It wasn’t too long ago that I asked someone from Niagara if Mel Swart was still around. Even with the news of his death this week I can confidently say that he will be around for quite some time to come!
While I am sure there will be many articulate tributes to Mel, as there already have been       , I have been recalling him as a political figure in the context of my decade as a young journalist, in private radio, in Niagara Region.
Mel was a walking news conference.
I don’t know where he learned his communications tricks but they made for legendary stories among my peers in the media, in and around his constituency, then called Welland-Thorold. Back before proceedings of the Ontario Legislature were televised to any great extent (besides, the closest television station was in Hamilton, well away from his riding) Mel would phone every radio station and, I’d imagine, every newspaper when he had an issue to raise.
Mel’s speaking voice, and I don’t mean to be unkind, was distinct, characterized by a Sylvester the Cat-like quality combined with a similarly predictable cadence (predictable enough, at least, that my co-workers and I, insensitive cads that we were, all took turns imitating him – some better than others).
Nevertheless, Mel was always so prepared for his media phone blitz that it is easy to create a composite sketch, as in radio sketch:
“Yes, Mel Swart here. I raised a matter in the legislature today on the issue of ____ (auto insurance would be a safe bet; more on that later) and I could give you a couple of clips…”
“Absolutely. Just hang on a moment, Mel, while I get the tape ready…okay, Mel, go ahead!”
“Well as you know I fired off a letter last week to the Premier, letting him know my feelings on the need for public auto insurance. Well today, although he wasn’t in the House, the Premier let me know that he was giving the issue his full consideration and so I will certainly be following up with him in the weeks to come.”
Nine times out of ten, no matter what the issue was that Mel had decided to raise, we could find something newsworthy enough for a locally-focused radio station. Mel called everybody – right from the days when I was News Director of my campus radio station through my part-time job at the then-country music station in Welland and, finally, at the local radio news leader in St. Catharines.
Mel worked hard – really hard – for the people of Welland-Thorold and, as a New Democrat, he modeled a social conscience which I recalled fondly as I grew into an active New Democrat myself. His successor in the legislature, Peter Kormos (whose riding is now known as Niagara Centre), clearly took some lessons from Mel in creating a style of representation that is down-to-earth and populist, often characterized as “maverick”.
It was a falling out with Bob Rae – that nominally New Democratic Premier remembered so fondly in Ontario (pardon my sarcasm) – a falling out over, if memory serves, the Premier’s backing away from Mel’s longstanding proposal for a public auto insurance plan which severed the once good relationship between Mel and Rae. (Mel had, in fact, formally nominated Rae as party leader at the 1982 convention. Rae, of course, unexpectedly won a majority government two years after Mel retired and when the NDP’s support began tanking Swart publicly called for Rae to step down.
Bob Rae, now the Liberal he is ambitious to be, may or may not be at tomorrow afternoon’s memorial service for Mel in Thorold. He would not be missed as I am sure there will be an overflow crowd to say farewell to a wonderful representative of the people.