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So many different influences on democracy

Posted on September 25, 2013 by Taber Times

Municipal elections are rarely the stuff of political legend, unless you’re talking about major metropolitan areas, where municipal leaders are high-profile public figures. Here in rural Alberta, on the other hand, retaining an audience with “his worship the mayor” might not be any more difficult than running into him on the street, rather than a full-on media scrum complete with presidential-style motorcade to whisk him off to another location once his 20-second soundbite has been completed.

The differences couldn’t be starker. The former scenario speaks to a culture of accessibility in public office, the latter of a culture of inaccessability that thrives in a heavy snowfall of press releases, damage control and overly dramatic oration — the introduction of the public relations spin doctor to help shape the message — where for better or for worse, the truth is often an unintended casualty.

One scenario is obviously preferable to the other, and the escalation of political posturing and a periodic lack of real substance is partly a symptom of a technologically obsessed, Twitter-following public ready to eat the next political performance with a spoon, or to pounce on the next set of ill-advised words posted on Facebook by Joe Blow MP or MLA.

Sadly, the days of politicians being as accessible as your next door neighbour are vanishing along with typewriters and carburetors.

Here at the municipal level in rural Alberta, one still has the opportunity to experience this phenomenon first hand. Farther up the foodchain, that kind of relationship has vanished forever. Before the days of television and our prime minister’s image being commonly recognized by virtually any Canadian, even prime ministers could stroll the streets with impunity. When radio was still paramount in the 1930s, William Lyon McKenzie King would sometimes go for long walks on the streets of Ottawa virtually unnoticed. King was eccentric even by today’s standards, but the days when a prime minister could walk the streets without escort — and often without being recognized — are long a thing of the past.

As we move into yet another municipal election, we should remember that our municipal politicians are as accessible today by the general public as they are ever likely to be. With the growth of any community, that distancing that seems to separate us from our political representatives will also grow. The fact that virtually any citizen can have the personal ear of their mayor or council will someday inevitably disappear. It’s a privilege we shouldn’t take for granted — especially while it lasts.

Unfortunately, most Canadians do take it for granted. Municipal elections consistently post the most dismal numbers for voter turn-out across the nation, when the decisions that are made at the municipal level are arguably the most important and impactful decisions made by government, at least on a day-to-day, readily discernable level.

Although overall low voter turn-out at any political level has been a deteriorating trend in Canada since the 1960s, numbers for municipal elections have sometimes reached near-laughable levels over the past decade. Some municipalities have had difficulty even finding enough candidates to fill vacant council positions, as occurred in Vauxhall during the 2010 municipal election.

Recent changes to electoral legislation in Alberta will be changing the municipal landscape slightly after the 2013 election. Candidates will now be required to serve a four-year term as opposed to the previous three-year term, something which has been largely viewed as a positive, allowing elected officials to more effectively learn the responsibilities involved with their position, and to extend the mandate of a council can collectively allow for more continuity and completion of public projects.

Although common at the metropolitan municipal level, the idea of dividing a municipality into specific electoral divisions, or wards, is more the exception rather than the rule in a less urban municipal environment.

While there are obvious advantages to collective group representation, it is also lacking a measure of accountability for municipal representatives that exists under a divisional or ward system. While municipal representatives might attempt to espouse the benefits of group representation, it ultimately benefits the elected official rather than the voter. In a ward system, public representatives are directly responsible to a select group of geographically-divided voters. Every vote they make can be questioned from the perspective of their own division of the municipality.

In a system where collective representation is utilized, such as Taber, municipal representatives are still responsible for their actions as a council. However, they are responsible collectively — it is more difficult to hold any one representative accountable for their individual actions. It is understandable why municipalities and councils might be resistant to such a suggestion, but for the voter, any measure of increased accountability only enhances the power of their democratic franchise.

It is worth noting that collective representation does have at least one crucial advantage. In a situation where only a small number of candidates emerge to challenge present leadership — such as the case in the present municipal election — the lack of a ward system virtually eliminates elections by acclamation, and puts all candidates on the same electoral firing line. An election will always be preferable to an acclamation.

Questions that have recently arisen over the religious affiliation of a candidate for public school board, stipulations which bar a professed Catholic from running as a public school trustee, might seem to be archaic and discriminatory on the surface — and in at least one sense, they are.

It might seem elementary that someone who is a practicing Catholic should be allowed to run as a public school trustee if they so choose.

Should it matter if they are Protestant, Buddhist or Sikh? Not really, in the strictest sense.

But it also begs the question, what is the purpose of a separate Catholic school division? If Catholics were allowed to run for the public school board, however harmless that decision might seem to be, doesn’t logic dictate that Protestants and those of other religious affiliations be allowed to run for the board of a Catholic school division? It cuts both ways — it would be hard to believe that many in the local Catholic community would not have a serious issue with that proposition. Similarly, if individuals of any one particular religious affiliation were able to effectively control a public school board, many others in a community, perhaps of no religious affiliation, might also be seriously concerned.

The question of religion — especially that of inclusion and exclusion in a society — is never an easy one to resolve.

However, it is worth noting that the ability of Catholics to govern their own educational destiny through separate school divisions and systems was once a hard fought and hard won battle against provincial and federal governments in Western Canada around the turn of the last century. They wanted to govern their own education with their own boards of trustees — and it was no small matter to Catholics. The inclusion of a law to prevent Catholics from running for public school boards had as much to do with the simple political practicality of the situation as it did with religious discrimination or prejudice.

Today, the lines have blurred significantly. Religious affiliation — at least in Western Canada — is hardly the dividing line it once was more than a century ago. Many people might not be too concerned about a public school board with majority Catholic representation — lapsed or otherwise — should it one day exist. But it is important to remember why politicians might have been so fearful of that situation they felt it necessary to push for a law barring those individuals from one area of public office, and why many might still believe it to be an effective — if less than inclusive — solution to a hard proposition.

That being said, the municipal election campaign is now on in full earnest. No matter what your religious affiliation, race or creed, make sure to get out and cast a ballot on Oct. 21.

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