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Thomas Casstevens

The Ontario Legislature: A Political Analysis, Graham White (University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1989)

This is a book to be savored, not skimmed, by lovers of legislatures and students of politics. The author's familiarity with his subject is evident throughout (as befits an academic political scientist and former legislative intern). The prose is lucid and the exposition is evocative. I found myself recalling my days as a Page in Iowa and Washington, D.C.

The book is an insider's account that should prove useful to politicians, scholars, students, and citizens in general. The customs that govern the flow of work within the legislature are described with insight and understanding. The relations between the legislature and its environment, aside from the cabinet, are not stressed. Elections, for example, are mentioned only incidentally. The analytical focus is on internal processes.

A conspicuous strength of the book is its analytical prose. Numbers in tables and text are few--but chosen with insight and presented with care. The analysis can easily be extended by statisticians. I note for example that the statistical distributions of the lengths of tenure of legislators (Table 2.2), the lengths of time taken for passage of government bills (Table 5.2), and the lengths of time taken for second reading debates (pp. 123-124) are all roughly exponential, as theoretically expected.

Ontario's legislature is comparable to other legislatures. And this book makes that clear, implicitly with its numbers and explicitly with its comparisons. Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States are grist for the author's mill. The comparisons are judicious, and the footnotes constitute a comparative bibliography--comprehensive on Ontario. Perhaps the book's view of order in the United Kingdom is a bit too rosy and its view of chaos in the United States is a bit too harsh. The British Parliament and American Congress are converging, albeit slowly. Cabinet government is tending to parliamentary government. (Philip Norton has chronicled the recent rise of backbenchers in the British Parliament.) Congressional government is tending to presidential government. (Richard Neustadt has chronicled the recent growth of executive clearance in the American Congress.)

The book's historical focus is the recent (partial) conversion of the legislature from an arena for party discipline into a body for transforming bills, a partial shift from the traditional style of the United Kingdom towards the traditional style of the United States. This change was accelerated but not caused by minority government in Ontario. The change is (and may remain) incomplete, as stressed by the author, but it dates our conventional vocabulary. We--politicians, academics, and citizens--need a new vocabulary to describe the realities of contemporary legislatures. Walter Bagehot (1867) and Woodrow Wilson (1885) are quite passÚ.

The past generation has witnessed the transformation of a spate of legislatures in provinces and states from part-time to full-time. This is styled as professionalization or institutionalization by political scientists. The process is irreversible for all practical purposes, making this book a benchmark in the history of the legislature of Ontario.

Thomas W. Casstevens, Department of Political Science, Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 12 no 4

Last Updated: 2020-03-03