By Jason Menard
It seems many of our elected representatives forgot what they were elected to do – represent. And, to be honest, it’s our own fault.
Doug Ford provides just the latest example. It seems the non-mayoral-Ford has been participating in Kenney-esque bully politics. The latest tactic is insulting a Canadian literary icon in the battle over Toronto’s libraries.
Instead of engaging in a respectful discussion, or dismissing Atwood’s concerns with facts and reasoned arguments, he said “If she walked by me, I wouldn’t have a clue who she is,” and that maybe he’d listen to her if she got elected to council.
The first part of that sentence shows just a stunning amount of pride in one’s ignorance. It’s not like you have to be able to do a dissertation on each and every one of Atwood’s works at the drop of a hat, but as one of Canada’s most-noted authors, you should at least have a passing knowledge of her. And it’s not like she’s been a J.D.-Salinger-esque recluse over the years. But that’s beside the point. If Ford has no interest in Canadian literature, that’s his choice.
But when it comes to the second part of that statement… well, then that infringes on our choice.
I say “our” in only the broadest terms. Thankfully, Ford doesn’t represent me. I don’t live inToronto, so I’m looking at this with an outsider’s perspective – albeit one that’s coloured by a similar experience with a stubborn, self-important political bully.
His name? Pat O’Brien. A few years back, you may remember, I politely requested that Mr. O’Brien do the honourable thing, vacate his federal seat, and re-run in a by-election after he decided to flip from the Liberals to the Conservatives. My argument, to which I still hold firm, was that he was elected based in part upon his affiliation. His constituents voted for him, believing that he was going to represent their ideals as reflected by his party’s platform.
Alas, Mr. O’Brien wasn’t exactly polite in his response. In fact, he was downright offensive in a letter he sent to me. So, I started a petition, did some media, sent it off to my now-current MP, and, unfortunately, the issue died with the dissolution of Parliament, rendering my request moot.
What bothered me most about that situation was that O’Brien was absolutely adamant that he was representing the thoughts of his constituency. He came to this understanding, of course, despite not asking anyone*. The issue for which he switched was over gay rights – and I was offended that he was abusing the mandate that I, in part, granted him by voting for his party.
(*I’m sorry, he did say that the people who signed up for his newsletter voted overwhelmingly in a poll on the question. It was a partisan newsletter that you had to sign up for. He refused my request to do a constituent-wide poll, or even hold a Town Hall-style meeting open to all to discuss the matter. And he also refused to divulge how many people actually voted in that poll. So, basically, a major policy shift could be dictated by 10 to 20 people who fill out and return by mail a survey on a hard-copy political newsletter. That’s open and representative democracy at its finest!)
What O’Brien (and, subsequently, David Emerson and Belinda Stronach) and Ford seem to forget is that we elect people to represent us and our opinions — to serve on our behalf. We don’t elect them to do only what they want. A ballot cast does not come with a four-year blank cheque. Yet, that’s what these politicians seem to think.
Consultation shouldn’t end after election day – that’s the time it should be increased. Regular communication with one’s constituents is the only way to ensure you’re representing the community in the best possible way. Unfortunately, we, as constituents have failed as well.
We simply don’t hold our candidates accountable. I’ve mediated political Town Hall events and, in general, the people who attend are on the extreme ends the spectrum. The whack jobs and conspiracy theorists are usually well represented at these meetings, but the average Jill and Joe are rarely found.
We often refer to the “silent majority.” But it’s not silent – it’s apathetic. And that’s just pathetic.
As a community, we have to force our political leaders to read past the “elected” part and get to the word “representatives.” We have to remind them that they’re there to represent our interests – not just their own. We don’t vote for a three or four-year carte blanche; we don’t even vote for you and your personal opinion – we’re voting for the candidate and/or party that best represents our beliefs.
Thanks to our first-past-the-post system, many elected representatives don’t even have the will of the majority on their side. Now, while a responsible representative would work to find an answer that’s both effective and satisfies a majority of the constituents, the reality is they don’t need to. We have shown that, collectively, we don’t care.
We need to care. We need to get involved. Fortunately, social networking and the Internet make it much easier. For example, Atwood has implored her Twitter followers (and, by extension, Toronto-area citizens) to sign an on-line petition supporting the libraries that garnered around 25,000 signatures in under two weeks. Facebook groups, Web pages (openmedia.ca is a good example), and electronic distribution is a great way to get people involved and keep them informed.
The Internet community may be what finally makes it easy for people to remind our elected representatives that they represent more than just themselves.