If there’s one way to get people to pay attention to you, it’s to name yourself after one of the loudest political phenomena of the past two years. At least, that seems to be the idea behind the Tea Party of Ottawa.
I spoke to Dave MacDonald, the Tea Party’s lead organizer by phone Wednesday and asked him: what’s in a name?
“There’s instant recognition with it,” MacDonald said. “Most people have a reaction one way or another, whether it’s positive or negative. What’s happened in the US when the Tea Party has been involved is voter turnout has been higher – and that’s both people who are favourable to the Tea Party and those who are opposed to it. And I think that’s good for democracy.”
MacDonald is quick to point out the low voter turnout in the last municipal election (54% of the electorate voted in 2006) and low turnout is bad for democracy. But even more importantly, he hopes the Tea Party of Ottawa can use the internet to keep candidates accountable and raise the level of debate in the municipal election. He will also be organizing a rally at City Hall this Saturday, October 2, at noon.
Until then, MacDonald will be using his website to publish candidate’s positions. He is asking for clear answers and for candidates to prove they know what they’re talking about.
“I think we are too quick to dismiss to the ideas of people we think are on the opposite side. I hate when they say ‘my opponent.’ I wish they’d say my competitor, because the people running for council now are doing so with the best of intentions. They are doing so with the hope they can make the city a better place.”
One of the distinct impressions I got was that he doesn’t like to talk about himself. When I asked him where he worked, he said some vague things about government and law, but that he would rather not say. He didn’t even really want to talk about the Tea Party organization, though he confirmed it isn’t a one man show. He said he’s “too old” to run a website and a Twitter (in fact, he said he was initially opposed to a Tea Party of Ottawa Twitter).
While MacDonald’s rheotirc isn’t quite as bombastic as the US Tea Party, that hasn’t kept American Tea Partiers at bay. You need look no further than the Tea Party of Ottawa Facebook Page. On it, Paul Beaird has made long posts about Obama’s healthcare plan, the American constitution and what the benifits of reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Interestingly, the Ottawa Tea Party is receiving Beaird’s posts with somewhat polite dismissal – Ottawa Tea Partiers have responded with simple posts pointing out the Ottawa is not subject to the American Bill of Rights, but instead the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
MacDonald doesn’t think having Americans on board is an issue:
“One thing in a democracy is that you want people to feel free to express themselves. You notice that I haven’t censored any of the opinions that have been on the website – whether they’ve been positive or negative. I think it’s good for democracy that people are able to express those views. Am I concerned? Certainly people are thinking this is an American organization, but it’s not. The truth is all the political parties – with the exception of the Bloc Quebecois – have their roots in other countries.
“I think we can learn from other countries. I’m certainly a proud Canadian”
MacDonald said that he hopes to eventually endorse some candidates, though he will continue to publish their responses to his questions publicly.
“I’m taking my time, because it’s difficult to get candidates to take a position – they don’t like it. I refer to some politicians as being professional politicians. They know how to answer some questions in such a way that they don’t reveal where they stand on the issue. Many of the slogans don’t say very much, whether it’s ‘integrity’ or ‘change’ – they don’t have any meaning unless they’re backed up.”
He said candidates’ comments should be posted online so politicians can’t pander as they travel from Kanata to Orléans or while some deliver platitudes to the Friends of the Library. He said some candidates have sent them more conservative responses to the Tea Party “because they think we’re a conservative group.”
He’s cautious about electoral reform or the idea of party system, but he did say that he thinks some change is necessary – something that responds to increased media availability, so people will check up on their candidates.
“I think this election will be very telling, though. If all the incumbents are reelected, I think we need to look at what changes need to be made, because we’re spending a lot of money on these elections and I don’t think we’re getting a return on our value.”
When it comes down to it, the Ottawa Tea Party distills some of the basic values of its American cousins. Behind the placards, protests and rallies that have made it famous, the Tea Party maintains a basic a distrust of the spin and obfuscation that has come to characterize professional politics, as well as a genuine hope in the democratic process.
Like a true democratic citizen, MacDonald said he hopes that the response to his rally on Saturday is “mixed” and that it gets people to focus on the issues in the election. It will be interesting to see who turns out.