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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

London West voters see politicians not as representatives but as employees

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Sep. 16, 2003

LONDON, ONT. — Message to Ontario's politicians: First, account for yourselves.Cyndi Prange, Wilma Boyce and Yvonne Wubs were chatting together earlier this week, passing a bit of time after work and before dinner and the kids. It was a beautiful early evening -- the air a bit hazy, the sun already low, teenagers on skateboards hanging out down the street, as reluctant to go indoors as their moms.

Oxford Park came into existence in the 1960s, and the trees are so mature, and so many decades of life have been lived in its comfortable homes, that it hardly seems right to call it a suburb any more.

But Oxford Park is in the very heart of one of the most contentious ridings of the Ontario election campaign. The votes of these three women and their fellow citizens in London West will go far in determining the fates of Ernie Eves, Dalton McGuinty and Howard Hampton, the three contenders for the job of premier.

The election matters to these women, for reasons that might surprise pollsters and pundits. Two voted Conservative in the past; one is inclined to the Liberals or the NDP. But all three say the real issue is not who will cut this tax or who will build that hospital. The real issue is that voters -- even engaged, articulate, informed voters in London West -- are losing confidence in representative democracy as practised in Canada.

"Either the provinces are arguing with each other, or they are arguing with Ottawa," Ms. Prange protested. "The only thing they won't ever do is account for their own actions. I'm a manager, and I'm accountable. They should be accountable, too."

Ms. Boyce repeated the ancient complaint: "Politicians are politicians are politicians. They do whatever they can to get in. And when they get in they do whatever they want."

The three political parties contesting the election have all released fat platform documents filled with promises, commitments and promises of commitments. In essence, the Tories are offering tax breaks, while punishing teachers, municipal politicians, immigrants and anyone else who would limit the Conservative goal of keeping taxes and spending as low as possible.

The Liberals and the NDP would reverse or freeze tax cuts, using the additional funding to improve the quality of health care, education and other government services.

In that sense, the election boils down to whether the electors of London West and their middle-class counterparts across the province are greedy enough to demand another tax cut, or fearful enough of social decline to give some of the money back.

Except the voters refuse to accept that choice. In interviews on street corners and in coffee shops, they acknowledge uncertainty over who is to blame for the perceived deterioration of the province's public space. But more important for them is which, if any, of the three candidates -- Ernie Eves for the Tories, Dalton McGuinty for the Liberals, Howard Hampton for the NDP -- they can trust to govern on their behalf, rather than on behalf of the special-interest advocates and opinion elites who have their ear.

Vern Rollings, Ed Hurd and a couple of their friends shared a morning coffee at Tim Hortons, a small luxury of life after retirement. For them, education is the deciding issue: Why are the schools so run down, why are the teachers and the province at war, and what is to be done about it?

But here, too, the question of accountability emerged. "If you want to apply for a job, you have to fit the job description, and you have to perform that job. It should be the same in politics," Mr. Rollings said.

If previous trends in Ontario and other provinces hold up, between 60 and 70 per cent of Ontario electors will actually cast ballots on Oct. 2. (The most worrying evidence of citizen disenchantment is the steady decline in voter turnout in recent elections across this country.) The vote in London West will be watched with particular interest, for it is an almost archetypal suburban Ontario riding.

London, a prosperous city of 330,000 people and 160,000 trees about 180 kilometres west of Toronto, has a good university, several large factories, particularly fine hospitals and a brewery.

The riding of London West is the epitome of average: average in size, in population mobility, in income (50th out of 103 in that category, according to a provincial riding analysis compiled by G.P. Murray Research).

It tends to be a bellwether, swinging in the past several decades from the Tories to the Liberals to the NDP and back to the Tories, with each party forming the government in that election. But the Conservatives held the riding in 1999 by fewer than 300 votes, the narrowest Tory victory in the province. If the Liberals, who are ahead in the polls, are to translate their early lead into victory, the swing away from Ernie Eves must begin here.

Strategists in all three camps are searching in this riding and others like it to identify what is known as the ballot question: the single issue uppermost in voters' minds when they enter a polling booth. The trick, if you make your living selling politicians to the public, is to persuade the voters to frame the question in a way that works to your candidate's advantage.

If the ballot question ends up being: "Is it time for a change?" then Mr. Eves is in trouble, for voters usually answer that question Yes, and Mr. Eves has had no luck convincing voters he represents a break from the Mike Harris government.

But if the question is, "Who can I trust to manage the province?" then Mr. McGuinty may well lose the election, for the Tories have been successful -- at least thus far -- in portraying their Liberal opponent as weak.

No one can be certain, yet, what the ballot question will be. But the voters of London West seem to be saying that the question should be: "Who will be accountable to me?"

Such cynicism is ancient in political life. Yet in many of the conversations here this week, a distinct metaphor emerged: Politicians are not our elected representatives. They are our employees. We hire them, and they should be accountable to us, just as we are accountable to our employers.

To the extent this sentiment is shared, voters are redefining the traditional relationship between the populace and its political representatives. Even Ontario is becoming populist.

Sid Noel, a political scientist at London's University of Western Ontario, hopes this isn't true. While democratic institutions must always be adaptable to reform, he agrees, this "account to me" sentiment simply reflects "a deep lack of civic education."

Prof. Noel points out that democratic governments must execute the will of the majority while protecting the rights of minorities, a difficult political and moral balancing act for well-intentioned politicians of all stripes.

"The proposition that government should simply be a mouthpiece for your particular views," he contended, "is part of the narcissism of the age."

The undertow of citizen discontent -- or citizen narcissism, if that's what it is -- has not gone unnoticed. It is why B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell has introduced fixed election dates, so that politicians cannot exploit ephemeral popularity in pursuit of electoral gain. It is why several provinces have appointed commissions to study the possibility of replacing our skewed first-past-the-post voting system with proportional representation, or some other form of balloting that more accurately reflects the public choice. It is why Paul Martin has promised greater freedom for individual MPs once he becomes prime minister, and why Ernie Eves and Dalton McGuinty are both promising parliamentary reforms of their own.

But if the women of Cambridge Park are right, the real challenge for the party leaders lies not in tinkering with parliamentary procedures, any more than it lies in explaining how they will spend health-care money, or how they plan to manage the education system, government finances or infrastructure renewal. Rather, the challenge is for them to convince the voters that they have the strength to lead, and the humility to listen. Application Error

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