Aspiring to inspire: municipal politics at election time

St. John’s needs strong leadership now more than ever. Strong leadership needs to be based on strong ideas. Both appear to be in short supply.

If there is anything that’s more underwhelming than a provincial election, it’s a municipal one.

Apologies: I know that nobody likes a critic (not actually true: the very existence of Twitter, and most top-rated TV shows, proves otherwise). Well, *I* don’t like a critic. But for today’s purposes, I’ll be one nonetheless.

Elections are supposed to be exciting times. They’re supposed to be important moments, for people to collectively debate their future. To put forth big dreams. To discuss where, collectively, they want their community to go. To publicly acknowledge the fact that in a democracy, it is the people that rule; the elected ‘leaders’ merely our humble servants, elected to do our bidding.

Unfortunately, we’ve lost sight of much of this. It’s a phenomenon I blame largely on the profound lack of big ideas.

Fighting hard for the status quo

A quick scan through municipal candidates’ webpages is a lesson in run-of-the-mill sobriety. It even has me wondering whether somewhere there’s a “municipal election webpage generator” that candidates can use to automatically generate platform, website and campaign materials all in one fell swoop.

Certain tropes recur repeatedly: better snowclearing. More affordable housing. Consultation with communities. Better infrastructure. Strong economy. Insert candidate photos in front of a photoshopped city backdrop, and voila! You too can be a candidate.

My jibe is a good-natured one: these are important (albeit vague) issues and I in fact have profound respect for all those who put themselves forward as candidates (and double the respect for those who do so because they care about their city, rather than out of a pathetic desire to hobnob with a pitifully moribund business elite). Indeed, these candidates are superior to you or I in at least one capacity: they have chosen to put themselves forward for election. That – just as much as voting – is an imperative for a healthy democracy.

So kudos to them. But that does not excuse the lack of compelling platforms (nor, for some candidates, the apparent lack of platforms altogether). There appears, in municipal politics even more than provincial and federal politics, to exist a principle I shall refer to as “competitive status quo”. This principle appears to consist of a commitment to promise no more, or less, than other candidates (if promising anything at all).

Well, fair enough. There is a certain type of conservatism in Newfoundland and Labrador; not of course the misanthropic fear of human progress which characterizes Stephen Harper’s federal Conservative Party (they don’t really deserve to use the name), but rather a ‘conservatism’ that values the traditions and principles that have built our communities and characterize our culture and way of life. A ‘conservatism’ that values cooperation and mutual aid as much as it does the sense that growth simply for the sake of growth is neither sustainable nor wise. A certain suspicion that those who seek out positions of power and privilege are probably the ones least deserving or qualified to possess either.

These are sound principles. Perhaps it is in deference to these principles that municipal candidates seem so unwilling to distinguish themselves by way of any particularly creative or novel ideas.

Aspiring to greatness

But at the same time, we do ourselves a disservice by failing to realize that our municipal governance has implications far beyond the everyday issues of what time the garbage gets picked up in the morning. For the people we elect do not just enact policies which affect us living here today: they enact policies that will affect generations of residents into the future.

It is that ability to conceptualize and propose policies that take into account not only the immediate needs of the present, but which also set the stage for decades – centuries – of future growth and development that we most need.

It is for this that I find myself wondering, this election like every other election – where are the big ideas?

Well, for the sake of the [many] candidates needing a platform, allow me to propose one. It would include such elements as:

Big thinking. St. John’s is facing ever bigger challenges. Big challenges require big solutions, and an openness to big thinking. It means not just meeting the needs of the moment, but projecting oneself 50 or 100 years down the road, and conceptualizing solutions that will continue to work into the future. Take transportation. Already urban transit around the southeast Avalon is becoming untenable. Slow, incremental solutions won’t work, because the problem will continue to grow in exponential, dramatic fashion. In chess – like so many real-world scenarios – you don’t simply respond to your opponent’s move (if you do, you’ll lose in no time). You have to think several stages ahead. We need governments that think the same way.

Sooner or later, we’ve got to start developing a regional public transit system: light-rail, most likely. This is going to be a major project. Done properly, it will require a long-term plan (with shorter-term stages of growth). It will require dramatic fiscal problem-solving, and shared funding commitments from various levels of government. But somebody’s got to start talking about it. And the sooner the better.

Culture. And by ‘culture’, I don’t mean high art (although the city could sure use a dramatic investment into arts and culture facilities. About ten years ago.). I mean nothing more than the things that make a city worth living in. Neighbourhoods with unique shops, restaurants, public spaces to be proud of and which render them unique from each other neighbourhood. Things tourists would travel across the country – or world – to see. Downtown St. John’s has it. Everybody loves the downtown. Whether you go to plays, bars, raves, or fancy-dining, it’s the place to be. It’s the picture-perfect marvel which tourist guides make it out to be.

But the rest of the city, to be quite honest, is pretty much a dump. Sprawling suburbs without a single community centre. Where public facilities do exist, they look more like warehouses slapped together haphazardly, than proud edifices capable of serving as the heart of a neighbourhood. When I lived in Japan, there wasn’t a small village without an impressively constructed, well resourced community centre. And in the larger towns and cities, there wasn’t a neighbourhood without one. Indeed, one could almost imagine that a residential neighbourhood was not allowed to exist without local community centres, libraries, and sports facilities. Ones that people were proud to gather in. Something like the Arts and Culture Centre is a good start. But the city needs a dozen more of them (not to mention other areas of the province).

Gentle chaos. Every thriving city has a certain bustle or flair, a certain gentle chaos. In great cities like New York or Berlin, it’s often called ‘dynamism’. Whatever it is, it’s based on the principle that in order to grow, we need to allow people who have ideas and energy, a certain freedom to do things. Responsibly, of course. And we must try to ensure that our city regulations support responsible growth, not hinder it. Rules exist for a reason. But the hallmark of good administration is to know which rules to apply or bend in which situation. And on that matter, our municipal government has a poor record. They’ll go out of their way to bend a rule so that a corporate executive can build a 30-storey office tower to block off everybody’s view of the harbour (when those offices would be much better placed in the center city anyhow, where they might help to attract other innovation and revitalize communities outside the downtown) yet they can’t manage to allow a falafel vendor to operate. They’ll court transnational corporations, yet allow truly creative local businesses to wither and die because of poor downtown access policies (snowclearing, parking) and impossibly high fees and taxes on smaller scale independent business. They’ll battle with a sausage vendor over placement of his truck, or pretend they know more than a certified organic farmer about the impact of his operations on the watershed, but will go to all lengths to construct an expensive and utterly pointless fence blocking off access to our city’s greatest treasure: the harbour. Priorities, people. A bit of gentle chaos keeps a city healthy. Too strict an adherence to rules and regulations stifles growth. Too little adherence threatens health and safety. A gentle, appropriate balance is what’s necessary. A balance that builds community, not ugly glass office towers. When I travel, one of the first things flagged in any guide-book are the parts of a city characterized by frenzied, chaotic markets, most of which invariably violate local urban planning rules. Yet they are many cities’ urban treasures: humanity given freedom to express itself in creative ways.

What’s that? Ah yes, the forever-response to any big idea: ‘where will the money for all this come from?’

Well maybe if more councillors were less interested in hobnobbing with the corporate come-from-away elites, they’d be more willing to demand they contribute back to the city they operate in. The infamous fishing merchants of yore were no paragons of social virtue, but they seem to have been more committed to enduring public works (such as, you know, most of those buildings in our esteemed downtown) than the corporate merchants of today. When local corporations are more interested in blocking off the harbour with ugly glass pseudo-scrapers for their own personal offices, than with building publicly accessible parks and boardwalks and playgrounds and market stalls, there’s been a breakdown somewhere along the way. We need a municipal leadership that can compel – nicely or not – local business to be a part of this city. And that means paying for its upkeep and public atmosphere. With no strings attached.

Because if our city thrives, then they do too.

Leaders of tomorrow

I suppose that’s what lies at the core of my dissatisfaction with municipal politics. Municipal politics CAN be so much more. It needs to achieve a fine balance between meeting the everyday needs of today, while developing the vision of a future far beyond the next four years. It’s fine to try to keep up with the standards of Halifax or Victoria. But I’d much prefer we exceed them. There is no reason our city cannot be among the greatest in the world – if we have the vision to build it that way. We need leaders that don’t follow the ways of every other city in the country, but that lead by developing creative and innovative new ideas right here. We need to set ourselves the task of not merely holding our own against every other city in North America, but of becoming the greatest. And that requires leaders capable of big visions, big dreams, and big ideas. Will we one day see such leadership?

But now that I’ve criticized our entire roster of candidates, let me praise them. There are many fine and earnest candidates out there, committing themselves to trying as best they can to improve the city they live in and love. They deserve our respect for putting themselves forward. At least some of them deserve our votes, because to not vote is to disrespect the freedoms on which our entire society and way of life are founded, and the fortunate destiny of this place in which we live.

But let us hope that among those we elect – now and in the future – there will be those who neither fear nor fail to think big.

When deciding how to cast your ballot, don’t forget to review The Independent’s St. John’s Municipal Candidate Survey by clicking here!

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