Another glass ceiling waits to be smashed

Canada’s registered political parties are such scurrilous creatures that they must be kept well away from the green and pleasant world of municipal politics. This is certainly the impression you would take away from our recent election. A lot of people expressed joy and relief because they weren’t involved.

Political parties couldn’t participate in the election even if they wanted to. It would be against the law. Cities in Ontario exist at the pleasure of the provincial government. The premier of the province is pretty much the mayor emeritus of every county, region, city, town and village in Ontario. As we witnessed recently in Toronto, no city is big enough to beat him in a fair fight. Not that the playing field could ever be level considering the cards the province has up its sleeve.

Local elections are governed by the Ontario Municipal Elections Act which specifically prohibits provincial and federal political parties from getting involved. They can’t provide resources, donate money, or publish advertisements for a candidate. Ever.

As a result, everyone runs as an independent.

“I owe no allegiance to any woman or man other than you the voter,” says every man and woman in the running.

“I am independent,” they all say together. “I don’t care who else gets elected, as long as I do.”

Except the mayor broke ranks this year and said he did care. He said he wanted a city council of 13 like-minded independent people. He didn’t get it, but not for lack of trying. What he got instead was what he had before. Thirteen independent-minded likeable people.

This keeps our attention away from the grand illusion of city politics. The men and women who run for city council, those who win and those who don’t, are politicians committing a political act. Like other politicians wherever you find them, they belong to political parties. Maybe not all. Certainly, most.

If you promise not to tell, I’ll let you in on a secret. Members of all the big, bigger, and biggish parties sit around the council horseshoe. They like to pretend it ain’t so, but there it is.

Does any of this matter? Is that even a question in this modern world of full disclosures and transparent decision making? Here’s a full disclosure of my own: I have been a card-carrying member of a total of two political parties in my life. Never both at the same time, of course, but not a day has passed in the last 45 years when I didn’t have a membership card in one or the other.

Although I am nearing the end of my active participation in the game, I believe politics is important and parties have a positive role to play in the process. This even though most of them are now led by people who believe image trumps substance, and perceptions are more important than principles. To hell with them, I say. The pendulum will swing back in our direction one of these days.

Consider diversity, if you will. Our city has been a thing for 191 years and has never elected anyone but white folk to govern it. For the first 129 years it was all white men and nothing but. Then the club opened up to women and then closed its doors again. We’re not the only city in this position. Local governance in Ontario is not equitably distributed among the people who live here.

Although far from perfect, it’s better in the provincial legislature and the federal parliament. Why is this? There could be lots of reasons, but one stands out. You can thank the political parties for bringing affirmative action policies and programs to the nomination process. If the registered parties are prevented by law from doing this locally, how can we design a workable tool to fix diversity ourselves?

The first thing city council should do is recognize there is a glass ceiling that needs to be smashed. A good start will be to set up a special citizen’s advisory committee made up of representatives of the communities that continue to be shut out. Give them a couple of years to look into it and come up with a plan before the 2022 election. As an intermediate step, council should look at the composition of the local boards and commissions and ensure they reflect the community.

This has nothing to do with leap-frogging unqualified people into a position. In the recent election there were lots of unsuccessful candidates every bit as qualified as those that won. I didn’t agree with some of their politics, but that means nothing today. If the mayor’s coat tails weren’t wide enough to carry them forward, an affirmative action plan might. It’s time to design a local one.

1 Comment

  1. Perhaps its the case that most of those you reference who are not present on our City Council are much more aware of the importance of provincial and federal elections. Municipalities, as you mention, are relatively powerless until/unless they have position in the Constitution. My suggestion is more emphasis on voter engagement and turn out. If we could move from 38% up to 60%+ we might see more representative reflection outside that white men and white women thing. Also, it might be interesting for individual candidates to find a way to be something more than an individual without crossing that line of electoral party partisanship. A candidate could weld together an advisory group of supporters who would be consulted throughout. Put that advisory group in the campaign literature and over time perhaps see some from those campaign advisers step up to run directly.

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