Sunday, February 16, 2014

Pocket Boroughs

Back in high school we learned about rotten boroughs and pocket boroughs as we traced the development of the modern parliamentary system in England. Before the electoral reforms of the later 1800's there were a number of ridings with very few electors - the populations had moved away but the right to elect members to Parliament remained. In some cases most of the houses were owned by local lords, and as the secret ballot had not yet been adopted the few voters pretty much had to vote the way their landlords instructed. In the most infamous of cases, a riding with 10 houses elected two MP's. These MP's usually had no relationship or even knowledge of the ridings that they represented. It was just a convenient way for a party to get their supporters into Parliament. Wikipedia has an interesting article on this.

Nowadays I tend to think of a pocket borough as a riding where the voters so reliably support one particular party that the voting intentions can be taken for granted and any old candidate will do. The federal riding of Cumberland Colchester is one of those. As long as I can remember the riding has been held by the Progressive Conservatives, first by Robert Coates and then by Bill Casey, with a brief representation by Liberal MP Diane Brushett who won the seat in the great defeat of Brian Mulroney's PC party. Bill Casey held the seat until his resignation, and since then the seat has been held by the Reform (Republican) Party of Canada, operating under the trade name of the Conservative Party. Until the electors of Cumberland Colchester figure out the difference between the Reform Party and the old Progressive Conservative Party, Conservatives could run a dead dog as a Tory and get it elected.

Here in our provincial riding of Cumberland South we are definitely a pocket borough. It has been held by the Conservatives for as long as I can remember, except for a brief period when we were re-districted and Guy Brown of the Liberals held the seat. Since Murray Scott's resignation we have been represented by Jamie Baillie, leader of the provincial party, and a resident of Halifax.

Mr Baillie doesn't live here. The Municipality recently changed our garbage collection service, moving from a centralised transfer station to curbside pickup service. This change was made because the provincial government imposed household waste quotas on the county. Faceless bureaucrats in Halifax set standards for our landfills and we have to meet those standards, regardless of the costs which are borne by the municipal taxpayer. Our costs for this service are set provincially, but our MLA does not use our landfill system and he does not pay municipal taxes. He has no skin in that game.

The provincial government is steadily reducing the funding it provides to school boards, and our local school board has responded by laying off librarians and closing schools. Our MLA does not have any children or grandchildren in the county schools, nor does he have neighbours with kids in the schools. His kids are in the Halifax school system, which is generously subsidised with top-up money from Halifax Regional Municipality. He's not feeling our pain.

So how do we get real representation? At a recent public meeting  Mr Baillie said that his friend Mr Armstrong is a Robert-Stanfield Progressive Conservative, meaning I think that he is fiscally conservative and socially progressive. And also politically progressive. But if Mr Armstrong is a caucus member of the Conservative Party he will vote with them and spout their talking points. And the Conservative Party of Canada is far from a progressive party - it is the angry and embittered Reform Party that embodies all of the delusional and divisive attitudes of the Tea Party Republicans in the United States.

So how do we communicate with these folks? We have to assume first that they are even interested in hearing the opinions of their constituents, and then we enquire about how to interact with them. Mr Harper does not see most of his mail, as was revealed when even Mr Karl-Heinz Schreiber's letter to Mr Harper was diverted by bureaucrats into the dead-letter file. I would be surprised if our MP is even permitted to speak to anyone remotely near to the Prime Minister's Office. So why would we speak to Mr Armstrong when he has exactly as much influence as I do: one vote on election day?

Back when our MLA lived in our riding I used to see him often, and I saw his picture in the paper as he attended community events and Fireman's Awards Banquets and just about any gathering of interested constituents. Folks knew that they could speak to him.

And back when Bill Casey was our MP I used to see him also. And he stood up for us against the Prime Minister, and spoke for us.

Pocket boroughs sometimes give us good representatives, when their local riding associations are able to give us their best as candidates. But sometimes they don't, and sometimes they won't, and sometimes they can't give us good candidates. Like now.

As I have heard said, "How late in the day when pygmies cast such shadows."

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