Last week I got a weird Facebook message.
Now, I’m no stranger to getting weird messages on social media, and I’m no stranger to being weird on social media myself, but there is context here. Political context.
As I sat there on my computer, some 20 months away from the next municipal election, someone asked me when I intend to start my election coverage. Oddly enough, this is not the first time I’ve heard talk about the 2018 election, although this was the first time the matter was addressed to me specifically. What’s curious is that we suddenly seem to be in a rush to get this thing, or at least some of us are. The present city council is barely two years old, with nearly half a mandate still left to fill, but I guess there are a couple of people who think that’s maybe half a mandate too much
As a political writer and reporter, I understand the fascination. A campaign is a whole story. It has a beginning, middle and end. It has drama and tension, and if you’re lucky, moments of humour, both subtle and gross. It’s a human story. Regular everyday people struggle, and sweat, and bleed, but only one of them can taste victory, and it’s an outcome sometimes decided on the slightest of things. A campaign is a world onto itself, and that’s why we love it, but it’s also tidier than the day-to-day grind of seeing how the government sausage be made.
I tap this out as the present council stands in the middle of a fairly big ongoing issue.
Wednesday night, council heard the Phase I Report of the Strategies and Options Committee on the re-organization of Guelph Hydro Electric Systems Inc., better known as Guelph Hydro.
The committee says sell it or merge it. The majority of people seem to be saying 'leave it alone.' Council eventually voted to looking at merging it, but not selling.
Guelph Hydro is one issue before council.
There are also the pilot service reviews currently underway on three very different departments, the question of what will be made from that one per cent infrastructure levy, a snafu where 50,000 emails were just given to the lawyer of a former employee suing the city, and now the Niska Road Bridge has to be closed before the last scene from Bridge of the River Kwai is re-enacted over the Speed River. And then there’s all the daily mishegoss of planning applications, committee work, and staff reports.
Of course, this isn’t merely a thing with municipal politics. Standing amongst over 200 mad electoral reformers last Saturday in front of Lloyd Longfield’s constituency office, I wondered how many of them might like to fast-forward to 2019. Or maybe rewind back to October 2015 when it seemed like anything is possible.
That’s the thing with elections, they are ripe with possibility. It’s all about what we want to do, and what we should be doing.
Misunderstood in all this is that our candidates are applying to join an organization with a long institutional memory and its very own ideas, some they’re in the middle of enacting, on what they want and should be doing. Walking into the halls of government must feel like being hired to conduct a speeding train that’s slowed down just enough to let you hop on. And on top of it all, you and a host of other conductors have to decide together on the speed and direction you next take the train.
The wonder of government isn’t that it gets nothing done, it’s that anything ever gets done at all. Our citizenry is a wash in cynicism that anyone associated with the government is lazy and inefficient and is merely a part of the wheels of government because incompetency is covered for and no one at any level really expects results. And if that’s not enough to turn you off, here’s this 400-page agenda filled with legalese for you to get up to speed on before the next council meeting.
Spending a lot of time as an observer at city council teaches you a few things. The first is that occasional grandstanding and politicking aside, everyone is there for a good reason. They want to represent their community, they want to represent their family, they want to speak to an issue, and they think their own ideas and experience makes the qualified to do so. The voters who put them there agreed, at least at the time, and whether that changes or not is the voter’s prerogative. Their endorsement can be either re-offered, or taken away, at the next turn at the ballot box.
So here we are, over a year-and-a-half out from that next turn and some of us are already eager for a turnover. I understand. It seems like we’re only ever two modes with our politicians: we love ‘em or we hate ‘em, and sometimes there’s a good reason why we’re hitting either switch, but elections are supposed to represent the start of something, not the end. Voting is not the end of democratic involvement, it is one step in the process.
One thing that struck me at the electoral reform rally last Saturday is when someone said we’re too focused on winners and losers. Part of that is the media’s fault. Polls have become box scores, or stock tickers as we scan papers and websites to see who’s up and who’s down on any given day. When we start keeping score during campaigns, politics become a sport. Sport is about the drama, and there’s actually very little drama in watching city council decide whether to approve the demolition of a one-storey single detached home in favour of a two-storey one.
If you’re chomping at the bit for some electoral drama, may I suggest a remedy? Get involved in an issue. If you don’t like what the city is doing on a given issue, start reading about it, talk to your representatives, attend a town hall, delegate to city council, start a blog, write a letter — or in other words — make some noise. You will be heard. Whether or not you’ll be effective is irrelevant, because you won’t know unless you try.
I'm sure the response to that is some form of “yeah right” or “whatever” because what are the odds you can change minds or make an impact. I’ve got to tell you though, if you’re political representatives are as bad as you think, they’re hoping you think that. They hope you stay quiet as church mice while they go about their affairs. But if they’re any kind of real politicians, I promise you, they love the loud ones. The loud ones test their assumptions, challenge the status quo, and if nothing else, you’ll have the peace of mind in knowing that you tried.
Hoping for elections months and months in advance might be a fault of our current society. We like the quick fix. We want it our way right away, and if we don’t get it, then it’s the system’s fault for not delivery. Democracy isn’t like ordering a hamburger. You may like pickles, but others don’t; this group over here might like tomatoes, but the thought turns your stomach. Can we live with a hamburger that just has lettuce and relish? That’s when we know we’ve compromised, and it may not be your burger, but its good enough for you to eat for now.
In 20 months, you can decide if we next eat pizza or tacos.