LETTER: Prospects for a Progressive City Council

The long term success of progressive politics in St. John’s hinges on challenging the established view of how the city itself should govern.

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Municipal politics have a different working dynamic from legislative bodies elected on a partisan basis. This is often attributed to the nitty-gritty nature of local governance, where practical problems demand practical solutions. Councillors enjoy a kind of independence not available to legislators working under party discipline, allowing them valuable flexibility in governance and in campaigning. However, these features are contingent, not given: they depend on a broad consensus on what the role of the city government is. That role is as a service provider in competition with other municipalities, with low taxation as the imperative. This limits the scope for what progressive policies can accomplish.

The benefits of winter sidewalk clearing, improved public transit, and public housing are diffused across the community and not immediately experienced by individual residents. The long term success of these policies hinges on whether progressives can challenge the established view of how the city should govern.

On the face of it, the cohort of progressive candidates in this election make a natural sequel to the successful insurgent campaigns of 2017. However, the circumstances of today are substantially different from 2017, and it’s not obvious how that will interact with the deeper dynamics of city politics. The last election took place in the clarity of the post-2016 cultural moment, this one is sandwiched between federal and provincial elections testing fatigued Liberal minority governments. Where 2017 held out the fear of an Andy Wells restoration and the hope of Renee Sharpe’s activist candidacy, today we have both Mayor and Deputy Mayor by grace of acclamation. For all the talk of a crowded field, we have 7 fewer candidates on the ballot than in 2017, albeit with one additional name in the At-Large race. 

The difference between 2021 and 2017 is that city politics are now less polarized overall than during the last election, but there’s more polarization on and within the progressive end of the spectrum. This means that we’re hearing about policies that are ambitious (eschewing the taxation taboo in favour of clearing sidewalks in the winter), but also internally contentious (have you heard about the trails?). This development is both necessary and double-edged: ambition mobilizes supporters and opponents alike.

The more ambitious a political project, the more toes there are to step on. As advocates of a progressive city government work on cohering different policy goals into a broader agenda, partisans of the status quo have an existing constituency and readymade campaign vocabulary oriented towards a minimalist municipality that prioritizes low taxation. It’s trite to speak of “tough fiscal choices” facing prospective policymakers, but the pandemic has induced a real revenue challenge at a time when a provincial government in recovery mode is unlikely to be receptive to municipal pleas for new sources of revenue. Taxation is about more than revenue: how we approach it directly reflects what we take to be the role of municipal government.

On one side, we have the city as a service provider in a competitive market, with citizens acting as savvy consumers looking for the best package of services for their subscription fee. On the other, we have an ethic more open to redistribution in pursuit of public amenities: the idea that the municipality ought to serve us as a community rather than as individuals. 

Progressive policies like improved sidewalk clearing, more frequent transit, or affordable housing development tend towards the more redistributive view of the city’s role. Some of these goals have already won substantial popular support, but it will be difficult to translate that support into political action without challenging entrenched ideas about the role of the city. The existing dynamics of city politics are an obstacle to this, but not one that cannot be overcome through the ordinary political work of organization and education. This kind of work goes beyond the scope of any one candidacy and calls for one or more organizations capable of setting political priorities, sharing resources, and endorsing candidates. This approach comes with a cost: candidates seeking such an endorsement and approach would sacrifice some room for maneuver. To some extent, it means putting long term goals ahead of immediate electoral results, a fraught proposition with no guarantee of success. 

This campaign has seen collaboration among progressive candidates and their volunteers, but short of an organized slate. The election will test the limits of that approach for progressives, and give us a clear idea of where the obstacles are in the political terrain even as that terrain shifts beneath us.

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