Raising the Devil
Ron Bolin: June 4, 2011
In 1587 Pope Sixtus V originated the office of Advocatus Diaboli, the Devil’s Advocate, a canon lawyer appointed by Church authorities to argue against a candidate for canonization. The purpose of such process is typically to test the quality of the original argument in favour, to identify weaknesses in its structure, and to use such information to either improve or abandon the original position. Both we and our political masters are sorely in need of such an office in dealing with the issues which they promote and which impact our liberties and our pocketbooks.
In a Wikipedia article on the subject it is noted that the Advocatus Diaboli was abandoned by Pope John Paul II in 1983. This reform changed the canonization process considerably, helping John Paul II to usher in an unprecedented number of elevations: nearly 500 individuals were canonized and over 1,300 were beatified during his tenure as Pope as compared to only 98 canonizations by all his 20th-century predecessors.
Similarly the relaxation of regulatory powers over financial institutions during the last decades has served to bring the world to its economic knees as indiscriminate loans were made to borrowers of questionable fiscal ability to repay and taxpayers are left to bail out an essentially bankrupt financial system.
We are in sore need of a Devil’s Advocate to argue against many of the seemingly well-intentioned spending of public funds which has been so prominent a part of government programs at all levels, and in particular at the municipal level where we have neither political parties nor even a formal Question Period with which to contend with these officious wishes.
But what, you ask, is the difference between a Devil’s Advocate and a crank or a “nay sayer” as such persons are often called? The difference is enormous. In the case of a Devil’s Advocate there are rules which govern the debate on a matter. Much as in a court of law, there are rules of evidence which must be followed. And one of these rules is that the evidence must be open to be seen. Facts cannot be hidden or obscured: for a favourable outcome, the tangible evidence in favour must outweigh the evidence against.
Our current municipal system, that system which touches our lives and our pocketbooks the most directly of any level of government, has very few rules beyond those which are set for an election. Once elected, our representatives are free to follow their follies as they will with very little let or hinder. There is effectively no public debate. Who has seen Council on TV or heard them on the radio defending their intentions, let alone stating what those intentions are? Who has heard them debate on major issues involving our lives and our fortunes? Did you hear the debate on the new civic annex? Did you hear their debate on the new Development Corporation? Did you see the money that these entailed leaving your pocket?
Having spent considerable thought on this conundrum I have come to the conclusion that, as poor an alternative as it may be, the only solution –the only reification of the Advocatus Diaboli– is to see political parties introduced into the Nanaimo political scene. This appears to be the only system which could force candidates to state their plans and ambitions over and above the motherhood and babies pap that we are fed at each election. It appears to be the only system than could enforce some inter-election discipline that could provide backbone in an otherwise all too often spineless Council. It appears to be the only system which could provide research and policy resources to Councillors other than those now provided by Staff who march, not unexpectedly, to their own agendas.
It is time to reclaim City Hall for the citizens. Vancouver did it. So did Burnaby, New Westminster, Richmond and Surrey. Isn’t it time for Nanaimo to play in the big boys and girls sand box?
Still if’y on the political party thing, too much bad politics on the provincial and federal levels, but then running a slate would not be much more different. I do think a Ward system would have some benefit, at least in that it woould have representatives from all areas of Nanaimo.
I have heard all about slates from a number of corners. I see a number of arguments against them:
1. Slates are only a tiny step above the anarchy we have now and tend to be founded on the funds of a few vested interests at election time;
2. Slates provide no organized structure in the important 1,094 days between elections;
3. Slates provide no continuity of funding in between elections which can be used for research and the dissemination of information with which to assist Councillors in reacting to Staff reports.
4. Slates provide no ongoing forum for the discussion of important municipal issues and Councillors are free to be silent on them between elections;
5. Slates do not allow the depiction on a ballot of the symbol for a group. Parties can use a symbol on the ballot. This can be very significant in the identification of the groups ideals right on the ballot.
6. Slates do not have the depth of organization needed to assist Councillors when they find themselves trapped between Staff and a few powerful interests. A party can provide such assistance;
7. Slates choose candidates in a manner which is not consistent with democratic processes. Typically they either choose themselves or are chosen by their silent backers. Parties must carefully select candidates in an open and transparent manner. Ask yourself if it is reasonable that there should be 30 to 40 candidates running for Council and what the effect of self selection -or selection by hidden backers- is on this process.
This is a topic worthy of discussion. I hope more of our readers will take part.
While I generally support the notion of political parties at the municipal level, I don’t think they have to be the same as the ones that operate at the provincial and federal level. Many of the issues at the municipal level cross ideological lines. Pretty much anything, however, would be better than the present situation where you have nine ineffective independents who are for all intents and purposes frontmen (and one woman) for senior administration.
Not only is there a need for policy discipline there also must be a better understanding of the proper role of a council. Council and senior administration are not members of the same team. Councillors provide proper governance only when their relationship with administration is infused with a measure of tension. The ying and the yang. Policy initiatives in particular should come largely from councillors not adminstrators. Councillors should also be cognizant of administration agendas and have the fortitude to criticize and to say no.
What Nanaimo currently has is an elderly council mostly devoid of their own initiatives. They are well intentioned but nothing much more positive things can be said about them. They do not have the collective capacity to balance the governance equation. The introduction of political groupings would not necessarily solev all problems but it couldn’t help but be an improvement on the current situation.
I couldn’t agree more with your observation that the political parties at the local level need not be the same as those at the provincial or federal level, despite the hidden agenda in our present system. Most of us know who are “Liberal” or “NDP” on Council and these parties or their agents do actively promote their members/adherents.
Nevertheless, I am not aware of any municipal parties that mimic the name of these parties. Rather they tend to be more issue oriented such as a Ratepayers Party or a Development Party whether known by these names or otherwise. Nanaimo would be well advised to go with more immediately intentional, less diffuse, party names and objectives.
Your analysis of our current situation is spot on. But what are we to do about it? Fortuitously I have just been referred to an excellent piece on municipal political apathy which is worth a few moments of out time.
How do we make a silk purse out of our sow’s ear?
“How do we make a silk purse out of our sow’s ear?”
First ……… you have to kill the pig!
Killing the pig may be a bit drastic. It could be accomplished, however, simply by removing it ears. Not so drastic as it doesn’t seem to be listening in any event…