It’s been a week now since the surprise resignation of Ontario’s Premier, Dalton McGuinty. There is still no word on why he chose to leave power, or when our province might return to an ordinarily functioning government, which he prorogued upon leaving. Some suspect the upcoming inquiry into his government’s costly cancellation of power plants as a motive, others that it was an attempt to buy time to broker a deal with nearly half a million public employees, facing a bill he introduced to freeze their wages and curb union rights. I’d also be inclined to bet toward possible corruption charges coming from Quebec, or the ongoing internal chaos rocking the Liberal party as a whole. Whatever prompted this decision, it’s left our province without a government, and it’ll be interesting to see how long that can continue.

Dalton McGuinty (artist’s conception)

Last year Belgium broke records (held by countries like Iraq and Cambodia) for the longest time spent without a democratic “government”. When no clear majority emerged in the June 2010 elections, it took until December of the next year to work out a coalition. In spite of this, life went on in Belgium with remarkably few interruptions and the country actually fared better in terms of GDP and unemployment than the EU average. Unlike Belgium, though, we’re not just bickering over a coalition – our Parliament has been prorogued and we have no “caretaker government”. We’ve simply had a level of government go dark.

Why prorogue? Harris didn’t need to shut down parliament to leave office in disgrace, neither did Mulroney or Cretien. Did Dalton prorogue so that he could step down, or did he step down so that he could prorogue? What were they afraid of? What did they hope to accomplish? Most importantly, why do we allow minority governments the ability to simply shut down parliament at their convenience?

McGuinty already has a poor record when it comes to calling early elections for strategic reasons. Proroguing until his party can hold a convention and find a suitable replacement shows a total disregard for parliamentary democracy. Manipulating the process in this way hasn’t been popular so far, and this latest move will likely only stoke the fires of further resentment. Whatever the perceived benefits of this move, it’s hard to see it as anything but a disaster for the party.

Nationally speaking, the Liberal Party has been imploding over the past couple of years. After the last election which saw them virtually switch places with the NDP and left Harper in charge, this has only accelerated. Provinces have also seen this breakdown, most notably in Quebec with the resounding defeat and disgrace handed to Charest, and now seems poised to happen next spring in BC. Stepping out of what seemed like endless incumbent governments at both levels, the party is virtually collapsing. This has been coming for some time, as the party became institutionalized, almost indistinguishable from the rest of government bureaucracy. They became legendarily ineffective and corrupt, and seemingly abandoned all principles in favour of an opportunistic mix of conservative policies and semi-socialist slogans.

Behind the scenes, the party also saw a viscous power struggle in the wake of Cretien’s departure between fiscal conservatives (led by Paul Martin) and more traditional liberals (led by Hamilton’s former deputy PM Sheila Copps). This battle was won by Martin’s side, who became Prime Minister, but only accelerated the party’s decline. Many are now hoping that the entry of Justin Trudeau (and possibly McGuinty) into federal Liberal politics could reverse this trend, but at this point things look pretty grim for the Grits.

Given this state of affairs, McGuinty’s move is likely political suicide for his party. Whoever takes power in wake of these big-name departures, they almost never win the next election. McGuinty should know this, his initial victory came against Ernie Eves, after Harris resigned. And so we find ourselves asking again; why? If McGuinty gets his way, we might never know.

The really interesting question now, though, isn’t just about the fate of the Liberal party. Unless Parliament can be revived, we face the possibility of a prolonged period without an entire level of government. What then, if we face a situation like Belgium, where life simply goes on without them? Were I an MPP right now, it’s not the creeping irrelevance of the Liberal Party I’d be worried about so much as Queens Park itself. As governments go, provinces are essentially middle-management. After two decades of cuts and downloading, municipalities have been forced to take on many provincial responsibilities, while still sending large amounts of tax revenues “upward”. In too many ways, politics in Canada have devolved into a mutual bickering match where each level of government seeks to balance it’s budget at the cost of the other two. Perhaps instead of amalgamating cities (a financial and political failure), we should have been taking a harder look at certain redundant levels of government? I ask only half-jokingly…

When “representatives” have this level of control over the process, they generally cease being representative in any meaningful way. With the ability to call early elections, prorogue, set their own pay and skip work whenever they feel, it’s hard to pretend that they “work for us” in any meaningful way. McGuinty’s latest (and hopefully last) move shows a view of Ontario’s government which can be described only as “mine”. Now that he’s finished, he’s effectively willing his position to a successor as if it were a piece of property. What does that say about parliament? More importantly, where does that leave us?