I don’t want to turn this blog into a political blog, even though that means I need to hold back many valuable opinions that all of you want to hear… That said, I live in the riding of Ottawa South and we are in the midst of a by-election. As I have previously stated, I have a great deal of respect for anyone who steps up and puts their name on a ballot. Last night I managed to attend the last half of an all-candidates debate (after coaching soccer). Suitably primed, today seemed like a good day to write about this by-election and my thoughts about the issues and candidates.
Full disclosure, I know John Fraser, the Liberal candidate, well and have been out canvassing for his campaign. I am not writing this blog post on his behalf or with the knowledge or approval of his campaign. This is just me and my opinions.
By-elections are often an opportunity for people to voice their opinion about the government of the day. They can cast a vote in favour of the candidate for the governing party to show support or they can vote against that same candidate to show displeasure with the government. I don’t subscribe to this particular approach to voting. I believe in voting for the candidate who will be the best representative for the riding and for me. Yes sometimes this means voting agains the party I believe would form the best government. By-elections especially, present this opportunity since they typically have no impact on which party is in power and the person elected is not likely to have a significant impact on government policy since they are typically rookies and have a lot of learning to do about how the legislature works and how to get things done for their new found constituents.
In this particular by-election in Ottawa South we have nine candidates, all of whom were at the debate last night. Wikipedia has a good article that captures information about all of the candidates. I thought the organizers did a good job providing space and time for questions from the floor and answers from all the candidates.
For the purposes of this post I am going to focus on the NDP, PC and Liberal candidates since they are the most likely contenders for the role. I appreciate the others who have put their names forward. They all have issues they are concerned about and they are taking the time and making the effort to give voice to those issues.
Issues in this campaign
There are the provincial issues that the NDP and PC’s would like the election to be about, especially since this was Dalton McGuinty’s riding. 1. Government mismanagement exemplified by issues like E-health, Ornge and the Mississauga and Oakville gas plants decision. 2. Transparency in government and potential corruption – this is mostly related to the gas plants decision. 3. Energy pricing and to a lesser degree health care.
There are local issues which the victor in this campaign may or may not be able to influence. 1. Casinos in Ottawa. 2. Transit and infrastructure. 3. Education and Health Care. 4. Potentially fatigue with having a Liberal representative after 26 years. 5. Local representation
- Interestingly all of these issues are related to decision-making by government agencies.
E-Health – the board did not have effective accountability and procurement measures in place to ensure that taxpayers were getting good value for money. The Auditor-General of Ontario found a number of problems over the then ten year history of E-Health and it’s predecessor agency, Smart Systems for Health. Given the size of the budget for electronic records and E-Health as compared to the provincial budget for health, we are talking about relatively small amounts of money. The Tories like to talk about a billion dollars being wasted which is absolutely a lot of money. However we are talking about a billion over ten years in a ministry that is now around $46B a year. So something like 0.2% of the budget per year. The government was just not paying enough attention to this file. Could the funds have been more effectively used and monitored? Absolutely. Is it worth my time getting worked up about? Not really. It is not even 1% of the health care budget let alone the provincial budget.
Ornge – Similar situation. Poor governance and poor monitoring by the ministry, relatively small amounts of money. The difference here is that there was a more systematic failure and it looks like deliberate efforts to hoodwink the ministry of health and the Auditor – General by people who opted to personally enrich themselves at the expense of the taxpayer and more grievously and more importantly, appear to have done such a bad job doing their jobs that people died. That is unacceptable and I hope to see criminal charges against those who were responsible when the police investigation is completed. Do I believe this is the fault of the governing Liberals? Not really. The government decision was to fund Ornge to operate the provincial air ambulance system and in fact build a provincial air ambulance system. The ministry was responsible for implementing that decision and monitoring performance. If I remember correctly there were staff from Ornge who raised the alarm about funny business with the accounting and the Ministry of Finance sent in investigators who did not find anything wrong. Perhaps this is a failure of the people who were supposed to be doing the monitoring, but from the sounds of what we know so far, it is also possible that it is the result of an effective effort to deceive the government.
Gas Plants – Big waste of taxpayer money. We don’t know the final tally, but something like $585 million was spent to pay off the companies that were awarded the contracts to build these plants. The original decision to locate the plants in Mississauga and Oakville was made by the Ontario Power Authority. I don’t really know what they do exactly, except that they apparently select sites for power plants and award contracts. In this case they made a couple of siting decisions that were highly unpopular in these two communities. In 2010 the government responded by cancelling the Oakville plant plans. They resisted calls to do the same in Mississauga. In the 2011 election the NDP and PC party promised to cancel the Mississauga plant if they were to be elected. The Liberal party then followed suit and made the same campaign commitment. The Liberals won and they fulfilled their campaign promise and the plant was cancelled even though it was already under construction. Bad plan and as it turns out, an expensive decision. I don’t know whether or not the plants should be located there. I don’t live in that part of the province. I can assume that if the OPA were to announce they were going to build a power plant down the road from me and my family I would probably be opposed to that, as would my neighbours. Public opposition isn’t always the right reason to change a decision, but in this case, the opposition was pretty strong and all three major parties decided to support the opponents. So now the opposition has been holding hearings into this decision and the costs. It seems pretty clear that this decision cost a crap load of money and nobody had any idea how much it was going to cost when they made the commitment. All this deleted email stuff is a waste of time and effort by the opposition. Everyone deletes emails. It is not necessarily a conspiracy. I will confess here and now that I delete emails when I am done with them. If I think they might be of value in the future I file them, but otherwise I delete them. I don’t save voice mails so why would I save emails? I think it is a waste of time to get worked up about deleted emails.
- Transparency is always a bigger media issue in minority governments because opposition parties find things to hold hearings into and demand that the government release information to feed those hearings. Hearings give the issue more traction. I absolutely agree that government should be transparent and that we the people should be able to access information about our government and our elected representatives. I also believe that legislators as our representatives should be able to get access to the information they feel they need to hold our governments to account. Transparency breeds accountability. I recognize that information about the gas plants decision has been coming out in pieces and in some cases after we have been told that is everything. As far as I can tell there is no actual evidence that elected officials or their staff are impeding the release of these documents.
Possible corruption with regards to the gas plants – this is a red herring being put out there by opposition parties to sow doubt in the minds of us voters. There is no evidence to suggest that the premier or anyone else has profited from this decision other than the companies who received negotiated pay outs as a result of the decision to cancel their contracts.
- Energy pricing – We had an old energy system with infrastructure that needed replacements and insufficient energy capacity and dirty energy sources in the form of coal plants. Upgrading the system costs money. It makes sense to me that the rates have increased. We have changed our consumption habits so that we use less energy during the higher cost times of day and we do our laundry on the weekends and in the evenings. In the summer we hang out laundry on the clothesline to reduce our consumption and costs. We have two kids and as such generate a reasonable amount of laundry. It has not been a hardship to make these changes.
Health care – Things are much better than they were and improving. I work in this field and in the public sector and as such will not comment on this area.
Overall, my thoughts on all of these provincial issues are that governments are not perfect. We hire them to make decisions for us. We don’t always agree with all of the decisions they make. Sometimes they make bad decisions – so do I. Sometimes those bad decisions are expensive. Governments are big machines with lots of moving parts. There is always potential for things to go off the rails for a while before someone notices. This is true in private enterprise and nonprofit organizations as well. As per my earlier post on resilience and growth mindsets, I tend to see mistakes as opportunities for learning and improvement. I am more interested in responses to mistakes than I am in the original mistake. I feel that on balance the Liberal government under Dalton McGuinty and now under Kathleen Wynne has done far more good than bad and they have made good efforts to correct mistakes and learn from them.
- Casinos in Ottawa – Initially when the city first started talking about setting up a casino in Ottawa I figured no big deal. We have a casino across the river in Gatineau, will a casino in Ottawa really create more gambling addicts? The more I have thought about it and the more I have listened to the discussion, my thinking has evolved. I don’t think we need a casino in Ottawa. I am not really a fan of casinos – I’ve been in a few and really I don’t find them that appealing. I think I buy the argument that they just draw money out of the local economy into unproductive uses. I also think that Ottawa is a great city with lots of attractions to draw tourists and that we don’t really need a casino to bring in more tourists. Lets think about some better ways to draw tourists. This is the national capital we should be able to think of a few things. I thought all the candidates gave good and thoughtful answers when this issue was raised at the debate last night.
- Transit and infrastructure – lots of this work finally underway. Whoever wins the seat is going to have to work with other provincial and federal representatives in Ottawa to secure additional funding for the next phases of the light rail system.
- Education – our school is finally going to all-day kindergarten this fall – just in time for our four year old to take advantage as she enters senior kindergarten. I think this is a great program that will only be of benefit to her and her classmates. Graduation rates are up, labour strife, with the exception of the debacle earlier this year, is virtually eliminated, test scores are up. In post-secondary there are thousands and possibly tens of thousands more students going through and completing post-secondary education. Lots of new capital construction on campuses to house and educate those students. Tuition still creeping up, but not doubling during the time it takes to get a degree as it did when I went to university in the Mike Harris years.
Healthcare – Again no comment
- Potential fatigue with a Liberal representative. Maybe, but this riding is not known for getting rid of long-time representatives. We have had the same city councillor for almost a quarter of a century which I think is too long. I’d prefer to have representatives who serve no more than eight to ten years. I prefer to have a more regular rotation so that the people who represent us also understand life outside of the political bubble. I am not so concerned with whether or not the party affiliation changes. Just because someone is of the same political stripe as another person does not mean they hold the same opinions or look at things from the same perspective. Parties evolve over time and change directions depending on the focus of their members and leaders.
- Local Representation – In my opinion the most important issue. Here is where I feel that John Fraser really shines and why he has my vote. I voted today in the advance polls so he already has it in hand. John has been involved in resolving issues and helping people in this riding and city for 14 years. He understands the levers of government and he will get things done for our riding and city. Others may learn this over time, but John has been exemplary in this role. I used to work at Queens Park and he would occasionally show up announced in our offices with an Ottawa issue to resolve and he would hang out in the office until we got it done or at least moved it a step closer to resolution. He is a velvet hammer – steely determination to get it done in a genuine, gentle and honest coating. Bronwyn Funiciello is the NDP candidate and also our school board trustee. I have not had any interactions with her on this front, nor have I heard about her dealing with any issues affecting our school so I can’t judge her on her abilities as a local representative. She has managed to get re-elected a couple of times so she must be doing something right. Matt Young is the PC candidate and until now does not seem to have played a significant role in the community outside of his professional life doing sales for a defence company. What I can say is that a couple of weeks ago I sent a question to his campaign regarding one of the items on his campaign literature and he has not yet decided to provide any information. I did get an abrupt email back from someone on his campaign requesting my street address for the constituent list. He did not identify himself as being with the campaign and it took me two replies to him to get confirmation of who he was and why he wanted my email address. Not the customer service orientation that I look for in a representative.
This has turned into a longer post than I initially envisioned. The polls suggest this will be a close race between John Fraser and Matt Young. I encourage everyone in Ottawa South to get out and vote. By-elections traditionally have a lower turn out than the general election so every vote really does count. Advance polls are open until 8 pm July 26th and if you don’t get out to vote in the next 20 hours or so, August first is election day.
What issues are important to you?
Have you decided how you are going to vote? Who do you support and why?