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?