I don’t know whether it’s just that I’m paying more attention this time, or whether it’s actually a more hotly-contested race than in the past, but the current municipal elections in Ontario have really been dominating the news. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many political lawn signs for a municipal election. The Toronto mayoral race has been a huge focus in this province for obvious reasons, and I’m wondering if that’s caused a spillover of attention to people’s local races; I hope so, because municipal politics are a critically important part of the Canadian system… and the easiest part to ignore.
For my non-Canadian readers, our system basically has three “levels” of government: Federal, which runs things like national defence, international trade, transportation regulation, taxes and so on; Provincial, which runs education, health care, some (but not all) resource management, highways and taxes; and Municipal, which runs things like surface streets, utilities, local police, and of course, taxes. The entire issue of the Division of Powers between these three levels of government is long-standing and fraught with boundary issues and questions of authority, occasionally interspersed with olympic-class buck-passing, as when the Ontario government under Mike Harris “downloaded” social assistance onto local municipalities (a “cost-saving” measure which almost bankrupted every city in the Province and caused a spike in municipal taxes.)
I’m vastly over-simplifying that, of course, but I’m a blogger, not a civics teacher.
In any case, our local mayoral race has become — as politics in Peterborough tend to be — a microcosm of the larger debate in the province and country. Long story short, the current mayor, Daryl Bennett, is a right-wing neocon and a successful businessman who was elected by a significant margin on a platform of running the city “like a business” and “asking the tough questions.” His first term as mayor has been marred by a very public feud with the local police chief, allegations that he’s “anti-public transit” (he owns the largest cab company in town) and the general feeling that he’s lacked focus and forward motion on several key issues in the city, particularly the disintegration of the city’s streets and the general decline of the downtown. (This is over and above the usual local-politics bullshit of whose in-laws and/or drinking buddies get which lucrative city contracts, development permits, tax exemptions and so on.)
Daryl Bennett is running for reelection on a platform of “staying the course”, stating that the city’s problems are too complex to resolve in a single term.
Well, fair enough, but speaking as a voter in the City of Peterborough I haven’t been all that impressed by the last four years at City Hall. In fact, I’ve been so irritated by the lack of action taken on any serious issues over the last four years that, if I see the words “re-elect” on somebody’s campaign sign, they’ve already lost my vote. I’d like to see an entirely new slate at City Hall when the sun comes up on October 28th; a new broom, as the saying goes, sweeps clean.
Which is why I’ve been following the local mayoral contest with such interest. We have six candidates, including the incumbent mayor: a “perennial candidate” type who doesn’t seem to actually be running a campaign; a former city counsellor; a local businessman with a job-focussed platform; a transit and special-needs activist; and a social justice and women’s issues organizer named Maryam Monsef.
And it’s Maryam Monsef who’s caught my attention, because she’s come out of nowhere as a serious challenger to the incumbent mayor. She’s by far the youngest of the candidates, and her political background is largely rooted in organizing The Red Pashmina Campaign, which has raised more than $130,000 for the education of women and girls in Afghanistan through the sales of the eponymous red pashmina scarves… an item which I now suspect will feature heavily in my Xmas gifting this coming year.
But it was her performance at last night’s mayoral debate that has impressed me enough that I’m going to give her my vote: alone, of all the challenging candidates, she abandoned spouting platitudes from her platform and actually went at the incumbent head-on. Specifically, she challenged Bennett’s record and his practice of running the city like a business; she argued that “City Hall is not a business – it’s in the business of providing a community service.”
Bennett’s response: “It is known as the Corporation of the City of Peterborough” and voters are essentially “hiring” a candidate run that corporation as CEO.
You know what? Screw that.
First: If you’re an elected official, whether you’re the Prime Minister of Canada, Premier of Ontario or the mayor of my city, you are not my boss: I am your boss. You work for me. You aren’t the CEO — best case, you’re Junior Lobby Boy in Training, as far as I’m concerned. And that runs from 24 Sussex all the way down to the goddamn meter maids, got it? My elected officials answer to me, and they damned well better be prepared to do so far more often than once every four years during election season.
Second: A city is not a business. Making smarmy comments about the legalese in the name of our community is just fucking juvenile. A city is a community, and this community has not fared particularly well under our current business-approach mayor. Businesses exist to maximize profits for their shareholders; communities exist to nurture and shelter their members. And its been a long time since the Corporation of the City of Peterborough has done a good job of nurturing or sheltering anything.
I don’t give a shit about the bottom line at City Hall. I don’t care about the balance of the city’s bank accounts, spending deficits, or tax rates. I understand that those things matter, but I don’t particularly care all that much. I care that our public transit works. I care whether our city infrastructure is falling apart. I care that people are safe on the streets and in their homes. I care that the downtown is vibrant and alive. I care that our parks and recreational facilities are accessible for everybody. I care about living in a decent, stable community that provides a high quality of life and opportunities for all.
And after seeing his performance last night, I don’t think that Daryll Bennett puts much emphasis on those things. He wants to minimize overhead and maximize revenue, which I’m sure is the approach that made him a successful businessman. But “overhead” for a municipality is all the stuff that makes a community a community. Success, in government, can’t be measured solely by bank statements.
I think that Maryam Monsef gets that. Which is why I’m going to be voting for her on the 27th. I don’t know if she can solve the problems, but based on her background and her performance last night, I think she’ll at least address those problems with courage and compassion… and those are commodities which have been conspicuously lacking in every level of Canadian politics for quite some time.
I’m a white, working-class male in my mid-30s, which traditionally makes me an extremely — perhaps excessively — valued demographic in the Canadian political landscape. And if being in that demographic gives me any clout at all with the political decision-making process in this country, let it be this: I don’t want my home to be a business; I want it to be a community.
And I will cast my vote towards the person who seems able and willing to take that approach.