Democratic deficit a priority, especially for local MP

First published:
Dec 17, 2003

With the swearing in of a new Prime Minister last Friday, Northumberland MP Paul Macklin gushed over Paul Martin and the new faces in government.

But Mr. Macklin, while not selected for cabinet, is a member of the “democratic deficit” committee discussing new ways to improve communications between members of parliament and constituents.

This is a noble goal. But the public may not be ready to listen to any more promises from Liberal governments and expect much in return.

Just ask the poor, working poor and children of those families in Northumberland County. Liberal MPP Lou Rinaldi recently defended the Ontario government’s plan not raise the minimum wage to $8 and hour all at once or raise social assistance rates immediately.

The Northumberland Coalition Against Poverty tried to pressure Mr. Rinaldi to keep his government’s pledge during the fall election campaign to assist those who were suffering under the eight years of the Tory regime. Social assistance rates were reduced, then frozen under former Premier Mike Harris. And the minimum wage was left at the same levels.

About 19 per cent of families live in Poverty, according to a recent Kawartha Pine Ridge District health unit study, which covers Northumberland and surrounding counties.

Rinaldi stumbled around the issue expressing sympathy and “not wanting to raise false hopes”.

And then he said the government has to work within the financial constraints of the deficit left by the previous Tory government.

Ah yes, the mantra of the provincial Liberals these days. They can’t fulfill their election promises because of the $5.6 billion deficit. The bad news comes only after a post-election audit was done.

In fact, the Liberals had a pretty good idea of the terrible financial state of the province long before.

On June 3, 2003, at the standing committee on estimates, the body responsible for tracking expenditures and budgets for the province, NDP leader Howard Hampton grilled Janet Ecker, finance minister at the time, saying her budget was in deep trouble. The notes from Hansard prove most interesting.

At the time, the Tories were planning $2.2 billion in asset sales, possibly getting rid of TVO, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and some others. But Ecker failed to identify what the government planned to unload.

Ecker was also touting $720 million in new expenditures to fight SARS, after several devastating months of fighting the disease and its impact on the provincial economy.

As if that was not enough, the government also needed to find $700 million in further savings.

Hampton also noted the Tories were saying economic growth slowed to two per cent rather than expected three per cent, meaning a loss of $620 million in projected tax revenue.

The total shortfall was $4.24 billion, Hampton said.

Almost immediately after Hampton revealed these figures, Liberal finance critic Gerry Phillips ran through the same numbers, adding another $770 million of federal funding the Tories were expecting. But it was contingent on a significant federal surplus. He doubted the money would arrive.

And there you go. Total $5.01 billion.

If there is a democratic deficit in this country it is because politicians run elections filled with promises and then break them. It crushes the public’s confidence in politicians, government, the electoral process and democracy.

How can there be any doubt the provincial Liberals knew as early as June 2003 there was a $5 billion deficit. There own financial critic was touting the numbers.

That was plenty of time before the September election to alter policy and election platforms to reflect the fiscal reality. Then there would not be any reason to delay or break pledged made during the campaign.

But no, they didn’t. And they won. And now we will listen to their galling excuses.

For those most vulnerable in our community, Mr. Rinaldi’s defence of his party’s position means the working poor and those on social assistance continue not to have enough money to live on (and still face an increase in hydro rates. But that is just another broken promise)

Which brings us back to Mr. Macklin and his task of ridding our country of its democratic deficit. Prime Minister Paul Martin has gone to a great deal of trouble to change the face of the federal government. He also made many promises during his leadership bid.

Already Mr. Martin is facing criticism this past weekend about his plans to help municipalities by redirecting a portion of the gas tax. There are suggestions it might be delayed.

With all the public relations going into making Canadians believe there is a “new” government, it already doesn’t look good.

Mr. Macklin, if you are truly serious about making a difference, then focus your attentions on your government and your fellow Liberals in Ontario. Stop the hype.

If you end up acting like your colleagues in Queen’s Park, then you will find yourselves in deep trouble facing angry voters in Ontario next spring.

Isn’t it time to deal with the democratic deficit by simply putting an end to such elaborate games. It only breed cynicism, distrust and sucks the life out of our democracy.

It will take an effort by municipal, provincial and federal politicians working long and hard to regain the public’s trust.

So if you can put all that in a box and wrap it nicely with a bow, Northumberland County residents might have an even better Christmas.

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