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  • Writer's pictureThomas Borcsok

When MPPs Behave Badly: A Case Study

Thomas considers whether Ontario’s Members Integrity Act, 1994 should be amended to include stricter rules and regulations governing the integrity and ethical behaviour of Ontario’s Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs).

When politicians can lie, bend the truth for political advantage, or spout dangerous partisan rhetoric, Ontarians suffer. When our elected representatives fail to uphold the integrity of the office they occupy, they are putting our democracy in peril. Perhaps it is time to be more prescriptive with the type of behaviour which Ontarians find acceptable and unacceptable in their MPPs.

While watching question period in Queen’s Park on March 9, 2022, I was aghast (but unsurprised) to see the Progressive Conservative Party’s (PCs) government house leader, Paul Calandra, deride the official member of the opposition, Andrea Horwath, for asking the government to explain its decision to lift mask mandates.

In particular, Horwath pointed out that the head of the province’s COVID-19 science table indicated it was “too early” to lift the mask mandate—an attitude shared by other epidemiological experts in Ontario.

If the Ford government’s decision was not based on science and the advice of experts, what was it based on? As many expected, we consequently found ourselves in the midst of a sixth wave of the pandemic, which the province’s public health agency has linked to the premature lifting of such mandates.

Instead of responding to Horwath’s question, Calandra took the opportunity to purposefully twist facts in a deceitful manner and mockingly refer to his fellow elected representative as “Dr. Horwath”—suggesting that she was speaking on matters beyond her expertise.

He and his fellow PC MPPs further jeered and booed their colleague while she tried to point out the falsities in his response. For anyone who has watched question period at the provincial or federal level in recent years, this type of childish behaviour is not surprising.

Even so, it was a despicable display for the MPP from Markham-Stouffville, and I invite his constituents and all Ontarians to watch the moment and witness our government “at work” (starting at 1:11).

In particular, here is some of what the PC’s government house leader had to say:

“I need not remind this House that it was the [NDP] that voted to actually fire the Chief Medical Officer of Health, and we said no. We value the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health. We value the advice of the health care professionals . . . They said we couldn’t respond quickly to the pandemic. We did.”

Calandra’s suggestion that the NDP wanted to fire the current Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH), Dr. Kieran Moore, is false. The NDP were critical of the the former CMOH, Dr. David Williams, who was widely faulted for a lack of effective leadership during the early pandemic.

Many expressed concern that Dr. Williams was capitulating to the will of the Ford government, whose COVID-19 response seemed to be based on satisfying its own interests, and not on epidemiology. In 2020, the Office of the Auditor General of Ontario (AG) released a report on the province’s COVID-19 response which found that the province’s CMOH “did not take a sufficient leadership role in the response to COVID-19.”

Calandra’s claim that the government responded quickly to the pandemic is also false. The AG’s 2020 report further found that “the [government] does not have effective systems and procedures to identify, learn and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic on an organized and timely basis.”

In a 2021 follow-up report, the AG highlighted additional problems, including that COVID-19 restrictions were implemented without sufficient consultation and documentation—i.e. the government’s focus when consulting was not on stakeholders who are most impacted by the pandemic. If COVID-19 measures were not implemented to aid those most impacted by the pandemic, who did they benefit? Alas, do not expect an answer from the Ford government.

“[The Leader of the Opposition] and her party did not support what the Chief Medical Officer of Health—and the previous Chief Medical Officer of Health—was advising the government. His advice has led Ontario to being the best jurisdiction in North America when it comes to the pandemic response.”

Ironically, Calandra is attempting to paint the NDP as an opponent to evidence-based decision making, despite reports by the AG suggesting it is the Ford government that makes decisions without supporting evidence.

“They didn’t agree with him, so—well, let’s fire him, because Dr. Horwath knows better than the Chief Medical Officer of Health.”

For those wondering, a lie does not become truth by virtue of repeating it (thrice!). Lacking any substance, it is clear that Calandra’s diatribe was nothing more than a shameful attempt to discredit and disrespect the NDP leader and bolster PC support for the ensuing election.

The moment was evocative of playground bullying, not the decorum we should expect from our elected representatives. Although we have become far too familiar with these types of childish displays of partisan toxicity on the provincial stage, what does it achieve for Ontarians? Nothing.

In fact, worse than nothing. Through our taxes, we are paying the salary of Calandra and those like him who would rather play politics and win re-election than help everyday Ontarians by pressing for positive change. When so many Ontarians are expected to exercise some element of team-work in their everyday life, why should we expect any less from our elected representatives?

The numerous reports from the AG on the Ford government’s spotty response—not only to the COVID-19 pandemic, but to the climate crisis—should be sufficient indication that our current government is failing us. That said, I agreed with Calandra on one point; “if you’re going to be a responsible government, what you have to do is do what’s in the best interests of the people of the province of Ontario.” I would suggest his government take his own advice.

What recourse do we have when we cannot trust the veracity of what our elected representatives do and say? Regulated professionals, such as lawyers and doctors, have rules of conduct which prescribe acceptable behaviour for practicing members. For example, in Ontario lawyers are required by the Law Society of Ontario’s Rules of Professional Conduct to “encourage public respect for and try to improve the administration of justice.”

The Members Integrity Act is provincial legislation which sets out certain prohibited activities for Ontario’s MPPs. Prescribed conduct includes accepting gifts, money, or fees for the performance of an MPP’s official duties. That said, the Act does not go as far to prohibit MPPs from engaging in deceitful behaviour in the execution of their public duties.

On the other hand, in the execution of their duties, lawyers are required not to act in a manner which weakens or destroys public confidence in our legal institutions. This may include making irresponsible allegations or criticism which is unsupported by a bona fide belief in its real merit. Lawyers found to be in breach of the Rules of Professional Conduct risk facing discipline up to and including disbarment. We should hold our elected officials to a similar standard, instead of allowing them to lie or discredit and undermine opponents for political advantage.

The Members Integrity Act should be amended to prohibit conduct which weakens or destroys public confidence in democratically elected institutions. This may include prohibiting MPPs from purposefully making false or misleading claims in order to gain political advantage. Ontario’s independent Integrity Commissioner would serve as the arbiter of acceptable conduct. This would be a step towards accountability and integrity.

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