Skip to content

The 'elections are not a magic wand' column

This week on Market Squared, we talk about why democracy is not a spell book and how elections come with homework. (Sorry.)
072120 - vote - election - ballot - AdobeStock_150596953
Stock image.

A week from Monday, nominations for this year's municipal election will officially open, and then the fun begins. Of course, the local fun will hit pause a couple of days later when the provincial election begins, but we are still about to launch nearly six months of campaigning, and that should be time well spent on the ideas and policies that will make Guelph a better place.

But here’s an important question: How many of the 140,000 some-odd Guelphites are actually going to take part in that conversation?

Exhibit A: Voter turnout. Barely one-third of eligible voters turned out in the last election, and the eternal question is why voter turnout is always so low for municipal campaigns. The last federal election in 2021, despite pandemic concerns and an enthusiasm gap with the national campaign, still saw nearly two-thirds of voters turn out to cast a ballot.

Exhibit B: If you’ve been to enough city council meetings, you start to recognize the names. Unless it’s a specific matter of singular importance, you don’t really see a lot of new people in the council chamber. Very few Guelphites delegate as a matter of lobbying on issues, and the ones that do are instantly recognizable.

Exhibit C: Civics. How many people out there really know what municipal government is responsible for? How many know the limits of a councillor’s power? Or the mayor’s? Perhaps there’s an issue that’s important to you, and perhaps you reached out to someone from the City of Guelph to seek action on it only to be told that it’s not in the city’s ability to change, what did you do then?

That’s why it’s kind of great that we get a provincial election and a municipal election overlapping. It may not do much for the attention economy having to split our efforts, but in terms of being able to discuss municipal need that only provincial action can answer, this should be prime time for policy nerds looking for practical solutions to pan-governmental issues. Housing and homelessness come to mind.

On the other hand, an election maybe the worst time to try and draw those comparisons because you’re not just talking about looking at the current system so much as looking at multiple options for what the system can be. Multiple provincial parties will present multiple approaches for multiple issues, and some of those approaches are going to be, ahem, more co-operative than others.

Perhaps part of your provincial election diet should be to ask the candidates how they’ll support cities.

I’m thinking about the rather limited number of options that cities have to raise revenue, things that are technically provincial responsibility that municipalities are being forced to pay out of pocket for, and I’m also thinking of the top down-style governance that forces municipal administration to wholesale change established procedures midstream.

What does all that mean? Well, the provincial government gets to decide how municipalities can raise revenue. They also get to say that they will only fund 90 per cent of the capital investment needed to expand a hospital or build a new one, and the cost of new equipment for that hospital is entirely on the community to raise.

And then there’s the hundreds of hours spent in the last few years reworking planning policies, the new regulations for conservation authorities, and the creation of new or revamped fees to cover development costs. Is this how city employees would have preferred to spend the last four years? Addressing policy changes instead of creating solutions to problems?

In the business we call this “inside baseball," high-level detail about how the game is played or won, when most people are only concerned about the score. By and large, voters are only concerned if their taxes are going up, if the roads are getting repaired, or if there’s a grocery store being built in their neighbourhood. They don’t care about the details.

But you’ve got to care about the details. If municipal power was limitless, then lobbying on the merits of an issue would work, but there are a lot of limits on municipal power, and many of them are not easily known. Playing in politics requires doing the homework, and that’s why democratic participation should always be phrased as an activity that goes beyond lining up to vote on election day.

For years, we’ve used the number of votes cast as a metric for our democracy’s success, and it’s why many people push hard for internet voting as an option instead of seeing it as an example of the negative trend. Those who want internet voting as a matter of convenience are essentially acknowledging that local democracy is only worth participating in if they don't have to go out of their way to do it.

If you want change then you have to make time to know the issues and the barriers to accomplishing those goals. Elections are not a magic wand, and democracy is a game that needs to be played more than once every four years.