Don't Just Blame Council

How might our advocacy differ if we treated government not as an entity in and of itself, but rather as the platform on which the struggle between different community interests takes place?

By David Van Beveren
Published May 18, 2009

Hamilton city council receives its fair share of criticism on the pages of RTH by those who consider it to be an inert body, lacking in vision and indifferent to citizen input.

Nicholas Kevlahan's recent lament for the extent of meaningful citizen participation in bureaucratic decision-making thoughtfully channeled similar frustrations with city departments and planning committees.

This assessment of 'council as culprit' for some of Hamilton's woes is understandable, if not intuitive, but it's not always accurate or helpful. It's important to examine how our understanding of local government affects efforts to have our preferences reflected in the decisions of public officials.

The risk is that scapegoating perceived do-nothing politicians exonerates citizens of the responsibility to articulate and mobilize towards their vision of what the city of Hamilton could be. It's an easy and visceral reaction, but one that places expectations of progress squarely on the shoulders of council while ignoring certain dynamics of representative government and the citizen's role in it.

New Yorker columnist Nicholas Lemman recently revisited the work of 20th century theorist Arthur Bentley, who conceived politics as "a never-ending, small-bore struggle for advantage among constantly shifting coalitions of interest groups."

Lemman writes that Bentley thought that "all politics and all governments are the result of the activities of groups" and that it's not morals or grand vision that shape policy decisions, but "the messy workings of the political marketplace."

Local Context

This concept could be well applied in the local context, particularly for Hamiltonians concerned that the city's political leadership isn't fully engaged with the principles of smart urban development. How might our advocacy differ if we treated government not as an entity in and of itself, but rather as the platform on which the struggle between different community interests takes place?

If we accept the assumption that government functions more in reaction to stimuli generated by external actors and not as a shaper or driver of policy itself, would our strategies change?

Bentley would argue that if citizens don't like the actions or decisions of their elected officials, they should not think it's because they've been failed. Rather, it's because another group has been more successful at promoting its agenda or setting the terms of discussion.

Hamiltonians who abhor the thought of the city's peripheral agricultural land being lost to mindless suburban development shouldn't shake their fists at council. Instead, we should look with awe to the developers who've learned to advance their interests so effectively and commit ourselves to learning how to push back and assert our vision and values with equal fervor.

On the face of it, this notion of how government works can be discouraging. The organized interests that supporters of progressive urban policy must often line up against are experienced, well-financed and connected. Successful opposition by small civic groups to established norms and sophisticated professional entities is an undeniable challenge.

Marshall Ganz argues that it can be done. A professor and the co-architect of a successful grassroots campaign that you may have heard about, his research serves as a blueprint for social movements that links community advocacy with capacity building.

Will You Become Engaged?

Developing agency through organization, nurturing leadership, building bases of support along shared values, and mobilizing the unique resources of a group; each of these elements require gritty work and constitute the basis of his approach. And, he emphasizes, heterogeneous groups do have many resources - if not financial, then in terms of their broad expertise, independent thinking, and, most importantly, the motivation of individual members.

Ganz is clear on the value of motivation, arguing that it leads to creative output and permits for a sustained focus that generates ever-growing resources and influence.

What this means for individual citizens is up to them. One can see in Hamilton a groundswell of interest in the management of the city's urban affairs, but civic advocacy can be a dispiriting experience.

The line between interest and action is not clearly drawn. In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam writes that people are generally willing to become engaged in community endeavours, and that simply being asked is a powerful stimulus for involvement.

And so I will. The November 2010 municipal elections are looming ever closer. What can RTH supporters do to advance their vision for what the city of Hamilton can become?

David Van Beveren is a Hamilton native. He grew up in Ancaster and now lives in Ward 1.


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By bubba (anonymous) | Posted May 18, 2009 at 23:03:52

Good point made David. Approach the challenge with positive energy. To advance interests of RTH readers, focus and leadership is required. Focus on one or more specific issues, develop informed arguments, and relentlessly promote their causes. To get organized, like-minded citizens need leadership. RTH supporters need someone to channel and ignite their motivation! David?

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By Hopeful (registered) | Posted May 19, 2009 at 00:18:57

Good points David. Those who wish to affect change need to create the groundswell, not just lament that politicians do not listen to them (ever notice that the Spec's Have Your Say poll results are often out of synch with Raise the Hammer thinking --- I think we need to get the underlying logic of our message across better sometimes). That said, I've personally had local politicians express great sympathy and agreement with concerns I've raised only to see them vote against the option that they've said that they support. Horse trade? Maybe. Lying? Perhaps. Unfortunately, they've never seen fit to explain their change of tune (and I've asked them to). I don't have any problem with an opinion, or vote, which doesn't lean the way I want it to. I do have issues when it passes unexplained. Ultimately, accountability is what counts and, sadly, I see little of it, except to campaign funders, here at times. The call to reform election financing for municipal candidates (see needs to be explored and a scorecard on Council votes needs to be made. Only then might we see some changes.

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By gullchasedship (registered) - website | Posted May 19, 2009 at 02:32:07

No point bitching if you're not willing to get involved.

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By C. Erl (registered) - website | Posted May 19, 2009 at 15:25:05

When I argued with my father about not voting in the last municipal election, he said something backing up his decision to not cast a ballot that actually made sense. He said "Why would I vote when there is no alternative to what we have?" We live in Ward 8, so looking at the 4 candidates we had, there wasn't much diversity of opinion.

The best thing we can do is challenge the existing authority in the next election. Its not hard to find the pro-sprawl development councillors and the councillors who are blocking change and set up a strong alternative campaign. Sure, you may not win, but elections provide a perfect forum in which all attention is directed at candidates, so it gives you an opportunity to express your opinions and have people vote on them!

And, of course, if you do win, then you can go head to head with those stalling change and hopefully make some progress!

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