Sunday, 11 September 2011

Kitchener Centre – Changing Political Winds

This is my first post for Speak Your Mind, pending

An introduction and some background seems appropriate before we dive into the issues of this campaign.  My name is Christopher Lackey and I work as a group benefits administrator, freelance fiction writer and blogger.. Originally from Toronto, I have been a regular visitor to Kitchener since 2007 and a full time resident since 2009.  I live downtown, an area which has attracted attention from all 3 levels of government as it has sought to improve its image over the past few years. 
The district feels to be in the midst of much change. which is exciting from an electoral perspective.  The local government spent $9.3 million dollars improving the main area of King Street between Victoria and Frederick.  Many of the boarded up storefronts that made the area unattractive when I first came here are gone.  A giant, $30 million courthouse is under construction, as well as a $25 million expansion of the main Branch of the Kitchener Public Library.  An $818 Light Rail Transit project was just approved by the regional council.  These projects are not wild expensive pipe dreams – the political culture here is prudent, and they have been undertaken just to ensure that services will somewhat keep pace with a growing number of residents.
Some challenges unique to local circumstances have to do with the municipal structure.  The Region of Waterloo is home to 554,000 people. This sounds like a medium-sized urban centre on paper, but in reality it lacks the feel of one that size.  This is because those people are divided amongst three cities (Kitchener, Waterloo, and Cambridge) and dozens of surrounding towns and burgs. These entities do not always take each others sensibilities and priorities into account.  The Light Rail Project was contentious locally because this is still a car-oriented town and traffic is not bad enough to make people demand it.  On the economic front, the region likes to highlight its unemployment rate which is below the national average.  Some changes are occurring there.  Historically, the region leaned heavily on manufacturing and two of the largest auto-sector employers (Budd and BF Goodrich) have left or gone under.  Today, a fair bit of manufacturing remains as well as a lot of service sector employment, but the region leans heavily on RIM and the insurance industry for well-paid, private sector jobs.  When the region sometimes calls itself “The Technology Triangle", ambitions of becoming "Silicon Valley North" are revealed. But with the pace of change in the tech sector, and its non-labour intensive nature (even successful start ups rarely have more than few dozen employees), it is unlikely that this will materialize on the level politicians would like it to.

Covering election races like wrestling or dogfights is probably one of the key forces contributing to voter disengagement (“In this corner...”). This is what this column was enlisted to lessen, so I will not be doing a one-person play-by-play of the battle. We will be talking about what is at stake, locally and provincially, and asking real people and candidates in Kitchener Centre what they think. But before talking to Kitchener Centre voters about issues being dealt with in the fall provincial election, we have to know what our choices are on voting day.

So lets get the electoral math out of the way. Is the election result a given here? Not at all. The seat in the legislature is definitely up for grabs. This electoral district has changed its traditional voting habits over the last two federal elections, and it will be interesting to see how things will shake out at the provincial level.

Liberal incumbent John Milloy won this riding by over 8,000 votes more than the PC runner up in fall 2007. The Liberals don't have the same polling numbers they did back then, and this time Milloy will have to stave off a challenge from Progressive Conservative and local CTV weatherman Dave MacDonald. This is a riding the Progressive Conservatives will be hoping to snag from the Liberals, because it was formerly stalwart Liberal at the federal level until it was won by the Conservatives by 346 votes in the 2008 Federal election. Federal M.P. Stephen Woodworth increased his sliver of the electorate to a big slice in May 2011, winning his re-election bid by over 4,000 votes. If the high visibility of their new candidate is any indication, the PCs view this as a winnable race.

NDP Candidate Cameron Dearlove could also be playing to win. The NDP got two thirds as many votes as the liberals in May (nearly 10000), although historically they have never been able overtake them here. Mark Vercouteren is running for the Greens, and I expect he too is running to win. Their platform could attract a lot of voters fatigued of the dynamic between the three major parties because it proposes some radically different policies. Green leader Mike Schreiner is running a visible and well-organized campaign this time.

It will be interesting to follow these candidates in their journey as they compete alongside their leaders. Indeed, campaigns are increasingly all about leaders. This doesn't interest the many people who vote for “their local candidate”, nor those who wish for a less top-down, whipped vote system. Unfortunately, party apparatuses know their time is better rewarded making electoral calculations then making good policies. The leader becomes a spokesman for the brand, and parties then attempt to predict voter behaviour strategically. “Bedrock”, “Fortress” and “Dyed-in-the-wool” areas can be avoided, while “swing” or “toss-up” ridings must be focused on and campaigned hard for, with star candidates, leader-high profile stops on the trails, etc. But they also have to make sure not to appear to take a riding for granted. This can turn a lot of voters off who will then see the contest as only about getting elected, not representing their best interests in the service of the public good. The good thing about this space on Speak Your Mind is it will concentrate on this specific riding and make the election about it.

It will be tough for the leaders of the three major parties to repeat what they've been saying for another month . The record and merits of the incumbent Liberals are up for debate, of course. How they defend them will be one major determinant on how this election plays out. The other will be how the public takes to the opponents on their two flanks, who are both placing their greatest hopes on voters sharing their anger and discontent toward the Liberals. I've read the PC “Changebook” and the NDP “Plan for Affordable Change” and the main proposition being put forth to voters both in Andrea Horwath and Tim Hudak's platforms seems to be “The cost of living is too high, taxes are too high, the cost of energy is too high, traffic is terrible and our finances are out of control, and its all Dalton McGuinty's fault. Vote for us and we will lower taxes and increase spending to improve the situation.” This message omits the fact that the province is in the hole big time and that all parties' predictions of the future revenues have been panned by experts as wildly optimistic. This is a critique at the same time of the incumbent government's platform. The current outlays and deficits under Liberal rule are financially unsustainable, so even though the Liberals' campaign message is perhaps less negative: “We know its been tough, we're on a rough ride but we're on the right track so stick with us, the reliable status quo”, it can be answered with the same rebuke as the PC and NDP campaigns: It doesn't add up. The opposition hasn't credibly explained how it would reduce the deficit by increasing spending and cutting taxes. Yet the incumbents do not seem to be serious about taking any meaningful action to correct the financial situation either. They must bear some responsibility for it occurring under their watch in the first place, but there is no mention in the Liberal campaign booklet on changing course.

The media and public will see that what is being proposed is electioneering. That's when you can expect accusations of hidden agendas, ramped up personal attacks, character assassinations and all of the other sideshow stuff. In other words, a descent into the gutter like we've seen so many times, which keeps much of the public tuned out of politics. I don't single out any Ontario politician or party specifically for this. It is a trend I have only seen become more prevalent in electoral politics across North America. Some people think social media is a force key to reversing the tide (and platforms such as Speak Your Mind want to engage it for this purpose) and making politics more accessible and democratic. Whether it will succeed remains to be seen. What I can tell you is everything posted here for the next month will have the objective to contribute to this effort. My modest goal is to keep it focused on real issues, keep it local, and keep it real. I look forward to it. Coming up this week: Green Energy in Kitchener and Ontario.

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