WHY WE NEED POLITICAL PARTIES AT CITY HALL
I vividly recall the moment I felt the warmest affection for democracy. My daughter saw federal campaign signs on yards in our neighbourhood, and asked about elections. My wife and I explained that communities and neighbourhoods across the country each select one person to represent them in a parliament in Ottawa. This group then gathers to make decisions about how our country should be run, and how we should spend our shared resources. It sounds wonderful. In fact, it is wonderful.
Many of us belong to other organizations that work the same way. Democracy is a fundamental principle governing our resident associations, neighbourhood associations, condominium boards, professional organizations, sports leagues and more. We elect trusted people who are able and willing to serve, and we hope that these leaders will make wise decisions.
But our federal and provincial parliaments do not operate simply as councils of trusted wise people. The candidates we select represent political parties. There is not much about political parties that gives us a warm glow, but they serve a vital function in our democracy. They require local representatives be part of a country- or province-wide plan, and to take responsibility for the trade-offs required to govern – and to vie for government.
Running a country is hard work, and it is complicated work. Our governments are elaborate, complex operations. How could 300 representatives with exclusively locally-derived mandates make decisions about national defence, taxation policy, environmental protection or international trade? Have you ever tried to organize 300 people to make a decision?
Political parties serve another very practical function. They bring together slates of candidates, teams with diverse expertise and perspectives. For most of Canada’s history this has involved assembling powerful, electable white men from across the country. Today – to greater or lesser degrees – we expect parties to offer a team that can be expected to represent broad diversity of backgrounds and perspectives, including ethno-racial diversity.
At the federal or provincial level, a governing party’s manifest failure to address key issues would be a political crisis. A governing party’s utter failure to represent the diversity of the population would also be a major problem. By these two measures Toronto City Council is failing us, and yet most members of City Council win easy and repeated re-election.
Transit planning has been a disaster. Every year Council patches together a budget with duct tape, while ignoring the warnings from senior staff that our financial model is utterly unsustainable. Civic leaders trumpet cultural diversity as our crowning achievement, yet our municipal representatives are – as a group – appallingly unrepresentative of the city’s ethno-racial make-up. (Our group of city MPs and MPPs is far more diverse than our city councillors.)
Perhaps we are addicted to the warm glow that comes from electing independent-minded local representatives to City Hall. Our municipal governance model looks like the way we run many of our local associations. But our City is an extraordinarily complex organization, charged with making enormous decisions. Why would we expect someone to choose a long-term, city-wide vision when they stand a pretty good chance of having a job for life as a councillor who ministers to local needs?
We live in a city that is generally prosperous, peaceful, and successful. But our municipal government as currently structured is failing us. We need city councillors to stand for election as part of strong, diverse teams with thoughtful plans for addressing the city’s biggest challenges. That’s why we need political parties at City Hall.