Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Ontario seeks more powers for premier

Ontario community safety minister, Monte Kwinter, is framing his Bill 56 as a precautionary measure in lieu of a potential influenza pandemic.

By way of amending the Emergency Management Act, the Employment Standards Act, and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, Bill 56 would grant the Premier administrative powers over any district or municipality together with the power to restrict popular moblity, force labour for the premier, close any institutions (including businesses and hospitals), remove private property, and freeze prices of goods.

A state of emergency has several time limits, the provincial cabinet can extend it for 14 days after 14 days have expired and the provincial legislature can extend it after that for another period of time.

Emergency powers and planning for health oriented disasters (in which this Bill is framed, but not to which the Bill is limited) is a dreadfully important task to undertake by local and provincial governments. The experience of New Orleans cannot be over emphasised nor the experience of the 2003 blackout in Ontario ignored.

First, is it necessarily prudent to suppose that the highest level of government in a province is necessarily the most compotent at dealing with a disaster? Can they respond or coordinate a response more effectively than a municipality, or even a non-governmental organization? Giving the premier power to do what is necessary is one thing, that they would be the most efficient and effective at "immediate action to prevent, reduce or mitigate a danger of major proportions" is quite another and should be qualified with this Bill.

Secondly, giving the premier emergency powers over muncipalities could hand the principles that govern a response over to partisan politics. We see this currently happening in New Orleans where, the Washington Post reports, the "nation's response to Katrina is cleaving the public down partisan lines as a domestic issue." In addition to the question "how could this be prevented" it also related to my third point.

Thirdly, centralizing power in a response to a disaster would rather than unify the population at the ground, the people against the disaster, it would have people unload a sense of personal responsibility upon the provincial government of whom they would wait orders. A spokesperson officially representing electrical engineers in Ontario says that during the 2003 power outage his people volunteered to help out in the crisis, they did not need a law to force them to work (reported in a Canoe article). Rather than being inspired by disaster to volunteerism, labourers would be threatened by law.

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