Municipal Political Parties

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 15, 2006

Lately talk has been bubbling about introducing the party system to municipal politics in a formal way.

Informally, of course, the parties are already involved here and there, not only as networks and systems of relationships for people thinking of running, but also as unofficial sponsors and supporters.

Nonetheless, it's still possible today to run at the municipal level without party support. That is, it's still possible to run a credible, viable campaign as an independent, on the strength of one's own ideas, experience, and personal relationships with volunteers and voters.

I believe this independence is a good thing and should be preserved. The political party, as newly-independent Halton MP Garth Turner recently argued, is a kind of machine:

These giant political machines roll along, sucking up millions of dollars through slick direct mail campaigns, then spending it on polling and marketing and regional organizers with six-figure salaries. The machines are about power, and are centred on the leader. Hardly figuring in here are the MPs who get elected, and the men and women foot soldiers who actually make up the party. At the end of the day, the machine is so big, so full of momentum, that it can roll right over them.

Party politics forces its elected members to vote along partisan lines instead of on an individual basis according to what makes the most sense (best case) or to what, say, the Home Builders Association wants (worst case).

It removes the locus of decision-making from the semi-accountable, elected individual to the unaccountable, private advisory team. It is anti-democratic to the extent that it abstracts policy-making still further away from electors. (The representational system of councils and parliaments is already an abstraction away from direct decision-making by citizens.)

At the municipal level today, the principal common denominator is not partisan affiliation but business interests. In Hamilton, that common denominator is property speculation, an area on which the construction companies and unions can readily agree, and which has more or less run Hamilton's growth and economic development program for the past several decades.

LIUNA, for example, is nominally a labour union, but it makes more sense to regard them as a construction or property management company. Similarly, city councillors like Sam Merulla or Terry Whitehead play up their labour credentials, but consistently vote with the developer nexus of corporate, big-L Liberal suburbanism. Property speculation transcends partisanship when all the money speaks the same language.

I don't see how overlaying explicit partisan divisions on the existing faultlines of power will improve the situation. The problem today is not that individual politicians cannot build networks of association or form strategic partnerships on shared interests; it's that citizens often cannot have a direct impact on what city staff and insiders decide in conferences and prepare in reports, or what politicians decide in council meetings.

The solution is not to keep adding layer after layer of structure and entanglement, but to strip away the encrustation of interested parties, hangers-on, and financiers so that city council can get on with the business of enacting what the citizens want.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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