Toronto Star

February 16, 1999

Risking our children's lives for politics

By Ian Urquhart - Queen's Park
The Toronto Star

THERE IS MUCH finger-pointing at Queen's Park these days over who is to blame for the fact that major reforms to the child welfare system still haven't been passed into law.

The reforms were introduced in the Legislature last October by Janet Ecker, minister of community and social services, after two years of study and half-a-dozen coroners' inquests. The amendments to the Child and Family Services Act - or, in shorthand, Bill 73 - would have given Children's Aid Societies (CAS) more power to intervene when a child was perceived to be in danger.

Had Bill 73 been enacted into law, CAS spokespersons say that it would have prevented the death last week of a 13-month-old Scarborough baby, allegedly murdered by her father.

But when the Legislature rose for the Christmas recess, Bill 73 still had not been passed, and now it won't become law before spring at the earliest.

The Tory government blames the opposition parties, both the New Democrats and the Liberals. The opposition, in turn, blames the Tories.

First, let's consider the New Democrats. While generally supportive of Bill 73, they came under pressure from unions and others to demand public hearings on the legislation before it became law.

The two unions representing CAS workers - the Ontario Public Services Employees Union and the Canadian Union of Public Employees - have a legitimate beef they want to air in hearings: The legislation would dramatically increase their workload and the government should commit to a corresponding increase in CAS funding. Otherwise, they say, there will be a lot of stressed-out CAS workers.

As for the Liberals, they also called for public hearings on Bill 73 when it was first introduced, but they dropped the demand under pressure from various child advocacy groups that wanted the legislation passed quickly.

The Liberals have nonetheless come under attack from the government for their procedural antics just before the Christmas recess. Some Liberal MPPs - notably Sean Conway, minister of education in the Peterson government - filibustered proceedings in an attempt to force the government to hold a vote on its decision to pay Al McLean's legal bills.

(McLean, you will recall, is a backbench Tory and former speaker who was accused of sexual harassment by a former staffer. The Liberals wanted a vote on his case because it would have split the Tory caucus wide open.)

The government chose, instead, to ``prorogue'' the Legislature, which means Bill 73 will have to be reintroduced in the spring when the MPPs are due back. Worse, in the interim there can be no formal public hearings on the bill as, officially speaking, it no longer exists. And when the Legislature resumes for what is expected to be a brief pre-election session, there may be no time for hearings.

The Liberals refuse to take the fall for this, however. They argue that the government did not have to prorogue the Legislature but chose to do so merely to avoid more embarrassing talk about McLean.

They also note that, if the government were truly keen to see Bill 73 enacted, it could have invoked ``time allocation'' - a form of closure - to push it through the Legislature in a matter of days. The Tories have not been shy about using closure on numerous previous bills but, for whatever reason, decided not to in this case.

So where does that leave Bill 73 and child welfare reforms?

All three parties say they support the bill and want it passed. But the NDP is still holding out for public hearings.

Three weeks ago, Frances Lankin, the NDP critic for children's issues, wrote Ecker with a suggestion: that the government proceed now with informal public hearings ``using Bill 73 as the draft of new legislation that you will introduce whenever the Legislature resumes sitting.'' She has not yet heard back from the minister.

Lankin's proposal makes sense; it would meet the demand for public hearings without holding up passage of the bill in the spring. But from the government's point of view, it would also give a platform to the unions, not to mention child advocates who think Bill 73 does not go far enough.

The government, then, may prefer just to wait for the spring and then blackmail the opposition parties into supporting quick passage of the bill, lest they be held responsible for the deaths of any more children.

Such is politics in a pre-election parliament.

Ian Urquhart is The Star's provincial affairs columnist.

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