Consider This
Politics, Life and Journalism in Northumberland County, Ontario

County politicians need some inspiration from Obama

First published: March 13, 2009

The inauguration of newly elected United States President Barrack Obama is inspiring on a multitude of levels, engaging millions world wide. The first African-American person to be sworn in on Tuesday has captured the imagination.

President Obama demonstrated during the Democratic primaries and during the election this past fall that he is a shrewd political organizer and a great orator. Already, political scientists and historians remark on this phenomenal ability to campaign at a grassroots level, building coalitions between many different groups within society. This not only translated into victory on Election Day, but also helped him raise unprecedented amounts of money to fund his efforts.

But, Obama is also a master of political symbolism, as he has demonstrated so many times. There are almost countless examples, but more recently was his train trip to Washington, starting out in Pennsylvania and traveling through small towns and cities within the states surrounding Washington D.C. Not since Dwight D. Eisenhower has a present traveled by train to be sworn in. The whistle-stop tour included key speeches, as well as some slow downs allowing the new president to wave to crowds. The train is a huge symbol for the country, not only for its significance as a mode of transportation, but also for African Americans and the Underground Railway. It is also used as a metaphor for collective action, as it relates to the idea of “getting on board” with an idea or movement. There are many other interpretations.

Then, there is the evocation of Abraham Lincoln, with the speeches and concerts this past weekend. Obama will use Lincoln’s Bible for his swearing in. But, he has also made trips to the Lincoln Memorial with his family and publicly stated he created his new cabinet using a “Team of Rivals” approach similar to the one used by the Civil War president. Again, there are many other Lincolnesque references used by Obama, as well.

Canadian scholar Northrop Frye was famous for talking about the effect of language on the imagination. He talked about the use of every day speech or the language of science as being flat and plain. However, when one used symbolic language or metaphor, then it ignited the spirit. It would seem Obama knows this, as he reaches back into the past, borrowing from the great American leaders like Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. He also knows how to use his settings, like the trains and Lincoln Memorial, to stir up memories and excite strong feelings. It will be interesting, as he moves forward to begin governing, how much he will continue to use these techniques. If the patterns of the recent past are an indication, we should expect it.

It is in this context that Canadian politics, especially politics in Northumberland, looks weak and uninspiring. A perfect example was the election of Port Hope Mayor Lynda Thompson as Northumberland County warden.

Ms. Thompson was acclaimed last week after a delay in the election caused by a sudden illness last December. It is noteworthy that she was virtually named and nobody contested. The position is rotated between the various mayors on county council. It was her turn. Nothing could be more uninspiring or less democratic. If the county politicians see it as such, how can they expect residents in the county to get excited about what they do?

Thompson’s predecessor, Brighton Mayor Christine Herrington, leaves behind a dull list of achievements. There was the $1.3 Million upgrade to the recycling plant. A visioning session was held for future planning. Then, she spoke out during the Trent Hills flood last April thanking people for their help, but the response was driven locally by Trent Hills municipal leaders.

Then, there was the 6.13 per cent budget increase, adding an extra $75.40 to the average $250,000 home in the county. Also, there were the plans for a two-year term for warden fell flat. The Wilson Island Bridge controversy was sent off to the lawyers after Quinte West stalled on its contribution to the east-end bridge.

A poverty reduction action plan was heralded by Herrington in June, but no announcement was every made about the hiring of a contract person to set the plans in motion, as promised in June by county council. On top of all this sits the failure of the OPP countywide policing initiative.

This does not mean everything was negative. Herrington led the charge on a fight to keep Warkworth Penitentiary open. The fact that this affects her town in a major way might explain her motivation. Still, the county does benefit from her actions. County council also supported the 2-1-1 programs, which will provide a single phone number to call for social services information. Also, there was the $1 million for rural high-speed Internet announced late last year. And, finally, there was the arts guide for tourism, mapping out all the artist studios, galleries and the like around Northumberland.

It is a set of accomplishment more boring than a grocery list, led by a person who did little to inspire the residents of Northumberland County. We live in one of the great places in Ontario. Let’s hope local politicians, especially the new warden, takes a page from this week’s events and Obama’s methods to bring them to Northumberland to light up the imagination rather than letting it be dulled by the current practices.

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