By Dan Rankin
While the recent polls have shown the Conservatives slipping into third behind the NDP and Liberals – who are in a dead heat for first place – that may not be how things look in a month from now. In the middle of the longest Canadian election in generations, some of our local candidates spoke to the Independent about bringing political power back to Southwestern Ontario and the importance of local candidates in a federal election.
In an article on the election last month, the London Free Press asked the question: “Does the London region have clout on the national stage anymore?” with writer Debora Van Brenk answering “Numerically, not so very much. “Our population is shrinking, while other places are growing and gaining more political muscle as a result,” she wrote. Of the 338 federal ridings being contested in this election, 10 of them are in Southwestern Ontario. That’s down from the 12 ridings this region had when there were only 301 contested for the 2000 election. In this province, the vast majority of new federal ridings are in and around the Greater Toronto Area.
“So, basically, Perth-Wellington has gone from being somewhat unimportant in Ottawa to even less important,” local Liberal candidate Stephen McCotter said. “I think the current government assumes it’s a seat that they’re going to win and they don’t have to come here and campaign. I really think that’s an added reason you need someone who’s going to be in Ottawa standing up and fighting for the riding to get their fair share of the pie.”
NDP candidate Ethan Rabidoux said that, as rural voices have become further marginalized, policies affecting rural communities are increasingly “being made by people who don’t know or don’t understand the rural issues.”
He agreed that, with less numbers of Southwestern Ontario voices in Ottawa, this region needs louder voices.
“You need stronger representation,” he said. “It’s that simple. You also need a government that prioritizes rural areas. Tom Mulcair has visited Perth-Wellington three times already and we’re still weeks away from an election. No other leader has set foot here. That tells you who is listening to rural Ontario.”
On the other hand, local Conservative candidate John Nater said he believes responsibility for the area’s reduced political clout lies at Queen’s Park, where “the Kathleen Wynne Liberals have all but ignored rural Ontario.”
“At the federal level I think we’ve had strong representation from southern Ontario and it shows in the investment we’ve had in a number of different programs,” he said. “Two in particular though; the creation of a federal economic development agency for southern Ontario, FedDev, and our continued support of the Community Futures Development Corporation (CFDC).”
FedDev Ontario, based in Kitchener, “is prioritized and focused on diversifying our economy and creating and maintaining good jobs in our communities,” Nater said. “We’ve seen a number of investments in our communities through that program.”
He also called the regional CFDCs great programs. “The successes of the Perth CFDC are well-known, and well-known in Ottawa,” Nater said. “So, it’s nice to see, just in July, a commitment of an additional $3.2 million to create an investment fund for the CFDCs to continue to provide that funding to both new and expanding local business.”
McCotter and Rabidoux were less convinced this region, and in particular this riding, had been receiving the strong federal representation they believe it deserves.
For Rabidoux, who has known the outgoing Perth-Wellington MP for years through Gary Schellenberger’s role as chair of the Canadian Heritage Committee, said he believes the Conservative MP’s biggest failure over the last four years has been on VIA Rail.
“That was an issue that he could have and should have done more on,” Rabidoux said. “I think even Conservative supporters, especially in St. Marys, but across the riding, would agree on that one. That was one area where it made no sense from any standpoint economic or otherwise.”
From his career as a journalist, Rabidoux remembers asking Schellenberger about the loss of the morning VIA train. “His answer to me back in 2012 was, ‘well, people can just drive to Kitchener-Waterloo and hop on the Go Train’,” he said. “That was his mindset. So, he has to, unfortunately, wear that as the outgoing Member of Parliament. So, no, I don’t think we’ve had sterling representation for the past four years. I’m not saying his time was entirely terrible, but I would not agree with Mr. Nater that we’ve had strong representation in Perth-Wellington.”
Like Rabidoux, McCotter knew Schellenberger to be a “very likeable person,” but said “I think your MP needs to be more than someone that helps you get your passport expedited.”
“I think it’s someone that needs to stand up and, when they don’t feel that they’re getting what every other riding is getting, they need to voice their displeasure,” McCotter said. “They also need to vote in a fashion they feel is right and not simply vote how they’re told. Justin Trudeau has committed, with limited exceptions, to more free votes for their MPs. The Liberal Party is committed to having MPs that have their own voice, and aren’t just told what to say.”
But regardless of their takes on the past, they all agree that the importance of choosing a local representative in Ottawa is as important in 2015 as it ever has been. “Voters need to know that their MP and candidates are working hard, and that you can trust that they’re doing the job they’re expected to do,” Nater said. “That’s why my job has been and will continue to be, to meet as many voters as I can in every community in every corner of the riding.”
McCotter said it comes down to a choice for voters. “Do they want to elect a leader who is going to tell their MP what to say, or do they want to elect an MP that’s going to be part of a team that makes decisions collaboratively?”
“It’s about getting your voice heard,” Rabidoux said. “Who else is going to do it, but the local candidate? So, you need to pick the person who will speak up, do the homework, and is not afraid to get in there and mix it up for you.”