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Analysis & Commentary

Battle for bacon

From The National, Dec. 19, 2005
Reporter: Joe Schlesinger

Connections. That's what keeps the bacon sizzling across the country.

Not all MPs are created equal.

So Election Day arrives, how do you decide how to mark your ballot?

Do you vote along party lines, vote strategically, who's the MP you think will best serve your riding?

Paul Zed, the Liberal MP for Saint John, is really only one of the more than 1,500 hopefuls running around the country trying to get elected. For candidates like him, there are no campaign planes, just shoe leather. No daily media exposure, mostly just chatting up the voters in places like the old city market.

With all the attention focused on the national campaign, trying to get noticed when you are a backbench MP like Zed can be a long, lonely slog. As Pierre Trudeau noted of Opposition MPs, backbenchers are nobodies away from Parliament Hill, but then they're not much more in Parliament either. In the House of Commons, backbench MPs are like children, expected to be seen but not heard, except, of course, to cheer their leader's every word and jeer their opponents. Their main role in the larger scheme of things is to vote the way their party tells them. So are they really necessary? You bet.

Especially now, says Donald Savoie, a specialist in government administration at the University of Moncton. That's because no party leader has come to dominate in this campaign.

"Because their leader can't bring in a lot of votes, (it) doesn't seem to have the national attraction that once leaders had, so the local candidate has to do more of his homework. We want them to bring home the bacon. That's the essence of politics."

Political bacon is the money a government can allocate at its discretion, by building, for instance, a $60-million prison in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's riding rather than somewhere else.

"I do not change at all, nor do I make any apologies for the government decision in regard to locating it at Port Cartier," Mulroney told the Commons at the time.

"It's history repeating itself. Trudeau took care of all his friends when he was in power," says Tony Detroyo, the mayor Port Cartier.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien took care of his by, among other things, lending a helping hand in the controversial public financing of a hotel in his riding. As far as Chrétien was concerned, it was just a part of his duty as an MP. "We work for our constituents all of the time. We're elected to do that," he said.

But not all MPs are created equal. How much bacon goes to each riding depends on where its MP sits in the House.

Those on the government's front benches tend to get most. Opposition members in the furthest corners may have to make do with a sprinkling of bacon bits.

Ridings held by cabinet ministers in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces got nearly $79 per person in aid, according to a study by two economists of federal development grants to the five provinces between 1988 and 2001 under both Tories and Grits.

In ridings represented by government backbenchers, it was $61. For ridings with Opposition MPs, it was not quite $49. But that's not the whole story. Ridings that elected Opposition members by a narrow margin actually got nearly as much as government backbenchers. That's because the government hoped to win them the next time around. Ridings in which the governing party had no chance of winning, on the other hand, ended up with a pittance. The bottom line, then?

"And so it's best to be on the government side, best to be visible, best to be on good terms with key ministers," Savoie says.

And Paul Zed sure needs all the help those ministers can give him. Before he won the seat last year, Saint John had been solidly Tory for 20 years. In fact, in the Kim Campbell meltdown of '93, it was one of the only two Conservative seats in the country to survive. Zed has two things going for him: The first is that in a tight national race, cabinet ministers will only keep their jobs if enough lowly backbenchers keep theirs. The other is that he has connections in Ottawa, some of which go way back to the '80s when he was an aide to a cabinet minister. One day, he helped an obscure member of a Saskatchewan provincial legislature with a problem. The MLA? None other than Ralph Goodale, the current finance minister.

"We were able to build four new housing units in a very small community called Estevan that would have helped Ralph with his re-election. Friends are important in politics. There's no question about that," Zed says.

No question at all, especially when you sit as far back on the backbenches as Paul Zed does.

A delegation of five mayors and some business leaders from Zed's riding visited the House of Commons.


We've been meeting with ministers of the cabinet, the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, ministers of finance and immigration," Zed says. "We've discussed the issues of concern to Greater Saint John such as harbour cleanup, immigration and affordable housing."

He has reason to be thankful.

The prime minister committed $44 million to a harbour cleanup.

But for that $44 million to be actually spent on cleaning up the harbour, the Liberals will, of course, have to be re-elected first.

For now, that money is just part of the flotsam and jetsam of billions in both Grit and Tory election promises. But Paul Zed does have a record of delivering the bacon.

He's added $200,000 to be distributed to the Coverdale Centre, the Saint John Women's Shelter and the Teen Resource Centre

Then there's this park being built in Quispamsis. Ottawa contributed nearly half a million dollars, more than half its cost

Ron Maloney, the mayor of Quispamsis, says, "My gut feeling is that I question whether he might have got this funding without him."

Maloney is one of the five mayors who accompanied Zed on that lobbying trip to Ottawa.

In the Sussex Town Hall, down the highway from Saint John in the riding of Fundy Royal, Mayor Ralph Carr, whose MP is a Conservative, can only sigh with envy.

"That was quite a coup, if I may use that word, for Paul Zed. Yeah, that was quite a thing. And he brought in with him three or four mayors from outside of Saint John," Carr says.

Coming from a Tory riding, it was different. Sussex wants to build a swimming pool on it, but can't afford it alone. A delegation went to Ottawa asking for help. They didn't get to see a minister, just a ministerial assistant, who gave them a sympathetic hearing but no money.

"We didn't have the MP in our area who was in the government. So you don't have that connection. That's very important," Carr says.

Connections, that's what keeps the bacon sizzling across the country. All that fat, though, has led to concerns that it's clogging the arteries of the body politic.

Janice MacKinnon is a former Saskatchewan finance minister who is now a professor of public policy at the university of Saskatchewan. Ottawa, she says, has showered the West with spending promises targeted to save cabinet ministers' seats.

"I don't think governments can continue to act cynically, because I think the Opposition does the same. You know, it's not a winning scenario. If you make these crazy promises and the Opposition makes the promises and the voter becomes more cynical and voter turnout declines, we have to start moving our way out of that idea. We really do," MacKinnon says.

Savoie says, "It's part of Canadian politics, and to say that they're going to abolish bringing home the bacon, it's just not on. It's not going to happen. It's part of who we are."

So much so that Zed is already looking beyond the battle against his election opponents.

"The real lobbying begins after an election, where you need to fight with other Liberals for something for your own riding. Your enemy in Ottawa is all the other members of your own political party who want something for their region," Zed says.

So no matter who wins in this election, in the next Parliament, the routine won't change for most MPs. They'll do their duty by casting a vote along party lines on issues large and small in which, for the most part, they've had little say.

They'll lend their voices to the traditional chorus of partisan catcalls. Then once they're done baring their teeth at the guys across the aisle, they'll get down to their day job, the essential bread-and-butter work of dealing with constituents' problems and fighting each other in the battle for bacon.


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