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TOM URBANIAK: A plea for better politics

['Tom Urbaniak - Political Insights']
['Tom Urbaniak - Political Insights']

This column is not about Dave Wilton or any one party. It’s not even about this particular provincial election. It’s about an outmoded, old-time political culture that is holding back Cape Breton and Nova Scotia.

It’s a humble plea to all parties and all candidates: We need to do better.

      But I mention Wilton because of his awkwardly worded campaign advertisement in last Saturday’s Cape Breton Post. Unintentionally, he managed to present in a nutshell the problem with our politics.

      Wilton writes: “Over the past four years, the Liberal government has had to make some tough decisions, some of which I had to be part of.”

The implication here: He must put his party before his own judgment. He had no option and he “had to” go along with the unspecified decisions, which he concedes aroused the “concern” of his constituents. Finally, he aligned with the party leader’s view: “At the end of the day, I do believe these decisions will benefit all of Nova Scotia, and especially Cape Breton Centre.”

      Wilton goes on to insist that he and his office “have also succeeded in securing grants for many organizations and teams, and we are seeing some great things happening!”

The implication: With an MLA of another calibre or another party, the people of the area would have been ignored by the provincial government. The grant applications might not have been approved or even taken seriously.

      Wilton takes credit for two new zambonis, for $4,000 to the New Waterford Dog Park and for $10,000 to the Dominion Legion, among other government contributions, not to mention “over $1.2 million in social housing renovations.”

      The ad, which is seven paragraphs long, does not get into strategic policies that will stabilize the communities of Cape Breton Centre. These communities were particularly hard hit by the closure of the coal mines. The ad is not really about policy, principles of government, legislation, activism or reform, although Wilton does emphasize his “love and passion for our community.”

The ad highlights the member’s party loyalty and, well, small-scale patronage in the form of “securing grants.” But the benefiting local organizations are not into partisan politics and worked hard on their own fund-raising. Volunteers also put considerable time into the grant applications, all while doing good work for the community.

The ad has echoes of 19th-century politics pushed into the 21st century. An MLA should not be expected to function as a local duke, powerless to actually make policy in the capital city and powerless to change the region’s and province’s overall direction, but eager to put his name on individual benefits distributed in the district.

      As for the party discipline, I realize that it’s part of our system, a logical outcome of our British-style parliamentary structure. A government could fall if it loses a vote in the House on a matter of confidence. Party discipline can sometimes even get progressive policies passed. Historically, advances in health and social policy were made possible by parties sticking together in the face of lobbying by powerful interests.

      But Wilton “had to” support the government? In the House of Assembly, votes on bills are taken by roll call. Wilton’s vote is not counted until the Speaker and Clerk get an indication from him, not from his leader, whether he is in favour, opposed or abstaining.

And if enough governing-party members persist in dissent, a government measure would likely be withdrawn or amended before the embarrassment of a defeat on the floor of the House.

      MLAs do have options. If an MLA is afraid of being passed over for a promotion or perk, it is not the same as having no choice.

      In upcoming all-candidates debates, let’s quiz our candidates on how they will modernize our politics so that communities aren’t rewarded or punished for how they voted. In what circumstances might they stand up to their party leader and eschew unquestioning obedience? How will they stand up for Cape Breton? Will they actually read and analyze the laws they are asked to approve?  Will they propose laws of their own, and if so which ones?

I’m not the only citizen who is tired of old-style politics and tired of watching our communities decay.

Please, let’s do better.

-      Tom Urbaniak, PhD, is a political scientist at Cape Breton University. He welcomes the exchange of ideas and can be reached at tom_urbaniak@cbu.ca .

 

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