For the sake of argument

We need political parties in civic government

W. D. YOUNG SAYS September 26 1959
For the sake of argument

We need political parties in civic government

W. D. YOUNG SAYS September 26 1959

We need political parties in civic government

For the sake of argument


The level of government which affects Canadians most intimately is that which is least respected and most ignored. In no other sphere of government is the traditional Canadian apathy more apparent than in that of civic government. Newspapers speak of a “good turnout” if as few as twenty-five to thirty percent of the eligible voters go to the polls to choose a mayor and aldermen. As citizens we refuse to take our city government seriously in spite of the fact that our health, protection from fire and criminals, the education of our children, the condition of our streets and the sanitation of our communities is either directly or indirectly controlled by our city councilors.

Of perhaps even more immediate importance to some is the fact that council decisions to build this or repave that can have a severe impact on the ratepayer's pocketbook. No level of government affects our daily lives more, yet, while complaining bitterly over the breakfast table or in the cocktail bar about rutted streets and raised mill rates, the citizen is loath to go to the polls on election day to make his voice heard through the democratic machinery provided.

What can individuals do?

But how effective can the voter be and how democratic is the machinery as it now stands? Can the individual citizen provide the cure for the disease of inefficiency and irresponsibility which afflicts so many city and municipal councils in Canada today? In other words, is there much point in making the effort to go to the polling stations? One would like to say that there is; indeed, service clubs urge that it is our duty to vote. But as things now stand there is little the individual voter can do to change things. He has no say in the selection of candidates. He has seldom anything but the vaguest of informatkin about important civic issues, and if he did there is little

that his one vote could alter or influence. He has no effective means of exercising either influence or choice in the selection of those who yearly spend millions of dollars of the taxpayers’ money. It is the absence of any form of political organization on the civic level that prevents the voter from exercising any influence. It is this electoral chaos which enables the organized minority to run our civic governments.

How can the average citizen vote intelligently if he knows none of the candidates and has no banner behind which he can rally? To make his voice effective the voter must be organized. Political parties exist for this very purpose, and the introduction of political parties into civic governments would solve many of the problems besetting these governments today.

At present there is absolutely no real basis for making an intelligent choice in a civic election. Candidates seldom stand for anything more than election. On election day the ratepayer is faced with a slate of nonentities whose sole claim for support in most cases is based on a complete absence of both program and experience. No attempt is made to excite the interest of the voter in civic issues by the free and intelligent discussion of these matters from the platform; to do so would mean that candidates would have to take a stand on a matter of importance and this is seldom done in these contests, for the candidate himself would have to understand the matters at stake and, if elected, would also have to be reasonably sure of being able to do something about them. This is at present impossible, for our city councils consist of a dozen or so one-man pressure groups who cooperate, if at all, only in their vilification of the mayor. The poor alderman who did take a stand would be quite frustrated by his inability to get action. As a result candidates promise only to give “good government,” whatever that may mean,

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The voter who follows the campaign is met, as the Winnipeg ratepayers were last fall, with a campaign devoid of important issues, intelligent controversy and definite platforms. Instead they were offered the following as a basis for intelligent selection: Urge city participation in the Grey Cup parade, reduce the number of aldermen, introduce compulsory home repair, abolish cocktail bars, provide land for service clubs to enable them to provide homes for the aged, accusations that the incumbent mayor attended too few committee meetings — the main plank in one mayoralty platform — and finally a proposal to build more swimming pools “because Winnipeg's youth has shown its worth in its spectacular battle against the Winnipeg flood.”

No mention of slum clearance, metropolitan government, capital city development or the multitude of other problems which affect the ratepayer far more than the alleged absenteeism of Mayor Juba. If nothing else, this indicates a remarkably low estimate of the average Winnipegger’s intelligence. Who would bother to vote in such circumstances?

Political parties would effect a simple solution. If any proof is needed, simply imagine the situation in the provincial or federal fields if there were no political parties. The government of our provinces and our nation would be as chaotic as is that of our cities. Clearly there are good reasons for the existence of political parties, reasons every bit as valid at the city level as at the federal and provincial levels, for democratic government is impossible without parties.

A multitude of divergent opinion, no matter how honestly held, does not produce government. Political parties act as magnets to iron filings; they organize and focus a mass of varied opinion around a .-rural philosophy or platform. They en.ble the voter to know what he is voting or even if he may not know whom he is "oting for. They make possible a concentrated and therefore effective expression of citizens’ opinion. Parties stand on a definite platform and, if elected to form the government, are clearly responsible for putting their program into effect. At each successive election the voter knows who was responsible for successes and failures, and he votes accordingly. Parties provide leadership, direction and responsibility. Such is the basic stuff of democratic government but it seems to be ignored in civic government.

But this raises a bogey which, for no apparent reason, has haunted civic government in Canada—the bogey of “politics in city hall.” It is a shade which many a mayor and alderman has paid homage to by campaigning, and often successfully, on the meaningless platform of “Keep politics out of city hall.”

It is unfortunately true that the term "politician” has become a synonym for all that is shady and disgraceful, associated as it is with so-called “bosses” and "machines.” This is more the case at the civic level than the federal, for nobody would apply the term in that sense to John

Diefenbaker or Lester Pearson. “Politics in city hall" seems to mean graft and corruption, bribed constables and surly garbage men. This is pure fancy for it is the absence of political parties or “politics" in this sense that leads to corruption. Examine any of the civic scandals which have occurred in recent times or those which are giving concern right nowin Calgary, Belleville or Brandon and the proof is there. To keep politics out of city government is to prevent the citizen from exercising any effective control.

This wdiolly unreasonable fear has

such a grip that in most cities there are groups which are avowedly dedicated to the maintenance of civic purity, by which is meant no parties. Variously called the Civic Election Committee, the Civic NonPartisan League or the Non-Partisan Association, they put forward slates of candidates opposed to “machine politics” to offer voters a w'ide choice of so-called independent candidates.

These are curious groups for by their very nature they are partisan. As soon as they set their seal of political chastityon one candidate as opposed to another

they cannot be considered independent. As a specific group supporting specific candidates they are nothing if not partisan political parties, the only difference being that recognized parties have a program which they announce publicly and are subject to more rank-and-file control than are these anonymous groups whose entire program consists of the promise of “good government." While one hesitates to question the motives of such bodies there is no reason to believe that time and money are being spent purely in the interests of "good govern-

ment." What "good government" means to such "non-partisan" groups may mean quite something else to (he ratepayers.

Candidates elected under a "non-partisan" banner are, in effect, given carte blanche by the voters, for within the bounds of "good government" anything goes. It is the absence of democratic political parties which leaves the field wide open for such organized minorities to control the government of our cities and municipalities. If the municipal ship of state runs aground, who is to blame? For no sailing directions were given and

none were offered when the captain and crew were chosen; nor was anyone put aboard to act specifically as a pilot to see that the course steered was straight and true. Only the anonymous pressgang has any real control.

With political parties in civic government elections would he fought vigorously with each party putting forward a slate of candidates pledged to support the party program. The party with the majority in the council could put its policies into effect knowing it had the support of the majority of the voters. The rate-

payers would know that the city was being run for the majority of its residents. The minority groups in the council would function as an official opposition.

There is at present no organized scrutiny of the activities of a city government for those expected to scrutinize and criticize are also expected to govern. The opportunities for mutual back-scratching are all too golden. This is not to imply that all councilors and mayors are shady characters; most are conscientious and honest, but city government today is big government handling huge sums of pub-

lie funds; it is not the local PTA.

The existence of a majority clearly identified with a party program would draw clear lines of responsibility. Gone would be the tendency now prevalent to abdicate responsibility in council by passing the buck to the electorate by means of one referendum after another. It is difficult to see how the average ratepayer with, to say the least, imperfect knowledge of the issues involved can be expected to make the right decision when those elected to govern cringe from the task. Certain matters must, by provincial statute, be decided by referendum; but all too frequently this device is used to enable a thoroughly divided council to avoid the problem of making up its mind on some major problem. It is a refuge for the weak and the uncommitted, for none may be blamed for failure and all may take credit for success. A victorious party would have a mandate to govern and would be wholly responsible for all aspects of civic administration.

If we did have real political parties then no longer would the ratepayer, bored and bewildered, avoid the polling booths on election day. Not only would the voter be treated to a thorough examination of all vital matters from the public platform and be thus able to make an intelligent choice; he could also exercise direct influence on the drafting of the party program and in the selection of candidates by the simple act of joining the party whose views he favored. In short the voter could assume his rightful place as a citizen with a direct say in how he shall be governed and by whom. Without parties the voice of the individual citizen is lost in the babble of the inchoate amateurs who inhabit the council chambers of Canada’s cities. Only if he is organized — and the existing parties are ready-made vehicles for this organization — can he exercise his rights.

A side effect of no mean importance would be the full - time use of party organizations which now tend to lie dormant between provincial and federal elections. The result would be a direct increase in the level of interest and participation in the business of democratic government right across the board. It is one of the failings of democracy that it is conducive to apathy — the very attitude which can destroy it. Active participation in the affairs of government and hence of political parties is the duty of the citizen; and it should be noted by those who associate parties with evil that they are best controlled from the inside.

It is time that the spectre of "politics in city hall" was properly exorcised and civic government put on its rightful democratic basis. To get the voter out he must be given something to vote for, something to choose. He must be made aware of the problems of government in his city and his vote must be made effective. Without parties in civic government we must remain content with the disgraceful but nevertheless understandable apathy of the citizen; we must remain content with the inefficiency, lack of direction, petty corruption and irresponsibility of civic government carried on by men who. while undoubtedly sincere, have no real understanding of the democratic process and whose policy consists in little more than that vaguest of catchall phrases, "good government.” A citizen of Calgary might comment, tongue in cheek, that "something concrete must be done to cement the bonds of democratic control and responsibility to the framework of civic government."

The extension of party politics to the sphere of city and municipal government is the obvious answer, it