Macklin needs to be heard, not just seen

First published: December 06, 2004

As American President George W. Bush completes his whirlwind tour of Canada this week, protests will provide an important backdrop to his visit. And while those who oppose him chant their slogans, there will not be one chirp from any politicians on Parliament Hill, including Northumberland MP Paul Macklin.

Independent MP Carolyn Parrish, the outspoken former Liberal backbencher from Mississauga, promised to behave, despite her newfound freedom. For one brief, glorious moment she captured the imagination of Canadians, who, for the most part, can’t stand Bush. She gave a voice to those people who marvel at the American election results, wondering how a right wing, neoconservative, ideologically hamstrung leader, who lied to the world, could ever get back into power.

Then, she made her fatal mistake. Ms. Parrish attacked her own leader, Prime Minister Paul Martin. Once again, she was expressing a silent, but a commonly held view among backbenchers, her leader is weak and failing. An obvious sign Martin is in trouble is the recent world tour. Leaders often get out of the country to allow situations to cool at home. Rarely do such visit generate bad press. So, off Martin goes to foreign lands where he does not have to face any heat in the House of Commons or the scrutiny of the press gallery.

For those who say good riddance to Parrish, it is understandable. Obviously, she didn’t know when to shut up. But the larger question around who is going to take her place is more pressing than ever. This is especially true for Liberals, who identified the democratic deficit as a major campaign platform only six short months ago. Since forming a minority government last June, Martin has done little to throw open the doors of discourse, nor has he removed the shackles of party discipline.

E lections often focus on leaders and parties, but a new study, released this year called Does the Local Candidate Matter?, begs to differ. Completed by a group of distinguished political scientists from University of Montreal, McGill and the University of Toronto, it shows local candidates are very important when it comes to voting. A study of the 2000 election results and intensive post-election surveys show nearly half of those who vote say the local candidate is a decisive part of their decision. This flies in the face of the popular myth that local candidates do not matter. The study also concluded rural voters have even a greater tendency to support local candidates.

This is all good news for Mr. Macklin. Sure, incumbency continues to be a big factor in his victory, but he can be rest assured there was a pretty good chance he won because those people who voted for him, not Martin or the fact that he was a Liberal.

But his sigh of relief should not last too long. No doubt Macklin develops his support through his appearances at events like Christmas Magic in Cobourg last Friday and similar community occasions throughout the county. A big smile and a few kind words keep our warm image of him. But where is he the rest of the time? Like most backbenchers, he quietly toiling away. This is no Carolyn Parrish. His “gosh-golly-gee” folksy persona would leave the average voter in Northumberland believing he never speak up around the cabinet table, let alone outwardly criticize the most power man in Canada or the United States.

Sure, he does some pretty solid work for the riding. He would be the first one to defend himself by pointing to the recent $10 million economic development grant as a sign of his efforts.

But one is left wondering if he is merely the prime minister’s lapdog or his Northumberland’s watchdog. Ms. Parrish’s ability to speak out resonated with many Canadians with its frankness, which is an important part of our democracy. It should be possible for Macklin and others to do the same. With critical discussions on missile defence and a failure of the Liberal government to resolve the mad cow crisis, softwood lumber and new tariffs on pork, surely it is time to hear something more than the usual humble pie making up the regular diet of blah blah Mr. Macklin serves. It should not be too much to ask for a more strident, public approach to assist our farmers, as well as protect our national sovereignty.

If local candidates really do matter, then it is time they started earning this trust with a bit more energy and effort. The democratic balance sheet still shows a deficit. Macklin needs to speak out a bit more, then he might get a bit more than polite applause when attending public events. And only then can he count on more deserved heartfelt votes when the time comes.

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