Cities

LET THE PARTIES BEGIN

Why partisan politics would be good for cities

PETER SHAWN TAYLOR November 14 2005
Cities

LET THE PARTIES BEGIN

Why partisan politics would be good for cities

PETER SHAWN TAYLOR November 14 2005

LET THE PARTIES BEGIN

Cities

Why partisan politics would be good for cities

PETER SHAWN TAYLOR

AS MIGHT BE EXPECTED for a mayor in office nine years, Surrey, B.C.’s Doug McCallum has a long track record and a face familiar to voters. But McCallum has a few things most other mayors in the rest of Canada do not—such as a party machine behind him, a platform he can promise to implement, and an opposition united against him.

When B.C. voters go to the polls on Nov. 19 for their municipal elections, their ballots

will list the names and party affiliations of the candidates. McCallum heads the Surrey Electors Team (SET), running on a probusiness, tough-on-crime platform. His main opposition is the Surrey Civic Coalition (SCC), which rails against his “moneyfirst vision.” Political parties at the local level are unique to B.C. and Quebec, which is also holding its municipal elections this month.

to do that if the candidate was running under the flag of a certain political party.” Laschinger, who typically works for Tory candidates, likes the status quo. “Municipal politics really is local,” he says. “It’s about speed bumps and that new development on your street. People want to know someone is going to fight for their neighbourhood, and I’m not sure you get that with parties.” But his point, that a system without parties encourages a parochial approach to municipal politics, is the exact complaint raised by critics of the current system.

With big cities across the country demanding greater powers to tax and regulate, as well as receiving $5 billion in federal gas-tax money over the next five years, greater attention is being focused on how well cities govern themselves. In Toronto, for instance, scandals concerning computer leases and hiring practices have shaken confidence that

is also some evidence that parties, because they focus more resources on campaigning, increase voter turnout.

Most objections have to do with a desire to keep municipal politics collegial and non-partisan. John Laschinger is the dean of Canadian campaign managers, with 42 elections under his belt, including Toronto Mayor David Miller’s impressive come-ffombehind victory in 2003. His stock-in-trade is partisanship, yet he feels uneasy about parties in municipal elections. “I think you need a coalition of interests to succeed at the local level,” he says. “On the Miller campaign, we had union organizers as well as Conservative and Liberal political organizers working together. You wouldn’t be able

city hall is mature enough to handle all these new responsibilities.

The Toronto Board of Trade, representing the major business interests in Canada’s largest city, is frustrated that Ontario mayors have little ability to set city strategy or deliver on campaign promises, since they represent just one vote among many around the council table. Over the summer, the board proposed that Toronto’s mayor be given greater powers to control city hall. This could then lead to the emergence of parties, since political organizations tend to consolidate around power. “One advantage of political parties is that they promote a focus on accountability,” admits Bob Hutchison, chairman of the board’s executive directors.

If the benefits of greater accountability, more informed voters and better policies outweigh a loss of innocence at city hall, how can other provinces encourage the development of civic parties? Stewart suggests it may be as simple as amending one line of provincial law. B.C. and Quebec permit municipal ballots to carry party affiliations alongside candidate names. Other provinces, such as Ontario, forbid listing parties. “Change that one clause and you would have city parties springing up all over,” Kennedy predicts. “It would be better for politicians—and better for voters.” Iffl

And while it’s commonly held that municipal politics is better off for avoiding the bitter partisanship that parties entail, more cities would do well to follow the example of those two provinces.

Parties at all levels of government promote political agendas and bring people together who share common beliefs. “In a municipal election, the public doesn’t really know who you are,” says McCallum. A party affiliation means that voters who like his message can vote for the full slate of SET candidates. Others can vote SCC. “Slates of candidates with parties behind them help the public know what you stand for,” he adds.

Kennedy Stewart, a professor of public policy at Simon Fraser University, says the experience in B.C. and Quebec shows that party participation at the local level improves the quality of political debate. “With parties, politicians tend to be proactive and the issues are clearer: do you want to hire more police officers or build social housing? In cities without parties, you get a different kind of politics. Politicians generally run on platforms that say: T’m a great person,’ and once they get into city hall they are much more reactive and staff-driven.” There