Lack of trust hurting local politics

First published: October 21, 2007

Trust is the cornerstone to political life. Lately, it seems Northumberland County residents are being tested more than usual, especially with the current provincial election underway. But, this is certainly not the only hint of credibility being strained.

For decades, voters took political promises with a grain of salt. It was nothing to have a politician stumping in some far-flung corner, handing out all kinds of guarantees, if elected. Some would become reality, but many would not. But, in recent political history, it was former Premier Mike Harris’ government in the early 1990s that is responsible for the current expectations. His Common Sense revolution was executed with the precision of watchmaker. This became the gold standard. Suddenly, voters were astonished when he went down his list, cutting welfare, shrinking the number of MPPs, downloading services on to municipalities and so on. Unlike the pragmatic leaders before him, who skated around their election promises, when the current reality demanded a change, Harris barely missed a beat. Driven by his neo-conservative ideology, there was not room for compromise and any hint of argument was dismissed as a “special interest” trying to derail the popular will.

And, this current election bares out this expectation. Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty is consistently under fire for his “broken promises” for a tax hike, not shutting down coal-fired plants, among others. In fact, Progressive Conservative leader John Tory is basing his entire campaign on the slogan “Leadership”, suggesting both directly and indirectly, he will not break his campaign promises. Even NDP leader Howard Hampton has commercials running on television attacking the broken promises.

Then, we have the local candidates. Only last week, MPP Lou Rinaldi was promising to bring back the drivers test centre to the region, after years of complaints by some, mainly elderly drivers, who have to go to Peterborough, Oshawa or Belleville for services. Progressive Conservative candidate Cathy Galt also said she agreed with Rinaldi’s suggestion and would work towards it. Carolyn Blaind, the NDP candidate, was a bit more analytic, saying it would not be that simple, but she thought it was a good idea. Green Party candidate Judy Smith-Torrie speculated there was enough demand to warrant the service.

This is only one of so many possible examples over the length of the current campaign in Northumberland-Quinte West.

But wait! Isn’t this what politics is all about? Heck, it is even part of the political landscape when there isn’t an election.

Take for instance Cobourg Councillor Bob Spooner, who promised if the ice rink/fountain tenders came in $1 over budget, he would not vote for it. Yet, last week, we saw the amounts to be as much as $200,000 over. But, Spooner would not commit. No, he said we would all have to wait until town staff reviews them, in case there were some refinements or mistakes made in the documentation. One will be left scratching their head if the companies made as much as a $200,000 error. Still, Spooner will be watched carefully to see if he will keep his promise. There are plenty of opponents to the rink/fountain who are counting on it. Or will he merely add to the growing distrust and lack of credibility of local politicians.

And, then there is Port Hope Deputy Mayor Jeff Lees, chairman of the Port Hope Police Services Board, who wrote a letter recently to the Cobourg Police Service about entering into discussion around a joint communications centre. It was only four years ago similar discussions took place, but never got off the ground. A report at the time said $116,000 would be saved, and depending on staffing, another $100,000 could be cut. Cobourg is beginning to feel like a bridesmaid, but never a bride. As Chief Ron Hoath has pointed out in the past, these studies have gone on for the past 15 years. Lees and his fellow board members need to assure the public this is not a waste time and taxpayers money undertaking yet another study and some concrete action is going to take place. Otherwise, dust off the old study and use it (adjusting for inflation, of course). The figures can’t be that far off.

So, how do we trust? As the final days of the provincial election campaign heat up and candidates begin to push toward Election Day on Oct. 10, it is very difficult not to become increasingly cynical. But staying away from the ballot box is no solution. Marking the X is our only and best weapon to get politicians and political parties to pay attention. We need to punish those who mislead us and reward those who do as they say. It is only then that promises will be kept and trust will be regained. And, if we are lucky, some local politicos will get the message, too.

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