The First Rule of Politics.
I have long held the belief that the first rule of politics is to know how to count. I believe if our esteemed Mayor was still talking to me, he would admit that it was one of the first lessons he learned from me and he has applied it wisely on many occasions since. It is an important lesson however, especially in Huntsville, because when it comes to decision making in Muskoka, we are often on the short end of the stick.
There are plenty examples of this. There has not been a District Chair from Huntsville in 35 years. Few people living in Huntsville can remember when we last had an MPP or a Member of Parliament from our community. One might well ask, “Why not?”
The truth of the matter is that, based on permanent population, South Muskoka has more votes than North Muskoka. Huntsville is the largest municipality but the combined population of Gravenhurst and Bracebridge trumps it. Often, when it comes to a vote, the south wins.
In addition, although never officially designated as such, Bracebridge has long considered itself the ‘County Seat”. They have long believed that they are the heart of Muskoka and in fact that is what they have written on the welcome signs to their municipality. I remember when the signs first went up. I was then mayor of Huntsville and, tongue-in-cheek, I informed then-Bracebridge mayor Scott Northmore that we too were erecting welcome signs, with the slogan, “The Brains of Muskoka”!
There has always been a parochial tug-of-war between Bracebridge and Huntsville, often friendly but sometimes not, and certainly more subtle today than it has been in the past. I learned this lesson the hard way.
In the mid-seventies my parents were killed in an air crash and the radio station at which I worked in Huntsville that was partly owned by them was sold. I did not want to leave Muskoka and therefore purchased the Herald Gazette in Bracebridge, at that time their local weekly newspaper. A group of respected Bracebridge people, unwilling to have someone who hailed from Huntsville operating their local newspaper, backed the creation of a second newspaper in that community. It was a devastating time for me and a lesson I never forgot. At that time, I also ran for election as District Chair, and although I squeaked in, the District Councillors from Bracebridge voted against me. Message received.
I understand, of course, the realities of politics in Muskoka. Everyone should play the hand they are dealt. Bracebridge is no exception and they have always done a good job at it. However, how you play your hand depends on the cards that you are dealt and given that North Muskoka does not hold the majority of votes, Huntsville needs to be more strategic than their two urban counterparts to the South. Under these circumstances, closing doors on allies you may need in the future is a mistake, and cozying up too closely to wolves in sheep’s clothing could get you devoured.
A good example of this is the recent debate at District Council about giving the three Township municipalities an equality of representation at the District table. The three urban municipalities have the majority of our permanent population but the Township municipalities have the greatest assessment and therefore subsidize the urban municipalities. They argue that assessment should have equality with population.
On the face of it, in self interest, it made sense for Gravenhurst, Bracebridge and Huntsville to band together to shut the Townships down and Lake of Bays Mayor Bob Young’s ill advised motion to give Township mayors a second vote did nothing to help. However, strategically, I believe it was a mistake by our Huntsville representatives.
The Townships are furious that they are not allowed an equal number of councillors at the District table, especially when they pay the majority of the bills. Huntsville is in the weakest position of the three urban municipalities when it comes to voting strength. How much wiser would they have been to form an alliance with the Township municipalities to support their bid for equal elected representation at the District level?
All three urban municipalities have squandered their good will with the Townships. Huntsville could have maintained theirs by siding with the Townships, thereby having a potential constituency of District voting support in the future for important issues to Huntsville, such as sewage plants, nursing homes and health care. It was, in my view, a question of knowing how to count, not just for the short term, but for the long term. It could have changed the balance of power at District. It was an opportunity lost.
Knowing how to count is very important, especially in Huntsville when you don’t hold all the cards. It will matter in the ongoing hospital and health care debate, and it will matter when it comes to providing North Muskoka with its fair share of nursing home beds, and it will matter in other important ways as well in the years ahead. That is why strategic alliances are important and that is why knowing how to count is the first rule of politics.
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