Why local politics matters

Very few people know who their local councilors are and fewer still take an active interest in local politics. Most Canadians tend to see municipal politics as a sort of administrative affair – fixing pot holes in the roads, making sure the garbage is picked up on time, sending you your water bill and keeping the parks clean.

It’s only at the provincial and federal levels where the ‘real’ politics happens. Healthcare, the environment, the economy and the ‘big’ issues of the day are beyond local politics. We don’t think of emergency services or water treatment or road repairs as issues that really impact our daily lives, let alone as issues that motivate us to get out and vote.

Among the three levels of government, local elections receive the lowest turnouts. Some municipal elections, due to high profile or controversial candidates, will spur high turnouts such as the 2010 and 2014 Toronto elections. Rob Ford is a case in point. Most local elections, however, are lucky to get 40 per cent of voters out.

There are a number of reasons why local politics tends to fly under the radar. The media is perhaps the biggest factor. Most journalists and TV reporters are only interested in what we might call big politics. They want the top story at 6 o’clock or the leading headline on the front page. After all, who wants to get stuck with a local story no one cares about when there’s so much going on around us? Whether it’s a new juicy political scandal or a bomb going off in some distant place, most writers see local politics as unworthy of the pen.

This isn’t true of all journalists or reporters of course. In cities such as Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and Calgary, the attitude is quite the opposite. We can explain this easily enough. These cities are not only big in terms of population but are the economic hubs of the whole country. In Toronto, it’s big finance, in Calgary it’s big oil, so the politics here is still seen as flashy and global. But in cities such as St. Catharines or Oshawa, not so much.

Another factor is the simple fact of where we live today. Most Canadians do not live in rural or isolated communities. While the local scene is certainly different and perhaps more relevant for the resident of a rural town far outside the city limits, the world that most Canadians are accustomed to today is a global one. Whatever is happening around the world at any time is available for consumption whenever we turn on our phones.

Nathan Phillips Square (post construction)

I’ll admit that what preoccupies the provincial and federal governments is vastly more interesting and entertaining than what goes on at the municipal level. Upper-tier government is the terrain of education reform, healthcare spending and defense. It’s easy to forget about the pot holes in the roads and the price of your water bill when national security is on the agenda.

But is local politics really mundane and boring? Is it just an administrative affair that doesn’t impact or influence our daily lives? Although most Canadians see it this way, I think the case can be made that municipal politics is just as important as provincial and federal politics. Local politics involves much more than fixing pot holes and making sure the garbage is picked up on time. Let’s take a big issue like climate change as our example, since we tend to see it as the responsibility of our provincial and federal politicians.

We know that runaway global warming is happening and it is human activity that is causing it. However, where is the vast majority of carbon emissions coming from? It’s coming from cities, especially our big cities. Although the mayors of Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto attended the recent Paris Climate summit, most Canadians do not see global warming as a municipal concern. But it is precisely at the local level where climate change is felt the most.

Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York, argued in an op-ed for The Huffington Post prior to the climate talks that “Local governments are the first responders to crises caused by climate disruption. They confront heat waves, floods and hurricanes. To react effectively and prevent their citizens from the consequences of these “natural” catastrophes, local governments must be given new tools to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change, and protect natural environment and biodiversity.”

“The more nations empower their cities, the bolder they will be. Cities with authority over building energy standards, for instance, deliver three times the results of cities that lack such power,” Bloomberg added.

When we look at climate change from this perspective, as an issue that truly begins and ends at the local level, that knowledge changes our perspective. It is the urban resident who feels the consequences of global warming most acutely. Our provincial and federal politicians can make all the promises they want and sign as many international treaties as they like, but what are we doing to make our cities greener and more environmentally friendly?

For example, the traffic congestion on the 401 is but one problem that we as residents of the GTA could take up as a global warming issue. But how many of us actually think that traffic congestion on the 401 is a global problem our local politicians and councilors can tackle? I doubt that many people do. We complain about it and move on. But it’s issues like this that force us to see how municipal politics can play a pivotal and influential role in the bigger issues that grab our attention.

thestar.com

thestar.com

According to UN-Habitat, “although [cities] cover less than 2 per cent of the earth’s surface, cities consume 78 per cent of the world’s energy and produce more than 60 per cent of all carbon dioxide and significant amounts of other greenhouse gas emissions, mainly through energy generation, vehicles, industry, and biomass use. At the same time …. Hundreds of millions of people in urban areas across the world will be affected by rising sea levels, increased precipitation, inland floods, more frequent and stronger cyclones and storms, and periods of more extreme heat and cold.”

If it is urban residents and city-dwellers who are impacted the most then climate change cannot be seen as just an area of provincial and federal responsibility but municipal as well.

Climate change is one area that can broaden our appreciation of the role that local politics can play in our daily lives but what about issues such as accountability, taxation or governance? Again, we tend to see these policy areas as concerns of the provincial and federal governments that don’t really matter at the local level.

However, in mega cities, municipal budgets involve billions of dollars. In smaller cities it’s hundreds of millions but its still a lot money that needs to be accounted for, spent wisely and justified. The important question that we have to ask ourselves as residents and voters is this: are we actually holding our councilors and local politicians to account or are we asleep at the wheel?

As The National Post argues, “with so few citizens and reporters paying close attention to the goings-on at city hall, accountability, transparency and efficiency are largely up to the goodwill and dedication of city councilors.”

This is untenable. We cannot leave it to our politicians to hold themselves to account, regardless of whether its a federal minister or a local councillor.

The issue of property taxes and rising housing costs is a case in point. Between 2000 and 2009, property taxes rose by more than 50 per cent across the country and it’s only gone up since then. In every city, both small and major, not only has the cost of housing exploded but municipal taxes have far outpaced the provincial and federal averages. Why is this not a major issue for Canadians?

Kevin Libin, a columnist for The Financial Post, describes our attitude towards municipal politics as a kind of apathy: “Canadians give no other level of government such easy license. Federal and provincial politicians would be mad to think taxpayers would shrug at a raise in income or corporate taxes by several percentage points year after year after year.”

The explanation is a rather simple one: we don’t really believe that local politics matters. All the really important stuff is happening somewhere else. However, as we’ve see with climate change and municipal budgets, local politics actually does matter and does impact our lives.

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