August 29, 2012

Taking Control of the Conversation: Telling our Political Candidates what We Care About

Last night, I attended my first ever all candidates meeting.  As many of you already know, there are two by-elections happening in Ontario next week and one of them is in Waterloo.   The campaigning time has been short, about 4 weeks in total, and the candidates have been very busy telling us why they are our best choice.  But how much time have they spent listening to us tell them what we want and what we need?  

In the spirit of honest writing, I should tell you that my expectations for the all candidates session were quite low.  I assumed that the candidates would spout their party rhetoric; that I would end up sitting there for two hours listening to the candidates tell us what they think we should care about and why the other parties are not as good as they are.  Instead, the organizers of the meeting chose a unique format which, for 2.5 hours yesterday evening, changed the shape of the political process.

Photo credit:
The topic of the evening was poverty,  inequality and the growing income gap between the rich and the rest of us.  Instead of the typical ‘stump speech’ followed by a question and answer period, candidates were asked to listen to us, to people in our community as we explained the reality being faced by a growing number of people who are living on low incomes in Ontario.

Tables were set up around the room, each devoted to a different issue concerning the overall theme; facilitated discussion ensued.  People were asked to put aside their political affiliations and to talk about the reality, such that our candidates could begin to understand what it's really like to rely on a continually eroding social safety net.

Instead of the usual rhetoric and finger pointing, we were able to have a real discussion and to talk about the solutions that we need to create an economy and, more importantly, a society that work for everyone.  Last night's meeting highlighted a huge problem that we have in our political process: we let our politicians control the conversations and control the issues that they talk about.  And we rarely ask them to sit down and have a serious listen to us, their constituents.  

After listening to these discussions for almost an hour, our candidates were asked to prove that they had been listening by responding, in a three minute speech, to the issues we presented to them. 

I tell you all of this to show that there is real opportunity for us to participate in the political process, we just have to create the opportunities and ask our representatives to participate.  Today, it seems to me, that we allow our politicians to tell us what we should care about.  They decide the issues and then fight it out for all of us to see.  The process brings out the worst in everyone.  

The worst part of the political process we have set up is that, in the end, we all lose.  When we allow our political representatives to control the show, there is no avenue for us to participate in the process.  That’s why I was so happy to see the unique format used in yesterday’s meeting—people were engaged and given the opportunity to share their ideas and perspectives in a non-partisan forum and in an atmosphere of respect for each other’s diverse experiences.

Instead of the candidates telling us that they will bolster the economy to create jobs (which is one of many necessary actions that must be taken to reduce inequality), we got to tell them that not just any job will do, we need GOOD jobs.  We got to tell them that we need permanent positions and we got to tell them that minimum wage and part time work are not an avenue out of poverty. 

We got to tell our candidates that telling someone to get an education, without also ensuring the availability of good jobs through progressive labour relations and employment standards is not enough to close the income gap.  We got to tell our politicians that community organizations serve diverse people with diverse needs and that discretion and flexibility are necessary to meeting the needs of our communities. 

Whether the candidates got the full message or not, I believe that this idea, of telling our politicians what we think instead of the other way around, is an important path towards better, more constructive and more productive politics.  In the past, we have been complacent.  We have let the politicians tell us what we want and then tell us how they are going to fix it, or better yet how the other parties are not going to fix it. We let them control the conversations we have through media releases and planned talking points.  This system is not working.   

We need to set up more spaces for discussion so that our politicians have the opportunity to hear from us, not only at our front doors where they control the conversation, but in their constituent offices and in public meetings where we take control, where we set the expectation that our political representatives will listen to us instead of us always listening to them.

1 comment:

  1. Confession of a drowning, once middle class gal

    My conscience lost its virginity today, the only thing that buoyed my dignity.

    Ironically, here I find myself in the city of my birth, drowning under the shadow of obscene wealth, visiting the library in one of Toronto’s toniest locales. I try to digest this unpalatable sea change in my being.

    My integrity is finally tainted. There is no going back now. I am the portrait of a compromised soul.

    All it took is one final act, the culmination of the never-ending great recession. I hesitated as I stood in front of that bank machine and deposit a $200 cheque, money earned from honest labour now reduced to “under the table” “off the radar” depression dollars. My final financial Waterloo.

    This amount will not be disclosed to the tax man. This amount is my shameful little secret. This is my first foray into deceit at 60 years of age. I am heartbroken and defeated.

    Treading water long term is deadly. My life is soggy with discouragement. My spirit resigned to giving up the one last thing I have - my honour. I am fearful as I gasp for a breath of absolution; I am beaten and dragged down. Know me? I am an Ontarian and I am truly sinking.