Monday, June 23, 2014

Greater Sudbury Election Notes, Part 3: Melanson Tears a Page from Hudak's Anti-Family Playbook

With the first day of summer having come and gone, things are starting to heat up in Greater Sudbury’s political arena. On the same day that current Mayor Marianne Matichuk announced that she would not be running again for municipal office, ultra-right-wing candidate (and former Matichuk campaigner) Dan Melanson formally launched his campaign in a media event a Buzzy Brown’s. Melanson, who appears to be helming a well-oiled election machine, is now wearing the mantle of frontrunner, as the campaigns of other high profile candidates, including former Greater Sudbury Mayor John Rodriguez, and Ward 5 municipal councillor Ron Dupuis, appear to have stalled. Indeed, Mayor Matichuk claimed that part of her rationale for announcing that she was not seeking re-election was the hope that maybe somebody else would be emboldened to step forward to seek the Mayor’s office. That’s hardly an endorsement of any of the current candidates.

The Conservative Party at the Municipal Level

Not that Melanson seems particularly concerned about receiving Matichuk’s endorsement. Earlier this year, Melanson announced that the organization he has headed now for several years, the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers’ Association (GSTA), would directly intervene in the City’s municipal election by hosting all-candidates meetings in each ward, likely focused on the narrow range of small-government issues important to the GSTA. Of course, although masquerading as a citizens group, the GSTA is really little more than the Conservative Party at the municipal level. Since guiding his group forward to directly intervene in the election, Melanson stepped down as its head in order to run for the Mayor’s chair, in a transparent attempt to use the GSTA to stack the deck in his own favour.

In 2011, Matichuk’s campaign out-raised and out-spent any of her competitor’s campaigns – a pretty impressive feat for a candidate who had almost zero local profile in her community. Clearly, a monied machine was backing Matichuk. Likely, many of those involved in her successful bid for Mayor will be backing Melanson this time around. Since money speaks very loudly at elections time, other mayoral candidates are going to be fighting an uphill battle.

Uninspired Campaigning

And it may be an insurmountable one. Since announcing their intentions to seek the Mayor’s Chair earlier this year, both Rodriguez and Dupuis have been invisible. It could be that they’re planning on using the summer bbq circuit to shore up their support, especially with the unions and their potential supporters in the Sudbury and Nickel Belt NDP associations, but right now, their silence has been deafening.

And let’s face it: both Rodriguez and Dupuis are carrying quite a bit of baggage which they’ll have to figure out a way to jettison. Rodriguez in particular has a pretty massive challenge in front of him, after losing the last election to Matichuk, after 4 years in office riddled with questionable decisions and political cover-ups. Rodriguez’s only hope may be that Melanson ends up alienating more voters than he inspires with his hard right-wing anti-family agenda. Rodriguez’s campaign may have to wade into unfamiliar territory and play the fear card – a difficult option for a man who likes to speak positively about his community and Council.

Slash & Burn Politics

But the fact is that there is a lot to fear from Melanson. At his campaign launch, Melanson mused openly about selling off Greater Sudbury’s arena’s and recreational centres (see: “Melanson opens mayoral bid with call for leaner government”, Darren MacDonald, the Northern Life, June 20, 2014). Melanson questioned the need to continue paying for services and programs which municipalities aren’t “mandated” to pay for – although it’s unclear to whom or what Melanson was referring to with the term “mandate” (last I checked, the citizens of a municipality held the ultimate mandate with their votes – but I suspect that Melanson subscribes to a different view of where a council’s mandate comes from). Already, rumours are filtering throughout the City that Melanson and his small-minded GSTA backers want to have a public service fire sale, with everything from arenas to libraries to parks to seniors homes to children’s splash pads potentially on the “to be tossed” list.

Greater Sudbury voters recently saw another politician want to gleefully cut the very public services and programs on which their families relied upon for their quality of life. Melanson, like Tim Hudak before him, seems to relish the idea of handing out pink slips – certainly, during his tenure as the GSTA’s leader, there was no shortage of media releases calling for one or another public servant’s head on a platter. Using the tactics of bullies, Melanson and his crew successfully forced their way onto the municipal agenda, thanks to a compliant media that likes an easy to tell story.

Positives vs. Negatives

And that’s going to be another problem for Rodriguez and Dupuis going forward. Their election narratives will likely focus on the positives in our City, and their desire to build according to shared values and vision. Rodriguez in particular likes to talk about that vision thing at every opportunity. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that – indeed, I’ve always applauded him for doing so. But when your primary opponent has the ear of the media, which is the case with Melanson, trying to get print out of vision becomes that much more of a challenge.

The media likes to play up the game and goes for the stories which are easier to describe. We can expect Melanson and his crew to start slagging Rodriguez and Dupuis with dirty, nasty personal attacks – the moment that Rodriguez and Dupuis decide they really want to be in this game and start seriously campaigning, that is. Greater Sudburians deserve better than the disgusting, personal negative attacks that we’ve seen from GSTA supporters over the past four years (especially in the online comments section of our two newspapers, where the cover of anonymity has led to some pretty vile and truly disgusting remarks almost daily). However, Conservatives know that negative campaigning works – and it’s something at which they excel.

Selling Fear - No Hope Campaigns

Again, though, if the recent provincial election taught candidates anything, it’s that fear sells. Can Rodriguez or Dupuis take on the role of Kathleen Wynne (at least the role she played in the last two weeks of the provincial election campaign), and sell themselves as the anti-Melanson? Can they strike enough fear into the hearts of voters that Melanson’s anti-family slash-and-burn bully approach to municipal leadership will put the entire community at risk?

Melanson certainly likes to fuel that fire, and a like a leopard who can’t change his spots, no matter how often Melanson says that he’s a “consensus builder” his my-way-or-the-highway bull-headed bullying approach to getting want he wants seems to come out (see, “Dan Melanson willing to’butt heads’ with Sudbury council”, CBC, April 9, 2014). In that respect, there should be a lot for Rodriguez and Dupuis to work with, should they start finding their campaigns faltering on the message of "hope".

Melanson: A Cold, Uncaring and Diminished Sudbury

But being up against a candidate who will likely spend over $100,000 to become our next Mayor, who has turned into a media darling, and who has the benefit of a pretty serious campaign machine – well, it’s not going to be easy. Progressive forces in our City ought to take note: while it’s true that the Mayor is just one person on Council, Melanson and other small-minded core-services candidates backed by the GSTA machine are a clear and present threat to our quality of life. Rather than marching boldly into the 21st Century, Melanson wants to take Greater Sudbury back to the 1950s – and maybe even further back than that – to a time where property owners looked after themselves and didn’t give a hoot about community infrastructure which they couldn’t touch, like roads and sewer pipes. If you couldn’t afford to put your kids in hockey, too bad – the response was “get a job” (usually followed the flip of a middle finger).

Melanson’s “vision” of a cold, uncaring and diminished Sudbury is exactly the sort of landscape which progressives have to come together to oppose. An “every man for himself” attitude to municipal governance isn’t what our community needs to collectively face the numerous challenges of the 21st Century. An anti-family, pro-rich trickle-down economic platform would kill many of the worthy community-building initiatives underway in this City, including those related to transit and alternative transportation, enhancing the downtowns of Sudbury and our outlying communities, and enhanced citizen engagement in public processes.

Melanson may be the frontrunner, and he may have a lot going for him over the next several months. He’s going to try to pull the wool over the eyes of citizens (whom he constantly refers to by the belittling term as “taxpayers”). Are Greater Sudburians going to buy what he’s selling? We might end up doing just that unless an invigorated and truly progressive candidate steps up to the plate to oppose him and his small-government tea party.

After all, we’ve already bought it once before.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

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