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Why Federal Elections Bore

The fun action happens at democracy's local level.

By Rafe Mair 15 Sep 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Rafe Mair's column for The Tyee appears every Monday. Mair is a spokesperson for Save our Rivers.

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MP Cummins: Punished for his local integrity.

Readers will know of Mair's Axiom II, namely, "You don't have to be a 10 in politics, you can be a three if everyone else is a two."*

Here, and I suggest you write this down, is Mair's Axiom III. "The closer a politician's throat is to your hands, the nearer you are to democracy."

Federal politicians are rather like absentee landlords who show the flag occasionally to the cloth-capped peasantry, and when that disagreeable exercise is behind them, head back to the huddled musk-ox barn on Parliament Hill, where the food and drink are plentiful and good, subsidized by the peasants, and the worst you face is an unkind question from someone you don't give a damn about anyway.

Provincial elections are more interesting because the politicians are closer to home -- though the news media hardly holds them to account like they used to.

But the rubber really hits the road with local politics. And the smaller the population, the better the fun.

Dogged politics in Lions Bay

I was once an alderman (that's what they were called then and the women on my council didn't seem to mind) in Kamloops, and it was a hairy experience I can tell you! The meetings were public and the access unlimited. Issues didn't go away until something was done. There was no place to hide. That was democracy.

Wendy and I live in the small village of Lions Bay where citizens just by making a nuisance of themselves can get their own way. Every morning we take Chauncey, our chocolate Labrador, down to the ocean for a swim. The parking lot has about 10 stalls and four signs telling people not to park without a permit, two signs telling divers not to expose their underwear when getting into wetsuits and two signs telling people that their dogs must be on a leash. In fact, one could miss the parking lot for the signs. While this is the only place in Lions Bay that these particular signs can be, other signs of similar annoyance abound throughout the rest of our village. One lady set out to count our signs, sure that we'd get into the Guinness Book of Records for signs in a village. But, matched against her life expectancy, the job was two much for her so she quit.

Chauncey is not the only dog that swims at what we affectionately call Bow Wow Beach and all of us delight in removing our dogs' leashes in front of the house whose occupant inspired the signs. And I've been waiting for the right moment to disrobe in the parking lot whilst donning my wetsuit. Trouble is, I don't own a wetsuit and I doubt that wetsuit stores have sizes for my particular shape and avoirdupois. In any event, village democracy reacts to complaints by passing laws and putting in place signs that we non-complainants delight in flouting. It's all rather fun, actually.

Who gets the big bucks

I think at the local level there is sort of a general understanding. People who bitch all the time get to do so as often as they wish and it's understood that once they have worn the council out, a rule will be passed; it's also understood that not only will everyone else ignore the rule but will hail the house with the complainant in it with an upraised fist, one finger showing.

There is, I'm distressed to report, a great problem with local democracy: the job of running things isn't worth the paltry sums paid. The irony is that the further the politician is from the voter, and the less accountable he is, the more money he makes. The comforts of subsidized food, drink, lodging and a handsome pay cheque await the politician who puts himself beyond the voter's reach -- until election time.

Which brings us to Gary Lunn, minister of Natural Resources and MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands. Lunn, clearly not the sharpest pencil in the prime minister's box, takes an industry tour of one of the Autocrat Campbell's river projects and gets so overwhelmed by industrial smarm that he nearly swoons with enthusiasm for this disastrous policy.

It evidently doesn't dawn on His Honour that these projects are environmentally devastating because, I mean wow! The corporate flack that took him on that nice helicopter ride would have said something if there were any downsides, wouldn't he? I mean, aren't we dealing with environmentally conscious, truth-telling public relations chaps who always ignore the greed of their masters, and tell the complete unvarnished truth?

Sticking up for your constituents

When it comes to federal MPs paying attention to folks back home, a prime exception to the rule is John Cummins, M.P., Delta-Richmond East. He is a Conservative, formerly Reform. (I vote Green, incidentally) Cummins has consistently acted in what he felt were the best interests of his consistency.

On one occasion, he felt that a bill should be debated, so flouted the orders of Prime Minister Harper to give leave to have the bill passed forthwith. He lost his shadow cabinet post. Cummins was on the Commons Fisheries Committee and criticized amendments to the Fisheries Act by the minister and was promptly yanked off the committee by Harper. Cummins, though the most knowledgeable MP in the House on the West Coast fishery, is not the Fisheries minister and won't be the minister of anything because he refuses to subvert his constituents feelings to the wishes of the prime minister.

I've been involved in the shocking environmental desecration proposed, and being undertaken, by both senior governments in Cummins' riding and John Cummins has been there fighting alongside his citizens, while the Liberal MLA for the area, Val Roddick, who usually won't shut up, runs and hides. So do the ministers.

There is, after all this, a moral to this story. If we had a system where the member of Parliament had the powers in fact that he has on paper, we would see a lot more John Cummins. As long as we have the same old, "first past the post election system" (if "system" it can be called), we will have more lickspittles like Lunn and Roddick and fewer John Cummins.

It really isn't any more complicated than that.

*Mair's Axiom I is "You make a very serious mistake assuming that people in charge know what the hell they're doing."

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