It’s time for political parties in Nanaimo!

Or, I suppose more correctly, for visible political parties. We have all been aware that our elected municipal political masters have tended for the most part to be closely identified with either the Liberal or NDP parties at the provincial level. I have often pondered the reluctance of Nanaimoites to recognize that there are persons and organizations which have traditionally run this town behind the scenes. Instead many naively cling to the belief that our candidates and Councillors are just ordinary citizens who have volunteered selflessly to care for the city’s well-being. An examination of the campaign contributions made to our Councillors is enough to demonstrate the contrary. The amount of campaign money raised from individuals is negligible.

I have tried to figure out why Nanaimo appears so dead set against municipal parties beyond the vain hope that a cozy little town on the seaside still exists –despite the fact that Nanaimo could never in its history claim to be cozy, and has rather been at daggers drawn from its inception. And then a comment from a sitting Councillor hit me like a thunderbolt: there is no real political discussion in Nanaimo because the powers that be do not wish it. It is not desired that the Councillors who are quietly backed, should have a visible and independent group on whom they might rely and who could act as a forum for issues and ideas which they, as individuals, might fear to discuss. Nor is it desired that there should be any wards in the city for the same reason.

The comment that staggered me for a minute was this: A consultant in municipal management hired by Staff to introduce new Councillors to their new jobs advised them to never respond to letters in the paper (or apparently many others in my experience), nor take place in blogs, web sites, etc. After letting this soak in for a bit, I conceded the rationality of the advice. If you never stick your head up, you will never –well rarely- get clobbered. Wise advice, indeed! But what does it say about the institution of democracy in which we are all supposedly involved?

This also resonates with a lot of questions which I have had about Nanaimo since moving here over twenty years ago. The site and situation of the town are ideal: centrally located on the island at the hub of the land, sea or air transportation systems, with a beautiful harbor and surroundings, with a college, now university; in short, everything that a model community could desire. And what has been made of these gifts? A town too often seen as a laughing stock!

Without obvious and open backing, Councillors are left to run the gauntlet of opinion and approbation alone and may, if too outspoken, be caught alone like a deer in a jack light. We can rest assured that members of Council get advice. But are the backers behind the advice open to scrutiny and to censure? If a Councillor fails in their obligations, what body will call them to account? If he or she needs wide public support, where will it come from? A lot of harm can be done in the period allocated to a Council. Just look at what happened when they decided to move our major commercial areas to malls on the outskirts of town and brought about the concurrent gutting of our downtown area. There has to be some way to energize an apathetic public about the importance of municipal politics. The two to three minutes provided to individual Councillors to make their public pitches at election times surely leads to the situation in which we now find ourselves, i.e. Councillors elected at best by about 15% of eligible voters. We need to do better. Municipal parties may offer the way. What is your opinion?

Ron Bolin

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