Halifax Regional Municipality– Many familiar with Halifax politics are quick to blame City Council for our civic ills. While cynicism towards Canadian city councils is not uncommon, in Halifax our Council is often regarded as a barrier to the implementation of progressive ideas, a rival in civic-minded endeavour and an ineffective mechanism useful only to political stair climbers. But as political participation has waned, extra-political citizen engagement has spread, though this alone will not be enough to create the cities we envision. Instead it will require we embrace and integrate these engagement process outcomes into the formal political dialogue. This could be done through novel approaches that will ultimately serve to reconcile people and the political process for democratic renewal.
In our city, as in much of the mature democratic world, there is a growing disengagement between government and citizens. The 37% voter turnout during the last HRM election was nothing short of a collective act of attrition against civic good and a shirking of responsibility to each other. Considering the transformative effect that voting can have on election outcomes, future non-engagement is inexcusable. Have we forgotten that people and politics are two sides of the same coin that pays progress forward?
Today, extra-political measures of citizen engagement (public consultations, visioning sessions, world cafes and the like) have become ubiquitous. If done effectively there are few better ways to capture community sentiment and create a vision for the future. However, they can be detrimental by exacerbating citizen-government disconnect if in the end they serve as political smokescreens, are superficial treatments, wholly politically irrelevant or exclusive. Exclusivity is a common shortcoming that can be dangerous to the marginalized as lack of due engagement further reinforces systemic or process biases. Poorly designed engagement strategies serve only to put lipstick on a political pig; and they will never be a substitute for the political process (nor should they aspire to).
But the growth of extra-political engagement is a key factor influencing the renewal of the formal democracy, particularly at the local level. This is not because these strategies are necessarily new or progressive in nature but rather because they are reversionary: they create a feeling of a more directly representative democracy at the origins of our political system; revive a sense of ownership in governance and reveal in civics a simplistic beauty long obscured under bureaucracy, rigid process and regulation.
A resurgence in direct citizen involvement is needed to revitalize the municipal democratic system but it will require the greater relevancy brought through embracing ongoing public engagement trends to ease integration of citizen sentiment and formal politic process. While citizens are the key to civic vitality, the formal political process remains the gatekeeper to manifesting such a civic vision. In Halifax, there are a few potential avenues to hasten reconciliation and unlock the potential of our city.
The first suggestion is the creation of a municipal Shadow Council. A Shadow Council is an independent, quasi-political organization (possibly incorporated as a provincial society) that would play the role that the Loyal Opposition does in Parliament. It would add an element to local politics that could advocate for and be guided by outcomes of ongoing extra-political engagement mechanisms. Its Critics could speak to issues with expertise and directly critique Councilors on their decisions and voting, highlighting alternatives, focusing tangential debate and debunking speaking points. This visible and vocal organization could act as a place where potential Councilors could develop their skills and increase their public profiles between elections. These individuals would precipitate change by becoming viable alternatives to incumbents through building trust with the electorate, since their messages would be free of the political media cacophony that accompanies campaigns.
The second is the formal organization of political parties at the municipal level. This is a considerably more difficult endeavour and if done incorrectly can elicit both popular and media backlash (q.v. Citizens for Halifax). While it would be preferable that Councillors cooperate with the good of the entire region in mind, there is considerable evidence that this is largely not possible. Our municipality is too large, too politically fractured, too unwieldy and possesses nonsensical distribution of powers and influence over district-specific affairs.
Municipal level parties could bring cohesion and political coordination across our vast municipality. Voting in blocs would necessitate tradeoffs of support that would entail adoption of a broader vision and deeper empathy that could even help to bridge the pronounced rural-urban divide that tethers the economic and social engine of our urban core, which only seems to endow rural communities with investments that undermine rather than build district, and by extension, regional resilience. It may even allow for what is currently a near political impossibility: a Mayor from an urbanized area.
If Halifax fails to reach its potential it will have little to do with a dearth of energy or community involvement from its citizenry: Halifax’s got heart. It will require a renewed sense of civic duty and teamwork between citizens and political processes, along with the realization that we are City Hall. We are the people and in democracy all authority, legitimacy and vitality resonates from us.
Photos by CLICK Productions