Support grows for ON NDP PMB re increasing Ombudsman powers

Here is a column by freelance writer Cathy Cove, published earlier in the Goderich Signal Star (but not available online) and posted here with her permission. It is about the need and support for an Ontario NDP private members bill that would increase the powers of the Ontario Ombudsman to deal with complaints that are currently not allowed, such as those related to school boards — long overdue in my opinion. See also a related article I posted here ten days ago, with the quote Cove uses in her piece.

SWEEPING SUPPORT FOR NDP PRIVATE MEMBER’S BILL…..IT’S ABOUT TIME!
by Cathy Cove

If you were paying attention last Monday you would have heard the roar of approval from parents, educators and anyone who has had a complaint or concern about the services provided by the Ontario government, as Ontario New Democratic education critic Rosario Marchese rose in the house to introduce a private member’s bill (PMB) that proposes to extend the power of the ombudsman.

Typically the role of Ontario’s ombudsman is to investigate complaints on services provided by the provincial government and its organizations.

Marchese’s PMR proposes to extend the scope of the ombudsman to include not just school boards, but also universities, hospitals, long term care facilities, municipalities, and the police.

A special report in the London Free Press by Jennifer O’Brien (November 13) stated that “During the past five years the ombudsman’s office has received 4,000 complaints – which it couldn’t investigate-about those institutions.”

From an education perspective this initiative seems welcomed by educators and parents alike. Parents like it because it gives them an independent review option in cases where the school board or government’s solutions to issues concerning their children are unfair or simply wrong. The loudest cheers are coming from parents who have come up against the school system based on the delivery of special education and from parents of children who have not seen satisfactory action on bullying issues.

Educators like it because it shines a light on those sometimes ridiculous government or school board policies that look great on paper or during an election campaign, but which when translated to real-time classroom teaching leave much to be desired.

Retired educator Dr. Sandy Crux (crux-of-the-matter.com) eagerly offered her support to the extension of the ombudsman’s role. “The Ontario public, be they parents, patients or caregivers, need to be able to ask someone to investigate issues and events that previously have been ignored or disputed, which is why we should all be in favour of the Marchese PMB,” she said.

MPP Marchese’s bill isn’t anything new. As a matter of fact, when the New Democrats under Bob Rae were the provincial government, I recall a recommendation from parents back then, to that government, for the need of an education ombudsman.

Similarly, during my time on the Ontario Parent Council, through annual reports the OPC made recommendations to the Harris/Eves lead government for pretty much the same thing.

Under the McGuinty government’s watch PC MPP (Durham) John O’Toole introduced virtually the same private member’s bill as Rosario Marchese introduced last Monday. Even more amazing of a recollection is the fact that the McGuinty government’s own MPP (Ancaster, Dundas, Flamborough, Westdale) Ted McMeekin introduced a bill to create something called a “Children’s Education Advocate” that was essentially an education ombudsman who could advocate the cases for individual students and families mired in educational conflict.

Even with a majority government on his side McMeekin’s attempt failed because some on his caucus and the two oppositions didn’t support the idea. As private member’s bills go, this one clearly crosses all party lines as each party has had their kick at this can at one time or another. I have to wonder of the irony that when the NDP and PCs were in government that they panned the idea of extending the reach of the ombudsman, but when in the role of the opposition they appear to see the light.

It’s also easy to see why a government of the day would reject expanded power because the outcome of an objective, impartial investigation could prove embarrassing to a government if findings by the ombudsman point to failure or weakness of legislation, policy, regulations or the delivery of government services.

Calling attention to its weakness isn’t something a government would willingly do. It would be refreshing to see a government be confident in itself and its policies so as to have no fear of what an independent review by the ombudsman may discover, but I’m not holding my breath. As is the case private member bills like this, often sit on the back burner until the house rises and the PMB dies.

I hope this isn’t the case this time for MPP Marchese and that all parties in the house support it. The mounting evidence and incidents tracked by the ombudsman’s office and by the many parent, patient, and user advocacy organizations out there have proven time and again that there is a definite need for such an initiative.

I’ll be keeping close watch on this as we head into 2011 and a provincial election because those third party eyes and ears represent a very critical piece of the transparency and accountability puzzle that we hear so much about during elections.

Here’s hoping!