AS LAWYERS ARE DISAPPEARING FROM CAMPAIGN OFFICES ACROSS THE COUNTRY, THEY ARE ALSO OCCUPYING FEWER SEATS IN THE LEGISLATURE, PARTICULARLY THOSE FRONT AND CENTRE.
Twenty four years ago, when I first leant my considerable envelope-stuffing and stamp-licking expertise to a political campaign, you could not walk into a campaign office without knocking over a lawyer. At the time, all three party leaders in both the federal and provincial houses were lawyers and Attorneys General McMurtry then Scott sat with their Premiers on the front benches of the Ontario Legislature. To that point, every Premier and Prime Minister in my lifetime had been a lawyer.
A quarter century later, it is not unusual for me and my coerced husband to be the only lawyers in our local campaign office. In the last provincial election, I spent some time volunteering on 8 different campaigns across the province, as part of the OBA Votes initiative. Excluding the other OBA members who came along with me, of the dozens of volunteers I met, only one was a lawyer. This is particularly surprising considering that 5 of the candidates were themselves lawyers. Of course, many lawyers still play seminal roles in campaigns but lawyers as campaign workers are a dying breed.
As lawyers are disappearing from campaign offices across the country, they are also occupying fewer seats in the legislature, particularly those front and centre. The 2008 federal election was the first time since confederation that none of the leaders of the three main parties were lawyers; the 2011 election was the second (in fact, of all five party leaders who ran, only Elizabeth May is a lawyer).
Following the 2011 provincial election, there is only one lawyer in each of Ontario’s opposition caucuses – and in a minority government, the views of the opposition caucuses are obviously critical in determining what legislation is passed and what amendments are made along the way. In 1966, there were 23 lawyers in Ontario’s 108-seat twenty-seventh parliament. Today’s 107-seat legislative chamber houses 13. In 1966, lawyers occupied 10 of the legislature’s front-row seats. In 2011 they occupy 5. Of the three party leaders in the Ontario Legislature, only one is a lawyer and, perhaps most surprisingly, there is just a single lawyer among the nine permanent members of the Legislature’s Standing Committee on Justice Policy.
The first decade of this century saw the Attorneys General moved from the front row of the legislature. In the last parliamentary session, the AG sat directly behind the Education Minister. This is an obvious and irresistible metaphor for justice issues taking a back seat. The OBA raised this unfortunate optic as we met MPPs in the last election campaign. We are happy to see the return of the AG to the front bench but the growing dearth of lawyers in the Legislature and on key committees remains a concern.
We know that education and health care are of critical importance but we also know that taking our justice system for granted is nothing short of perilous. On the day you discover your justice system has not been properly tended and has lost the respect of the citizenry, you are likely many years too late to fix it. At a time when the independence of lawyers has been threatened in even the most mature democracies, lawyers can no longer afford to take a back seat in policy development. The OBA continues to have significant success in shaping public policy but it is a growing struggle as legislative decision-makers who “think like lawyers” are increasingly rare.
In the last election, the “OBA Votes” initiative saw 30 OBA members volunteering on 23 different campaigns. Many were first-time volunteers who have said they will return. Even these numbers were enough to create a at least faint buzz about the presence of the OBA in political circles. We will make it our mission in the next election to turn that buzz up to a fevered pitch and to bring the voice of lawyers in politics along with it.
About the Author
Elizabeth Hall is the OBA's director of Government and Stakeholder Relations.