Figuring it out

It’s been a bit of a struggle this week, trying to figure out how governments big and small decide their priorities. 

At the annual Ontario Community Newspaper Association conference last week we had the chance to chat up John Vanthof, MPP for Timiskaming-Cochrane and current deputy-leader of the NDP in Ontario. He was guest speaker at our luncheon and unlike guests in previous years, he didn’t have an entourage or security detail and few would say his tone was partisan. 

Instead we got some plain talk from a retired dairy farmer, which was a welcome change for many of us. As he spoke, it seemed, to me anyway, that Ontario needs a few more guys like him. Gals too, for that matter. Plain people with a sense of fair play and the ability to talk though problems would go a long way to making government work better for the people it is obliged to serve.

But alas, people like that are few and far between. It more than concerns us that the skillset of bringing people together and having good conversations with purpose may in fact be a dying art.

Between partisan approaches – like teachers sharing their personal concerns with students planning to participate in a protest, or a provincial government putting stickers on gas pumps to show the difference in price due to the federal carbon tax – stakeholders and politicians are widening the divide, rather than closing it.

From booze in corner stores, to tailgate parties and switching slogans on license plates or even the validation of marijuana use by our current Prime Minister, it feels an awful lot like vices get more air play than real issues. 

Professional politicians and operatives might refer to these initiatives simply as distractions, which in politic speech means they are ill-equipped to debate things that matter – apart from the obvious polarized talking points.

Real issues surround us. 

Funding for autism, education, health care, drug abuse, housing options for the disadvantaged, appropriate care for a burgeoning number of seniors, environmental protections, grappling with the chasm between public and private sector wages … the list could go on ad nauseam.  

Perhaps the first Ontario budget released hours after this newspaper went to press will have all the answers, but that is doubtful. Instead it will be a roadmap to yet another round of fights, from vested interests unable to figure out some common ground on issues.

Leaders who can bring people together are not in great supply. 

One such example was lost this week when past warden and last Reeve of the Village of Elora, Mary Dunlop passed away. Time has a way of slipping by, but we knew David Meyer, who covered her career, would want to know, so we placed that difficult call. He recounted a number of stories, including an exercise she undertook one term. 

She instituted a white board plan, where members of council could set out their goals and hopes for the term. It was simple and it was effective – and it didn’t require high priced consultants to summarize it. 

What it did do, was make everyone feel part of the process and invested in council’s success.

Dunlop will also be remembered for a sense of decorum and decency that the public had every right to participate. Decisions were made and actions taken, but consultation was part of the process.

We can only hope such a mentality takes root again and government gets on with serving the people – with a good sense of purpose.