Entries from February 2006 ↓

Hall talk

A Nassagaweya scene
Nassagaweya Hall is one of those places where people coming for a meeting have to unstack chairs and fold out tables. When they’re finished, the chairs and tables have to be put away again. The thing about Nassagaweya people is, they all help. Just what you do.

This is the top end of Halton, the piece that runs north from Highway 401 for 15 clicks or so, where the layout of lines and sideroads has not changed since they were surveyed with chains and marked off with stone columns almost two centuries ago, and where each concession is dotted with limestone homes and rubblestone barns that have stood there since before the telephone, before electricity, before Confederation.

It’s horse country, since the land is too rocky in most places to grow much of anything. There are a few swishy rural subdivisions, two of them in Brookville, where tonight’s meeting took place, and you can lay down a million and a half dollars, easy, for the privilege of planting a mail box there. But that kind of commutershed wealth is not the norm in Nassagaweya, which wears its Indian name with pride. Most people here are solidly middle-class. They also tend to the rebellious – survivalists on one hand who eschew the southern suburbanite lifestyle and get off on dissing Toronto, but who also desperately long for high-speed access. I like ‘em. A lot.

This was my first Town Hall meeting as a newly-reincarnated MP, set up to get more input for Jim Flaherty’s coming budget, and I knew it would be the smallest, here in the board-and-batten clad rural hall. But it was lively, engaging, spirited, frank and worthwhile. People spoke to each other freely, even uninhibited by your Mark, the volunteer, sticking his tape recorder out to each person who took the floor (our first, reasonably incompetent attempt to podcast a public meeting).

We talked about what these folks want the Conservative government to do, which ended up being income-splitting; eliminating capital gains tax completely; allowing retired couples lower-tax access to their savings; and coming up with better ways to build retirement savings. They also spent some serious time on the health care system (give people tax credits for not getting sick, and stress preventative care instead of reactive care) as well as agriculture (support the farmers, at, apparently, all costs).

There was also some dismay, some disquiet, that Tories now in power might lose their way, forgetting what those people who voted for them really wanted. To this crowd, that meant running no budget deficit, not falling for the failed Liberal trap of the Kyoto climate change agreement, while bringing true fiscal control and common sense back to the nation’s finances.

We talked for 90 minutes, and then everyone sat there and filled out the questionnaire/survey sheets I’d provided, taking the multiple choice questions seriously and leaving me with a new clutch of comments to ponder. Then back into the snow, with two dozen vehicles ending up being just so many ruts in the night in a parking lot off the Guelph Line.

This was not a big event. There were no memorable speeches. Nothing remarkable happened and the hall was as devoid of life and furniture when it was over as when it started. It was simply a gathering of plain people, strangers actually, on a Tuesday night to talk about the federal budget, political ethics, national taxation policy, wellness medicine, climate change, demographic pressures and agricultural sustainability.

Hey, happens all the time.

She can’t help it

So, Esther had the day from hell. New phone lines inherited from the last MP were installed in our office a few days ago, and they quit working. House of Commons poohbahs restricted her ability to get things fixed with their archaic rules and distant, condescending attitudes. Then the Internet line failed. That meant she could not complete an absolute ton of communicating that had to go out, including an email blast for my first Town Hall meeting tomorrow night.

Meanwhile people kept wandering into the office, assuming they were the only other humans left alive, and commanded her complete attention to their issues. Passports. Immigration. Wrongful dismissal. Whatever. Making the situation intolerable, of course, was me on the telephone between political meetings in Toronto, giving her four other projects to do and being irritatingly paternalistic about her technology woes.

And what should not be lost here is the fact that last night I dropped in to the riding office to sign in excess of 300 personalized letters Esther had prepared for me, in the newly renovated space she had designed and had built by guys who made her life impossible for the last week.

Oh, and did I mention she works six days a week? Well, Saturday’s an easy one – just eleven to three, which means she gets out sometime around six. Meanwhile – it is 11:10 pm right now on Monday night – she is online with me working on my schedule, getting a media notice out and dealing with constituent issues. Actually, Devin is online right now as well from Ottawa, where he and Gisele are working out of temporary offices, and spending their own money on cell phone charges and personal email accounts while we wait for the prehistoric Hill machinery to move MPs’ offices.

The point here is simple: These are entrepreneurial people who are bringing their private sector skills, drive, enthusiasm and appetite for success to serve the people of this riding. I have not asked them all to keep on working with me until midnight every day, but that’s what they do. We have had a fully-functioning MP Help Centre open since 48 hours after the polls closed on election night. We have completed designing, writing and printing our first MP communication which will be used in the door-knocking campaign about to start. We succeeded with our first immigration case four days after the election. And we have communicated directly, by personal note or letter, with more than a thousand people.

All this, while a new office was renovated; while a giant load of junk arrived from the other guys’ place; while our phones were going nuts; while constituents crowded the doorway; while national media drowned Esther and Sharon for a few days; and while my staff had to put up with me, in my usual hyperactive state of take-no-prisoners excess.

Our accomplishments over the month have been quite remarkable. What has happened on this website, with the launch of the digital democracy initiative in 17 days, has been mirrored in hard, physical reality in my Halton office. And, in case you cannot imagine it, constituency work is hard, never-ending and most often unsatisfying. People come to MPs often with problems nobody else can solve. They have needs which interface badly with the largest organization in Canada – the federal government. They have incomprehensible tax snarls, or convoluted entanglements with foreign authorities, or sometimes, just lonely or troubled lives that need a few drops of someone else’s precious time.

I think Esther believes I was quick and impatient with her today for caring too much about the people who come through the door. Maybe I was. Probably was. Here she is, phones busted, email failed, work undone, schedule shot, bureaucrats sniping, trying to find a smile and moment of true caring for someone she met four seconds ago. She does it because this is a voter and she’s a political animal. She does it because she’s a pro and it’s her job. She does it because she is Esther, and she can’t help it. It’s the right thing to do. Even when she has to hang up on me to do it.

I could learn from that.
Esther on election night

Halton gets the vote

My local weekly column, sent to area newspapers this morning.

So, was it only a month ago that we had the election? Driving along rural roads in Nassagaweya yesterday I spotted some election signs still sprouting out of the ditches. As I stopped and yanked them out, I thought about how intense a time it was when they were being whacked in.

Let\'s do it...In our area the election was hard-fought and turned into a large clash of visions for the future. I asked people to give me and my party a chance, and they did. Now, every day and week, I’ll try to do my best and the future will bring what it brings. And how am I doing so far?

Well, mixed reviews, I guess – judging by the stream of letters to the editor. Some folks were quite happy when I went to Ottawa for the first time, and spoke out against the prime minister snatching a Liberal and an unelected senator to sit in his cabinet. In fact, at an historical society awards event this last weekend, I was swamped with people expressing support, that I would say in Ottawa exactly what I had said here at home.

But others, of course, are riding me fierce for giving a hard time to the new prime minister, alleging this rebellious act on my part will keep me from having any influence up there in Ottawa among the government members. I can already hear at least one campaign shifting into low gear against me, should I decide to do this again when the next vote rolls around.

So, this is a fundamental question – what influence does your MP have now? The last guy, as you will remember, was a real party man who never strayed an inch from his prime minister’s position and claimed, as a result, to make Halton matter on the Hill. But my approach is different. My job is not to tell you what’s great about the guys running the country, but rather to tell them what you want. If you see it otherwise, then you know what the editor’s address is…

All I can tell you is that, since I got myself I trouble, I have had calls of support from other caucus members who will say to me privately what they did not to the media. A few of the names, I am sure would surprise you. And the PM. In addition, I have been spending time with the guy who some might consider Stephen Harper’s right-hand guy, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty – a man I know I can do business with.

Jim and I met for quite a while last weekend, to talk about the coming budget and what you want to see in it. (By the way, I have an audio interview with Jim on this topic on my web site – listen to it at www.garth.ca.) He is expecting a pre-budget report from me in the next few weeks, giving him four or five key suggestions for changes, which I think will focus mostly on improving the way families are taxed. The bottom line with Jim is that he’s completely open to what I have to say, and I feel our voices will be heard loud and clear as he sets policy.

I also told Flaherty about the series of Town Hall meetings we have coming up over the next two weeks, which will focus on these issues of tax fairness and the budget. Like most MPs, he has never hosted wide-open public meetings where anyone can come and say anything, and he’s asked me to let him know how these work out. By the way, remember – next week in Brookville, and the week after in Kilbride, Milton and Oakville. For locations, call the Help Centre (905) 693-0166.

Also told Jim, and other MPs who have been calling me, about my efforts to use the Internet as a big tool in becoming the best politician I can. Many things you might need for help with passports or pension payments or immigration are loaded online, and there are several ways at garth.ca for you to read about daily news on national issues; to comment on just about anything; to read my daily blog; listen to the latest audio broadcasts; and – most importantly – to vote on the same issues I’ll be voting on myself in the House of Commons.

The finishing touches to the vote function are being made now and by the time Parliament resumes (April 3rd), you will be the first constituents in Canada who will be have the ability to vote alongside your MP. This will help ensure your voice is heard in Ottawa and across the country. Your vote will not replace or supplant mine, but it will act as an instant gauge of whether or not I am reflecting the wishes of the community, and show us where more dialogue is needed to reach a common opinion, if that is possible.

Yeah, I know the downside of this, and also why many MPs will never want to provide such a thing to their voters. But here in Halton, your guy in Ottawa has a slightly different view. I happen to think this is your country and your government. Radical stuff, eh?

Garth Turner is a resident of Campbelleville and can be reached at [email protected]