Let's bring politics up close and personal
By Keith Roulston
Did you vote in the municipal election last fall? Odds are you didn’t, given that many municipalities patted themselves on the back if they managed to attract more than 40 per cent of possible voters to cast a ballot, despite going mail-in ballots, internet voting or call-in polls in the hope of increasing participation.
At a time when people around the world are risking their lives to fight for democratic government in their countries and when turnouts for Remembrance Day are highest in years as we celebrate the sacrifices of those who fought to protect our own democracy, why do so few people participate in the democratic process?
I’m not in a position to understand people’s lack of interest in local politics. I’ve been covering municipal councils since I was 20 years old. Most of the municipal politicians I’ve encountered in those long years have genuinely cared for their communities and were trying to serve their neighbours and fellow citizens.
Yet the lack of respect these people get was evident in the name Mike Harris gave to the 1999 bill that encouraged, or in some cases imposed, municipal amalgamation: the “Fewer Municipal Politicians Act”. Everytime an amalgamation was approved the government would issue a press release trumpeting the number of political positions that had been eliminated: as if local politi-cians were some sort of vermin to the eradicated.
Recently while doing some research for a writing project, I read through the early part of Eugene Whelan’s autobiography, the years when he was involved in municipal politics in Essex County. He recalled when local politics were so vital to the community that there might be fist fights when nomination meetings were held at the local township hall (there were yearly elections back then).
Whelan suggested that the imposition of regional government in the 1970s (he was writing before that Harris amalgamations) had made people feel less involved in their local government – that the more distance between people and their government, the less sense they have of involvement.
Municipal amalgamations were part of a drive for efficiency in government. Supposedly, if we had fewer municipalities costs would be reduced but I’ll eat my shirt if the cost of your amalgamated municipality has gone down, even factoring in 15 years of inflation. Yet even if costs had been reduced, even if bureaucracy hadn’t grown, what is real efficiency in a democracy: cheaper costs or people participating in their government?
The fewer people who are involved in local politics, the fewer people who care. Everyone else can shrug and leave the running of the municipality up to those scoundrels (after all we’d said the fewer politicians the better) who run for office.
The justification for having fewer politicians, was that you’d just get the cream of the crop. I haven’t noticed. After 40 years of covering municipal politics, I’ve observed you’ll always get a mix of good and bad no matter how few politicians you’ve got (Toronto needed one mayor chosen from 2.8 million people and ended up with Rob Ford). It seemed to me in my munici-pality we had fewer good candidates from any ward in last fall’s election than when each ward had its own council.
While people elsewhere in the world are fighting to attain democracy, Canadians thinks politics is just a messy game they try to ignore. Bringing government as close as possible to the people, putting a face on those who serve, might increase the efficiency of our democracy, not just the efficiency of the bureaucracy.◊
Keith Roulston is publisher of The Rural Voice. He lives near Blyth, ON.