Federal election needs to be about local politics

First published: October 30, 2008

There is an old adage that goes: All politics is local.

Yet, the Canadian federal political campaign is more about leaders of the four parties than what is going on in Northumberland County. Some strategists say this kind of election is about 90 per cent focused on the national campaign and 10 per cent on local. And, while it is more convenient for strategists to simply brand an entire party and its platform through the persona of a single individual, at the local level this simply does not work.

Instead of a vibrant race between Conservative Rick Norlock, Liberal Paul Macklin, NDP Russ Christianson and Green Party candidate Ralph Torrie debating the issues that affect Cobourg, Port Hope, Brighton, Campbellford and all places in between, we are left to determine whether these men are mouthpieces, which repeat the national campaign’s talking points at public meetings and at the doorstep or independent representatives of this constituency.

What makes this more depressing is this is a landmark election where there are definite differences in policy and approach to the great problems we face: the environment, health care, education, and the war in Afghanistan, among others.

Take the economy for instance. As Americans watched two huge investment banks, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch ,collapse and the stock markets around the world come crashing down, with more failures on the way, Canadian politicians crossed swords over how the turmoil will play out.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper played down the crisis, saying everything is okay. Yet, Liberal leader Stephane Dion blasted the Conservatives saying the federal budget surplus of $13 billion was squandered and now there could be a budget deficit for the first time since 1996. NDP leader Jack Layton called for more regulation of the investment industry. And so, there are three completely different positions on a potential economic meltdown.

But, where does this leave our local candidates. Certainly, the impact on the stock market plays havoc with pensioners dependent on investments for their retirement income. But, what is more worrisome for the average resident in Northumberland is whether or not this will affect local jobs.

With the closure of the Oshawa truck plant and Kraft later this year, it is only the latest assault on Northumberland County’s workforce. Weetabix laid off 27 employees, along with 50 temporary layoffs announced earlier this year. Forty-six people were laid off at Belden. There were seasonal layoffs at Viceroy. And, the future of Collins and Aikman remains hanging in the balance. To list the industries that have closed or relocated elsewhere, it would be embarrassing.

Back in April, Norlock was delivering his tough luck message saying it is not up the Canadian government to solve this problem. And, if GM cannot build trucks people want, like in Japan, then it’s too bad. However, just before calling the election, the Conservatives announced an $80 million grant to Ford Canada and the suspension of a $200-million penalty against General Motors. This was after two-and-a-half years of refusing to do anything for the automotive sector.

Then, there is Brenda Martin, the Trenton woman, who was held in a Mexican jail for more than two years on money laundering charges for which she was convicted. Macklin played a key role raising Martin’s plight and getting action from the government. Norlock and fellow MP Jason Kenny vehemently denied their involvement was politically motivated. While it was improper to debate this at the time, now both men must face scrutiny for their intent.

But, at the heart of all this, is the central question about what these candidates are going to do for Northumberland specifically. For most backbenchers, political life is not that exciting. No doubt, funding announcements leave many with the impression the government is doing something for the riding. But, these handouts are given to all MPs, so it is only really a matter of getting our fair share.

Even more emphasis is placed on helping constituents with problems related to federal matters, like getting a passport or applying for grant or some other kind of paperwork. Simple things like acknowledging 90th birthday parties and special anniversaries are the real meat and potatoes. Arranging a letter from the Prime Minister or sending a birthday card along to someone is often remembered long before a policy platform when standing over the ballot box.

Others will argue the fight is on the doorsteps across the county. By talking to as many people as possible and trying to win them over, a candidate will be successful. And, while this makes a lot of sense, people usually have their minds made up long before anyone rings a doorbell. The real influences are family, friends and personal experience. It only takes on bad encounter, sometime completely unrelated to politics, to make a voter go sour.

So, as the various public meetings and greetings get underway, we cannot allow the candidates to forget the political lesson at the beginning of this column. Instead of allow them to focus on pre-scripted material polished to suit Northumberland audiences, we must press them to set a special agenda solely for us to address the array of complex issues faced at home. Otherwise, what is the point? We might as well go back to the monarchy and allow the divine right to rule become the system rather than a democracy.

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