COLUMN: Straw man politik

MORRISBURG — The definition of a straw man is an issue put before the public by a government in power to focus their attention. This straw man becomes the lightning rod of criticism; enabling the government to deal with an issue far more severe. Ones they do not want public attention on. The straw man is most often seen in Ontario, trotted out by Premier Kathleen Wynne on a daily basis. Wynne has become the master of straw man politik.

This occurred Monday, when Education Minister Liz Sandals announced the tentative deal with the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO). Sandals stood at her evening press conference and proclaimed that kids will get their full fall report cards. That was the straw man. Labour strife is over, your kids will get their report cards. Any parent knows that the fall report card is a waste of paper as the school year has hardly began. This straw man covers the fact that the government released zero details of the tentative labour agreement. None. No term, amount of compensation, benefits negotiated, zip. All  those details do not matter. They will not be released until ETFO votes on the deal in mid-November. Even though the government has negotiated the deal, paid with money from the taxpayer, the taxpayer is not allowed to know. Details in past government-negotiated agreements were always released when announced. Even Wynne’s predecessor, Dalton McGuinty did that. Now we get news on report cards.

The arguments for selling off parts of Hydro One is a straw man. Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli set up the straw man of this sale being good as Ontario will pay down five billion dollars in debt. The other four billion will go into “infrastructure” spending. The five billion dollar straw man here is the pay down is a drop in the bucket for the nearly 293 billion in provincial debt. Ontario has the highest sub-sovereign debt in the world. By selling 60% of Hydro One, the province will lose control over a government asset. The public will lose oversight in the operations of Hydro One, as it will not longer be subject to scrutiny by the Ombudsman. The Ontario Sunshine List will get a lot lighter. As a publicly-traded entity, employee compensation will no longer be reported. That is the real end-game on the issue for the Wynne government, reducing transparency. Wages at Hydro One, especially for their executives, has been a thorn in every government’s side since the Sunshine List was implemented.

The sex education curriculum changes is yet another straw man designed to focus the public’s attention in one direction. Meanwhile the government fails to fulfill election promises in the other. Opponents and pundits (including this one) fell for it, lining up to challenge the changes to the sex education program in the province. Meanwhile the province has not fulfilled it’s pledge to put more resources in the schools. Using the “net zero” method of negotiating labour agreements with the various unions, someone has to pay for increases in compensation. This translates to fewer in-school resources for students. Every year, including this year, there have been reductions in support staff such as Educational Assistants and Student Support Workers. While everyone is focusing on sex education, students see less support in the class, especially those with disabilities or learning challenges.

Straw man politik is an effective way in managing the message and mitigating embarrassment for the government of the day. How do you deal with its overuse? When a government spokesperson, minister or flunky tells you about a solution to a non-problem, look around at anything but what the government wants you to look at. It will not take long to discover what the true intentions are and what they do not want you focusing on.

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