentary monarchic form of government. They start, like the ex-MP, with the na´ve thought that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is real, and a part of the Canadian fabric. In response to dissatisfaction by their membership both the Liberal and the NDP parliamentary groups have had to significantly restructure their caucus structures when in government to meet the demands of the caucus for more authority over new legislative initiatives.

Donald Figol assesses the lot of the Parliamentary Assistant and concludes that the role in the present administration is a marginal one. In doing so he highlights an ongoing discussion which is taking place here and at Westminster - that the number of parliamentarians who hold offices of Crown pay, whips, house leaders, committee chairs, parliamentary secretaries, junior ministers, etc, has grown so large that the natural competition between the front and back benches of the parties which should encourage mutual performance has largely been bought off with public money. In Ontario for over half a century members have been paid supplementary amounts for attendance at committee meetings during periods of parliamentary recess. While initially it was a way to fudge low parliamentary indemnities it has now become part of the Whip's reward and punishment system, a discipline founded on discretionary public expenditure rather than party nominations and constituency party pressure.

Perhaps the most important paper for current political practitioners is by Rachel Grasham who describes the selling of the 1992 NDP budget. Several proposals for a reformed budgetary process are currently in the market place, including one by the elite Public Policy Forum. They focus on diminished budgetary secrecy and greater public consultation, usually involving a parliamentary committee. Grasham reports that the NDP have successfully used communications, marketing strategies and caucus structures rather than parliamentary structures to satisfy members and the public. Says Grasham, "Members firmly believed that this was a new, more open, consultative process based on public education, in keeping with NDP philosophy. This elevated their self-confidence as well as their confidence in the government's future chances of success. Several MPPs commented that they thought it was a turning point, and that for the first time, they felt that the government had a chance of being reelected."

In less than two decades the internship program has paid off handsomely, as this collection illustrates. Former interns carry a legacy of insider knowledge. Sufficient time has passed to see former interns in positions of influence in academe, business, professional and public service, journalism, and the like. Their experience generally brings a sympathy for the person who is prepared to serve the public by standing for public office. Janice Duggan arrived "believing that politicians were overpaid and under-worked and that most of their efforts were self-interested, with reelection rather than the public interest as the crux of their efforts." She found the opposite to be true. After an excellent insiders description of the frustrations involved in the politics of Private Members' Business she is left frustrated and ambivalent about the system rather than the participants. It is a commonly held belief.

The function of the internship program has changed. Members have many more resources at their disposal than they did fifteen years ago. Staffing and resources for the Legislative Assembly has grossly proliferate with the consequential ballooning of its budget. We are entitled to ask if we are exponentially better governed, is public policy better considered, or is it as one retired party leader responded, "I'm afraid most of the resources get put into a longer Christmas card list". Perhaps this is a subject for a future intern paper, and like Inside the Pink Palace it would be worth reading.

John Holtby, Brockville, Ontario


Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 17 no 1
1994






Last Updated: 2018-07-31