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Why local politics should matter to progressives and moderates

Image: Steff Pinch

If there is anything people pay less attention to than provincial or federal politics, it might be municipal politics. Low voter turnout at election time and limited media coverage, along with what seems to be only occasional engagement, seems to indicate that this is the case. After all, a devil's advocate might say, people have a lot more interest in health care debates or education than parking ordinances and zoning bylaws.

But if, for whatever reason, you think that local politics don't matter, think again. There are a number of reasons that we should not ignore municipal politics.

A municipality is ultimately a creature of the province, and now manages an ever-increasing number of public services. From roads and public transit to public health units and property taxes, provincial downloading and the increasing complexity of society have made municipal governments more visible and more important to political life in Canada.

That means that those engaged in local politics have the opportunity to dramatically affect the lives of the citizens in their local communities. After focusing much of their attention on upper levels of government over the past three decades, conservative groups are doing just that -- focusing on local politics and unseating progressives from council and mayoral seats to win their kind of change. For progressives and moderates, it is vital that increasing attention and action be taken at the local level.

Indeed, recently there have been a few notable examples of this shift in focus among conservatives. Preston Manning’s project, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, has been particularly active on this front in its training program for municipal politicians.

And last year, prior to the Alberta municipal elections, a secretly recorded video surfaced where a Calgary developer proposed that he and his colleagues fund a group of pro-development city councillors to counter the progressive and very popular Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

By taking advantage of the Manning Centre's Municipal Governance Project, it was felt that a block of pro-development councillors could be trained and successfully elected to push a pro-development agenda.

Additionally, some allegations surfaced about funding the centre in exchange for this training and possibly funnelling donated services to skirt campaign donation limits for favoured candidates. This would have been neither here nor there had violations of campaign finance laws been discussed and seeking to press their financial advantage to get the sort of council that developers wanted. Luckily, Nenshi was soundly re-elected and this video raised disturbing questions about this particular Manning Centre project. Questions, I might add, that have never been answered properly.

This questionable strategy is being floated again for use in another upcoming municipal election taking place later this year. In July, the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute has talked of aggressively taking on the progressive Vision Vancouver party of Mayor Gregor Robertson by backing the Non-Partisan Association candidate Kirk Lapointe as their candidate of choice. All of this at the same time as they release a report arguing that the city of Vancouver is facing a debt problem -- one that the candidate of their choice is, presumably, the one to solve.

While it may be possible that these civically minded individuals are seeking to 'save' their communities from being the next Detroit, the advancement of such an argument is highly dubious. If these cities are managing to address the traditional fiscal conservative concerns of keeping their budgets relatively balanced and deficits at manageable levels, then we are left with the question of what it is that these organizations truly want to gain by venturing into municipal politics.

And that is perhaps the most important question of all. Much is made of the need to save cities from 'left-wing messes' -- well, at least if you were an attendee at Rob Ford's annual picnic in Toronto a few years ago that's what you would have heard. Sounds like a saviour’s complex, doesn’t it?

In this case, the 'saving' envisioned involve the cutting of public services deemed 'unnecessary' in favour of lower taxes, less government and 'efficiency'.

From my own observations and experiences of higher levels of government, this form of 'saving' doesn't deliver better services or more harmonious communities. Rather, it leads to clearly identifiable examples of long-term neglect as problems become more visible. Crumbling infrastructure automatically comes to mind, as we drive on roads that are increasingly riddled with potholes. We are no longer citizens in this viewpoint; we are nothing more than taxpayers. Communities are balance sheets to be subject to strict controls and arithmetic.

We need to collaborate with progressive and moderate councillors across the country, supporting them wherever we can. A community is more than just a balance sheet. Communities are where we live, work, play and recreate, and socialize. Communities play a vital role in controlling key local infrastructure; our quality of life and basic health care are at stake.

Only by working together and taking an active interest in local affairs will we be able to combat these false bargains and illusions to build the vibrant and wonderful communities that all Canadians deserve.

Brenna Slawich is a Canadian postgraduate student currently wrapping up her MPhil degree program with Cardiff University's School of European Languages, Translation and Politics.

Image: Steff Pinch


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