Saturday, October 15, 2011

Time for party politics in municipal elections?

The following is a re-print of my weekly column at Our Burlington online newspaper.

Having just wrapped up the provincial general election, it occurred to me that Ontario voters seem more inclined now than at any time in the past to vote for a particular party (or its leader) than for an individual candidate. And, if I’m right, then why not bring party politics to Burlington’s municipal elections?

I contend that name-recognition carries far more weight in garnering votes in municipal elections than does informed choice. Very few people I know can claim to be making fully informed choices when they vote for candidates in municipal elections, especially for city councillors and members of school boards. Many know something about the mayor and, maybe, their ward’s city councillor if he/she is an incumbent. But, for most, that’s about it. Some evidence supports the notion that one’s name being at the top of a list on a ballot can be a decided advantage. And few will dispute an incumbent’s advantage over a newcomer in municipal politics.

Some are concerned over “party discip­line” with the inflexibility of not voting for good ideas put forward by the “oppo­sition”. But, with­out the concept of a con­fidence vote, how much of a prob­lem would that be? Af­ter all, munic­ipal govern­ments don’t fall on a crit­ical vote—there is no such thing as defeating a govern­ment on a single vote at the munic­ipal lev­el as there is at provincial and fed­eral parlia­ments and leg­is­la­tures.

There are those who believe believe party politics restrict the number of candidates than can run with a realistic chance of winning and say that explains independents doing poorly in federal and provincial elections. That may be so at provincial and federal levels; in small local elections, however, I believe independents have a fairer chance of gaining recognition and winning, especially if election spending were controlled.

Municipal party politics exist, for example, in cities like Toronto—however unofficial that existence may be. They have for decades. Some argue that, while candidates may hold political affiliations, they are not influenced by their parties. Hmm, I wonder, don’t you?

Municipal party politics need not mirror counterparts at the federal and provincial levels. Montreal and Vancouver provide examples of cities whose municipal parties are not aligned with any senior government party. Each of the local parties presents their candidates for mayor and other city positions. The city of Vancouver is governed by the 10-member Vancouver City Council, a nine-member School Board and a seven-member Park Board—a scale not much different from Burlington’s. Party politics work in Montreal and Vancouver, and probably would work as well in Burlington.

What then are the advantages of party politics? Here are a few:

  • Name recognition is a mindless reason to cast a ballot and would be supplanted with votes for a party with a thought-through platform of pertinent new ideas. Newcomers would have a fairer chance of being elected: incumbents currently have too much of an advantage—they have the highest name recognition—and are too seldom defeated by a newcomer even after coasting through their entire previous term.
  • Municipal party politics already exist unofficially. Would it not be better to make party affiliation open and transparent? Then we would know who stands for what when we vote for them.
  • Since political parties see it as being in their best interests to recruit candidates who reflect the diverse nature of our community—a greater degree of diverse representation would then follow. Members of minorities have better chances of being elected with party organizations supporting them.
  • Lack of financial support is a common problem for many otherwise qualified would-be candidates. Parties have greater potential for fundraising than do relatively unknown individuals.
  • At the end of each term, residents and media would have a better sense of the performance of each party’s team. And, with party platforms as guides, voters would have clear alternatives from which to choose their next representative.

I believe we already have party politics of a sort playing out at Burlington City Hall—voters just aren’t clear who belongs to which group. In Oakville, we saw party politics writ large as most Town councillors lined up solidly behind Councillor Max Khan during his successful bid for the Liberal riding nomination for last May’s federal election. During this past provincial election, Burlington city councillors Marianne Meed Ward and Rick Craven stood by Liberal candidate Karmel Sakran’s side during his press conference outside City Hall as he discussed the effect of provincial downloading on property taxes.

Don’t expect me to believe party affiliations don’t already play a role in municipal politics. And I believe we’d all benefit if our elected politicians were open and transparent about it.



© Russell G. Campbell, 2011.
All rights reserved.
The views I express on this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of political parties, institutions or organizations with which I am associated.

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