Sabrina Macpherson: Ontarians are getting what they paid for
Ford is governing like he only has to worry about a small, motivated minority of voters. The problem is, he's right.
By: Sabrina Macpherson
Late on Friday afternoon, amid all the sound and fury over the striking education workers in Ontario, Queen's Park released two news updates unrelated to the labour dispute. I first learned of them on Twitter, and then only from two of the smaller environmental accounts that I follow. Larger outlets would eventually pick up the stories a few hours later, when most people were eating dinner and settling into their weekend.
One release shared the news that despite having promised not to develop the area known as the Greenbelt, Ford's government has plans to do exactly that. The substitution of land in other places completely ignores the problems with habitat fragmentation, and is intended to serve as a distraction. "We swapped that bit of land for this other bit! It's a fair trade!" — as though sections of land were like Pokemon cards, and the plant and animal life within them equivalent and easy to reorganize.
The second announcement was that Ford's government overruled the city of Hamilton's decision not to expand urban boundaries. This is the first large Ontario municipality that decided it would not vote for continued sprawl. The provincial government effectively responded: "Wrong, you're not the one who gets to decide what development happens, we are."
I want to be clear before I continue to my main point: I supported the striking workers. I supported them because they deserve a living wage for the important work they do, and they deserve a government willing to negotiate with them in good faith. The use of the notwithstanding clause to preemptively make strikes illegal is a tactic that would have, if successful, have had implications for labour workers across the country. By Monday, the two sides had agreed to resume negotiations and to re-open schools, and Ford had pulled use of the clause. That’s good. I hope a fair deal is reached.
Along with that, I'm a voter whose primary motivations are around environmental issues and how they can and should intersect with functional public policy. (I'm really fun at parties). We absolutely need more housing in this province, but low-density housing in these areas will neither meaningfully relieve our housing supply problems nor protect our over-fragmented greenspace.
All that said, my biggest frustration this week isn't about the substance of these issues. I want to make a different point, about how and why people pay attention to political news … or don't. To be clear, I'm not talking about myself or, likely, most of the people reading this. I subscribe to a Canadian political commentary substack — four of them, in fact. I scroll through Twitter many times a day because it's faster at delivering political news and analysis than most news apps, though I check those regularly, too. I read lots of different sources and perspectives. I talk about politics with my family and friends and even some of my coworkers. I am a Highly Engaged Suburban Mom (TM), whose distaste for the extremes on either end of the political spectrum leave me in the centre looking for someone to vote for with confidence. Again, fun at parties.
I pay close attention to what our provincial government is doing, but that task isn't exactly easy. It requires that I have the time to read and think through all the different sources I'm following. It means if I read something that seems off, I go looking for official secondary sources that can confirm or deny what I've read. I vote in every election, and I regularly write my MP and MPP whether I voted for them or not. I know that I'm putting in time and effort that a lot of people simply don't have. And yet, I'm grumpy and preachy when most people don't vote, as was the case in the Ontario election this past June, where only 43.5 per cent of the population cast ballots.
Forget being hyper-engaged like me, a lot of people simply don't pay attention to political news at all. Generally they're not also engaged in civic activities at any level. And I understand that. It shouldn't be this hard for people to keep their finger on the pulse, to learn about the people running for office, to participate in democracy and feel like you're getting something important out of it in return. But the fact that the task is hard and only getting harder doesn't erase its necessity. We have to get engaged in politics, or we lose the opportunity to have a government that genuinely responds to our interests.
Governments are like computers this way: sure, you can be mad at your laptop for not letting you format that spreadsheet the way you want it (fun at parties, I swear!), but in the end the machine is only doing what it was programmed to do. It takes inputs and spits out outputs in response. With government, if the inputs are that most people don't care, then the outputs will serve the few who show up and make their wishes known.
I know what it sounds like to say "if only everyone were more like me, things would be great!" I'm truly not that egotistical. I'm just convinced that you get what you pay for. At the end of the day if individuals won't pay for the government they want with their time and engagement, then lobbies for interested parties most definitely will. If we do not pay attention and demand good governance, we cede our power.
There's an obvious rebuttal here, to say "Well, maybe the lack of voting means this is the government they wanted!" But I'm not convinced: I've spoken to people over the last week who weren't all that fussed about voting in June, and now they're upset about the ways that they feel this government is failing them. There's a disconnect between how people feel about what's happening politically and what they feel they can or should do in response. There are lots of reasons for this disconnect, and I don't have easy fixes for how it can be made better. But I believe that people paying more attention to politics on an ongoing basis seems like a good first step in the right direction.
If a government is going to renege on commitments to protect greenspace, if they're going to override the decisions of municipalities that they were not elected to direct, if they're going to even consider using the lever of extraordinarily powerful constitutional clauses to deny union workers the right to use a strike as a tool in their bargaining kit, then they should fear the response of the people. They should worry that they will lose their mandate, at the very least.
Instead, the government of Ontario is currently acting as though they can govern to serve a small group of invested stakeholders who have made it clear that sprawling development and the persistent under-funding of key public institutions are their dearest desires. Because they are governing to that small group. The general public's attention and energy are fragmented to the point of abstraction, and those who sit at Queen's Park understand the leeway this grants them to do what they please. I don’t know how we can change this. I just know we have to try.
Sabrina Macpherson loves spreadsheets and lively conversations, just not at the same time. She lives in southern Ontario with her husband and son.
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