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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Party’s Over Politics in Montreal

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After watching what amounts to a slow-motion train-wreck between City Hall and the Charbonneau Commission on corruption, it’s little surprise to see Union Montreal representatives fleeing the smoking ruins of the party in droves.

Ten council members broke ties with the party yesterday, and Union Montréal has been reduced to a minority at city hall.

The new mayor of Montreal, Michael Appelbaum, was chairman of Gérald Tremblay‘s hand-picked executive committee until this week. He defected from Union Montreal after the party passed over his candidacy for interim mayor and will sit as an independent.

Shuffle the deck

I wouldn’t be surprised if Union Montreal – the municipal party born in 2001 to contest/sugar-coat the forced municipal merger – disappeared from the political map next year. But that just means that many of Union Montreal’s reps will likely be shuffled back into the deck, only to come up under a different banner in the coming election.

In a 2010 post about longevity in Municipal politics my colleague Devin Alfaro concluded that the councillors who’ve stuck it out at city hall the longest are “people who know how to reinvent and recycle themselves as the political landscape changes.” Marvin Rotrand, Montreal’s longest-standing city councillor who is currently serving his 8th term at city hall, was among those abandoned Union Montreal yesterday.

Our new mayor Michael Appelbaum, incidentally, was originally one of two councillors elected with Parti des Montréalais in 1994, a Rob-Ford-esque party which dissolved two years later. Prior to going into politics, Appelbaum worked in real estate.

Do municipal parties open the door to corruption?

I don’t mean to imply that any of the aforementioned council members were personally guilty of corruption or collusion. But clearly they took advantage of associating with a party whose coffers were literally overflowing with the “unofficial funding” (budget officieux) that allowed Union Montréal to surreptitiously triple their election campaign budget.

I’m the first to admit naivety when it comes to the back-end of the political machine, but it seems to me that parties in the municipal arena could act as magnets for corruption. Those who want favours from City Hall can pour their pots-devin into a single pot to buy a majority of votes. Could dozens of independent counsellors be won over so thoroughly? Could an independent mayor adopt the see-no-evil-speak-no-evil modus operandi that allowed Tremblay to profess his innocence of his party’s dubious funding right up to the bitter end?

Municipal parties are unique to Montreal, born with the Civic Action League in 1954 which was formed to help elect Jean Drapeau (thanks to Montreal City Weblog for digging up this tidbit).

Now that we have our first “independent” mayor in over 50 years, it might be worth taking a step back to question the true impact of party-politics at the municipal level.

The main lesson that I’ve been able to draw from the train-wreck of the past few months, is that voters need to stop focusing on the train – which is likely to wind up in the scrapyard before the year is out – and to start paying more attention to the survivors.

Image amalgamated from photos on flickr cc tracktwentyninebenwatts & robynejay


  1. The root of the current malaise is about far more than just political parties – it is the entire Québec model of doing things. The government bureaucracy is what really controls the levers of power, and they are in enmeshed with the Québec business community. Politicians may come and go, but the system remains…. 

  2. There’s very little evidence that non-partisan city governments are any better at avoiding corruption. In some ways, a lack of parties may be even worse. If a particular issue is up for a vote, it’s much easier and cheaper to buy off the swing vote than to buy off an entire party.

    Parties also provide good guidelines for voters to know what they’ll get, even if they don’t have a lot of information about the candidates. I can be pretty certain an NDP MP will vote for gay marriage, for environmental concerns, against wars, etc. When parties are not around to fill this role, elections can become “what have you done for me lately?” pork-barrel contests.

    A better solution might in fact be stronger, more ideologically consistent parties. In the last Montréal election, there were few policy distinctions between UM and VM. Both parties proclaimed they’d clean up city hall, neither party showed much evidence they’d be any good at it, and voters just chose who they believed based on faith or mood affiliation. If more parties were like Projet Montréal or Vancouver’s parties, focusing on specific issues and philosophies, I think it might help.

  3. Where does this claim from come that Montreal having parties on a municipal level is unique? I know that at least in Germany, parties permeate down to the municipal level, independents are somewhat rare. I believe this is true for other European countries as well.

  4. I want to continue from where Vasi left off..
    There are good things which can be done with political parties which cannot be done without them (which is my way of suggesting that not all that comes from parties is good.)
    If Council were dealing only with simple contract issues, examined one at a time, parties might not be necessary. But a large city (larger than some provinces in population and budget) needs a modicum of consistent orientation. Decisions, such as financing, policing, urban planning, economic development, housing, transport, etc. all have significant political and social consequences. An individual candidate cannot develop policy alone, cannot master all these dossiers, cannot present views to the electorate at the same time that dozens of other candidates are trying to do the same thing. Montreal isn’t a village.
    Parties allow a range of ideas to be developed in an organised fashion, allow the electorate the ability to participate in policy-making, and allow voters a clear choice, having at least some expectation of how a representative might vote on an issue which wasn’t explicitly discussed beforehand.
    The challenge is to keep parties transparent, democratic, vibrant, as a means of stimulating political discussion, not suppressing it.

  5. You guys are right – municipal parties are not a bad thing as long as they represent some kind of coherent vision or policy approaches. A party can get relatively unknown candidates with good ideas into government. But the opposite seems to be more common: career politicians to get a makeover every once in a while (and a nice campaign budget) by throwing in with one party or another…

    and seriously, isn’t weird the way Appelbaum got into power by basically whistle-blowing on policies that he apparently supported as head of the exec committee only a few days ago?

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