Tale of three cities proves public services matter to Canadians
Ottawa voters reject their own experiment with Rob Ford-style chaos, Calgary embraces public values.
by Ish Theilheimer
It isn't often that municipal elections provoke much news coverage, but this fall was different in Canada. Voters opted for change in many Canadian cities this year, but none of the examples is quite so interesting as Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa. In each case, public services and spaces were the main subjects of discussion.
Toronto is the most prominent both because it is the biggest of the three and, of course, because the national news media are centred there. In that election, populist city councillor Rob Ford, a blustering conservative backed by Stephen Harper's machine, stole the show by promising to "end the gravy train" of wasteful city spending.
Two factors that drove his popularity were transit problems (provoked, in great measure, by provincial funding cuts), accusations of over-spending, and controversy over the cost of city services, a feeling stoked in a summer, 2009 strike of city workers that stopped garbage collection for more than a month.
Ford rode a wave of public discontent to win the mayor's seat handily. His agenda is to sell off the city's transit and other systems, privatize garbage collection and reduce the number of city councilors from 44 to 22. He has a lot of progressive opponents on Toronto City Council and may not be able to accomplish all of what he's set out to do, but he can be sure to create havoc while trying.
Meanwhile in Ottawa, voters rejected their own experiment with Rob Ford-style havoc by booting Larry O'Brien from the mayor's chair after one term. O'Brien, a successful high-tech tycoon, got elected in 2006 with a pledge of freezing taxes while improving services. Over the next four years, disaster followed debacle for the city and residents under O'Brien's "run-it-like-a-business" leadership. The low point was a lengthy bus strike he clearly provoked in the winter of 2009 during one of the city's coldest, snowiest periods in years.
It's hard to win much support for public service strikes, but in the case of Ottawa, things blew up not on the bus drivers who were being told to drive double shifts but on O'Brien. Today, Ottawa has a new mayor, in part as a result.
The most resounding municipal message of change, however, came from Calgary, where young upstart Naheed Nenshi came out of nowhere. Although stubbornly refusing to be categorize himself politically, Nenshi galvanized young voters into action with his commitment to new ideas to build community, culture, public spaces and services.
The policy page of his campaign website speaks for the kind of public values he holds. It speaks of open government, community planning, infill housing, transit and road improvements, getting money out of politics, reducing poverty and supporting cultural activities.
Although it may be true that he won because the right-wing vote was split, his victory indicates a great many Calgarians hold them too.
Links and sources
Gillian Steward: Young voters elected new Calgary mayor
Posted: October 26, 2010
Public Values (PublicValues.ca) is a project of the Golden Lake Institute and the online publication StraightGoods.ca