Wishful thinking

Late in the 1990s, when the hospital in Walkerton was threatened with closure under the pressure of Mike Harris’ cuts to health care funding in Ontario, the local council was up in arms over the possible shuttering of the community’s prized health care facility.

As the editor of the Walkerton Herald-Times during that period, I had occasion to ask one particularly vociferous local councillor, who I had seen at every Tory gathering I had ever covered in the area, if he had voted for the Conservatives.

“Look,” he said, “My family has voted Conservative forever.”

At the time this inspired me to write what was probably an overly-snide column (Much like this one, you say? Fair enough) under the extremely self-explanatory title “Vote with your head, not with your ancestors.” After all, it’s not as if the Harrisites had not advertised their plans well in advance with their ironically titled “Common Sense Revolution” campaign platform. Caveat emptor, as they say.

I ran into that same individual (now a former politician) during the recent provincial election campaign while covering a Doug Ford rally in Mildmay.

I commented there was quite a crowd on hand.

“There’s change a-comin’!” he responded, adopting the sing-song tone of a television evangelist (or sometimes Donald Trump).

As I discreetly drifted away, I reflected that if he had in-fact read that long-ago column, he may not have taken the message entirely to heart.

On to a more timely point: based completely on my own unscientific observations and demographic analysis, I would venture the political make-up of most municipal councils skews heavily conservative, both small and large C variety. It’s been interesting to watch, over the past 15 years, as various councils have railed against what they feel is intrusive government policy and overwhelming bureaucracy, while at the same time dutifully lining up each year for their delegations with government ministers to plead their case for more funding, less regulation, or other assistance with the issues of the day.

On a surprising number of occasions in the last few years, councillors and administrators alike have returned from such excursions buoyed with the prospect their message had been heard and in many cases, concrete results in the form of improved funding formulas or changes in policy have ensued.

One wonders if this trend is likely to continue now that the political pendulum has swung back to the right. While local PC MPs seem attuned to municipal concerns, I recall the last time there was a Conservative government in Ontario its leadership was more interested in eliminating municipalities through amalgamation and downloading provincial responsibilities (and expenses) to those that remained, than politely listening to, and sometimes even doing something about, their concerns.

In Minto, for example, this year’s AMO conference wish list includes meetings with ministers to discuss a continued transition from application-based to formula-based funding. While there’s no harm in trying, it’s worth noting the main source of unconditional funding municipalities currently receive is through the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund, which was created under the recently-departed Liberal government to help municipalities cope with/recover from the cuts endured under the previous administration. Will Ford and crew be inclined to enhance or even maintain it?

Local officials are also hoping the new government will follow the federal example and devote a share of the provincial gas tax to rural municipalities. Currently, only municipalities with transit systems get a share. While largesse of this nature would be nice, consider Ford’s pledge to cut the provincial gas tax by 10 cents a litre, at a cost estimated at $1.2 billion to the provincial treasury. At the same time, our Torontonian premier-elect has promised to build new subways hither and yon across the GTA and mused about uploading the entire transit system to the province. How much will be left to pave a few sideroads and shore up some bridges in Wellington County is anyone’s guess.

While I could be wrong about all of this, and I actually hope I am, one area in which local politicians are more likely to get their wish under the current administration is the easing of regulations, which are admittedly onerous to implement and enforce.

As we’re already well beyond our regular word allotment, we won’t be able to get into that one here.

However, if we were, it would probably involve another turn-of-the-century example from Walkerton; one often mentioned at municipal council meetings today and one many still think about when they turn on their taps.