Ottawa is a change-averse city. Or is it our elected leaders who are holding back change? Our current city council has been dragging their heals on fundamental debates and decisions about transit, infrastructure, and urban development for over a decade.
This on-again, off-again relationship with decision making has turned city council into the cliched commitment-phobic boyfriend. Just as you’re sure council is about to propose a great solution, one of them steps in to break up the near-deal and send debate careening off into committee hell for another six months.
When asked if we want change, citizens in Ottawa respond with a resounding “yes!” Until, that is, it’s time to actually vote. Then we return our incumbents to their squabbling and bickering.
Issue redux and retread
A common refrain in Ottawa politics is, “haven’t we dealt with this before?” And, while true that many political debates run in cycles, the issues we are debating at the municipal level in Ottawa are so fundamental that they deserve a council ready to lead us towards solutions, not return us to deliberation. These debates aren’t new to Ottawa. The big issues at play, like transit, taxes, and trash, aren’t even unique to our city. So, why do we have such a tough time defining what our elected officials did for us the past three years?
Why is it we are still debating exactly how we dispose of our trash (and who pays) while others are becoming world leaders in waste management? Holland recycles at least 64 per cent of municipal waste annually. Ottawa’s elected officials claim they want to ensure a navigable city by all forms of transportation, yet our transit system is crippled by unnecessary labour disputes and a downtown-bus-bottle-neck. How could council have failed to take advantage of money from provincial and federal governments to fix the problem? The City of Calgary runs carbon neutral trains and is investing in sustainable infrastructure. Chicago has redeveloped huge public spaces–a prime example is the over-ten-square-kilometer addition to their waterfront, Millennium Park, the site of a former rail yard.
We can’t even decide what sport to play where, who should pay for it, or where to put it.
The problem in Ottawa seems to be an over-reliance on the system. And here is where the politics get really interesting. I’m firmly of the belief that people like our current mayor and those who support his stale status quo are the exact people who benefit when innovation, motivation, and direction are lacking at City Hall.
The next budget is always around the next corner. This yearly face-off for cash is fueling much of the motivation for this regular rerun of issues. We have no long-term budgeting at the political level, only short-term solutions geared to appease the highest number of confirmed voters.
Big “C” Change
Our leaders tell us this scares Ottawa’s voters. Our elected tell us that we are averse to change. They believe things need to happen slowly, with deliberation and always with a way to back track if it becomes politically unpopular. That age-old political adage, “It’s an election year” holds true far too often in Ottawa. I think several key tactics are used to keep citizens mollified between elections. Specifically in how the city officials help and allow incumbents to “manage” their community stakeholders in between election time.
Community consultations take two forms: The classic screaming match or the round-about-the-room information fair. Neither of these are spaces that enable change. Overcoming the Ottawa-leadership challenge may be as simple as replacing community consultations with community collaboration.
There are more and bigger questions coming at the voters of Ottawa in the future. It would be nice if we could deal with some of the small things on a more civil and human scale. Of course, it’s not that simple.
The question should always be asked: is the forum or town hall meeting working towards the progression or regression of the various stakeholders positions in the debate? This all starts by recognizing that it’s alright to disagree and it’s healthy to have political opinions. To straddle the so-called “left and right” is something politicians have trouble grasping. Politics would prefer to live in a public world of black and white and a private world of grey.
As catalysts for change, it is up to us to forge connections and conversations, to find like minds and challenge the system that tells us debates need to happen with an audience facing the candidates. As catalysts for change it’s up to us to find new and better ways to engage other citizens in the process. As catalysts for change during elections citizens can make a real priority of ending public discourse that degenerates into a contest of polarizing positioning. I think by shaking up the system a little we can turn the game away from trying to pry votes away from “the other guy” and towards earning our votes with ideas and actions.
How can you be a catalyst for change? That is the question I’ll be addressing in this space. And, along with Vicky Smallman, we are also going to report on the campaign political plays and misses, the inside-City Hall gossip, and even live-blog a debate or two. If you have a question about the upcoming campaign or politics in general, both Vicky and I are long-time politicos and we’re happy to take your queries for a feature called “Ask a Politico”–we promise straight up answers with no spin.
This week’s column was heavily informed by conversations and tweets from @ALL_CAPS, @thecodefactory, @dbmcclelland, @ coffeewithjulie, @girlaboutOtown @snobiwan, @paminottawa, @AvrilAutopsy ,@andrewbalfour, @gibbslamey, @zchamu, @tgrevatt, @elliotte , @C_9, and @DenVan.
Photo by solylunafamilia