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Politics, Life and Journalism in Northumberland County, Ontario

Democracy not taken for granted

Recent events in Yugoslavia give residents of Northumberland County an opportunity to reflect. As we watched the citizens in Belgrade remove power from the oppressive regime of Slobodan Milosevic, one can only marvel.

We take our democratic freedom so nonchalantly and yet so many citizens around the world do not have anything near the rights we do. For the most part, we feel any effort to assert ourselves is fruitless. But as we saw in Yugoslavia, nothing is further from the truth.
There are two local cases where we have an opportunity to reconfirm our voices in the democratic process.

The first instance is the upcoming Liberal nomination, taking place on Oct. 21. While this involves local Liberals, it concerns us all. The reason for this is rooted in the heartfelt grief many people across the political spectrum felt with the death of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

For a brief time, we forgot our self-centred nature. Instead, we remembered our aspirations, compassion and love for our country. We recalled the equanimity of a just society where we all had a place at the table regardless of wealth, race, gender or creed (or province for that matter). There may be critics who say Trudeau did not practice all the attributes ascribed to him recently, but we cannot deny he has rekindled these feelings within many Canadians.

As local Liberals make a choice, they must realize the selection goes far beyond our boundaries. In fact, it is a microcosm of a much larger decision.

Deficit cutting, debt reduction, lower taxes and smaller government, we are the mantra of modern politics. This approach may be appealing, but it does not work. We know this to be true as we watch our drinking water become polluted, our health care system disintegrates and our children’s education drops by the wayside.

There are those within the Liberal Party who want to move toward this more fiscally conservative model, led by Finance Minister Paul Martin. With the government’s surplus, we hear about tax cuts and debt reduction. We watch a few crumbs tossed to those who suffer most as an election ploy. Where is the compassion? Where is the just society?

The result is a Liberal Party that has moved to fill the space left by the dying Progressive Conservatives, rather than a left-wing party. There are those that feel this is a natural evolution. But that is not necessarily true. This is what these past few weeks have reminded us as we mourned Trudeau. Yes, we can be financially responsible, but not at the expense of our core values as Canadians.

The person chosen to lead this local party in the next federal election faces a serious challenge. The federal Liberals have won the last two elections because of a split right-wing vote. The chances of this happening in an upcoming election are dwindling. Local Liberals can send a strong message to Ottawa and to voters in our community that a compassionate, caring political party is far from becoming a memory.

The second opportunity to exercise our democratic voice is a project being taken on by this local newspaper. Called Mission Democracy 2000, the publisher, editors and journalists are taking on an ambitious task of seeking input from voters. Rather than having candidates be responsible for defining the issues of the municipal election, it is a time for voters.

A survey was published on Saturday, seeking opinions on issues, but also an opportunity for people to identify things that are important to them. This grassroots approach is part of a movement in media called civic journalism.

Civic journalism began nearly two decades ago in the United States after newspapers and television stations watched as their audience stopped wanting news. Readership began to dive as people felt disconnected from the content. This was stoked by an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness by citizens. Not only was government not listening, but neither was the media, the other pillar in society meant to represent them.

In response, newspapers and television stations took on a new mandate. Rather than just inform people, maybe there was a role to educate and facilitate discussion. The media could help to find solutions, not just report on problems and then walk away. It was a chance to become part of the community, not just be the critics.

You should be encouraged to get as many people as possible to fill out the survey. Take them to your next service club meeting or book club or craft guild or union meeting or work place. Have everyone fill a survey out and return them to the newspaper office. The more turned in, the more accurate the result. Nothing would be worse than having politicians ignore the results because of a low return.

In return, the journalists will write about the issues and raise them with candidates. The answers will be published in news stories. Possibly a list could be developed and we could all watch as the new councils deal with each item. It may also be a tool for the next election, just to see how many issues were dealt with.

Democracy works because citizens are dedicated. Here is our chance.
First published:  October 11, 2000

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