Why a municipal party is necessary to restore confidence in City Hall

Ron Bolin: Dec. 12, 2012

Now don’t get me wrong.  City Hall is not necessarily about to be shown to be either criminal or incompetent.  But a great many folks find that its lack of transparency and onanistic communication is more than simply disconcerting.  The circumstances which got us to this state are not uncommon and Nanaimo is not alone in finding itself with dwindling citizen participation in either elections or civic affairs.

In the 2011 Nanaimo municipal election our Mayor received 14% of the votes of citizens eligible to vote.  The best outcome for a Councillor was for 14.4% of the eligible voters and the last place “winner” got in with only 9.3% of eligible voters.  One could just as well say that 86% of the electorate voted against our Mayor and between 85.6% and 90.7% voted against any of our Councillors.  At the same time the backing for candidates in the election came from a relative handful of groups on either the Chamber side of the election or the union side.  Grass roots were few, far between and only lightly contributing. This situation is NOT a ringing endorsement of anyone, nor can any of our Council use such a record to stand firm on almost anything –and, not surprisingly, they don’t.

Whether these outcomes are the result of apathy, of “I’m alright Jack”, or of a trend toward the boycotting of elections is unclear: probably a mix of all.  But what should be clear is that all spell a slow death spiral of democracy in local government.

What can be done? I have wracked my brain to try to figure this one out. The closest I have been able to come to a chance to get out of this ever deteriorating situation is to try to find a mechanism which could be used to build a relatively stable, reasonable well defined grass roots interest group which can provide recommendations and support to Councillors between elections, and is neither on the right or the left but devoted to the direct, rather than the trickle down, interests of the majority of our citizens.  That mechanism involves the establishment of a political party, whether it is called a concerned citizens association, a ratepayers association or the ever popular coalition. To do all these things the group needs to be registered for political activity and is therefore a political “party”.

The advantages of a political party are many: it can vet candidates who will run under its banner; it can raise money for elections and for research and action; it operates 365 days a year rather than one day every three years; it can provide the strength to stand up to the bureaucracy when this is thought necessary; it has a brand name and can use its logo on election ballots for recognition.  Significantly, a party is also, in itself, a democratic form.  Participants can join or leave at any time (not just once every three years); they can pay dues or donate time or money as they see fit; they can elect officers, suggest programs and modify the party’s rules of engagement.  A party is a way of keeping constant and consistent tabs on the political environment and it is why they have persisted at higher levels of government organization, despite their flaws.

As it happens, the times are also conducive to the formation of a party.  It has become increasingly obvious that both the Chamber and the unions are taking greater notice of what is going on at City Hall and are desirous of keeping their influence on the front burner, thus relegating the rest of us to the back.  Their interest comes with the difficult times in which all categories of citizens find themselves with dwindling incomes and elevated costs.  Some of the consequences of these matters have given rise to citizen groups who, while active in defending their local interests, have also, of necessity, become aware of our political problems in general and are ready to do something about it.  These groups and their leaders could provide a framework for the development of an organization which could define a robust and active middle to Nanaimo’s political situation and bring back active citizen participation in our political process.  Let’s hope that one or more of them, or perhaps even a wild card, will step forward to begin the task of broader organization needed for a party.  Without something changing it is likely that the next election will see even less citizen participation and more Chamber and union control over our local political processes.

PS: For the record, if I thought I was the person who could take this task to a successful completion, I would say so…  I am, however, willing to assist those that do take it on to the best of my ability.