Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Building Organizational Capacity Could Bring Change to Ontario Municipal Politics

McMaster Political Science Professor Peter Graefe* talked local politics on a recent episode of CFMU’s In the Neighbourhood.

Peter has a keen analytical mind and a unique ability, in my experience, to apply theory to what is actually going on out there in the community.

You can listen to the interview here.  

While the interview related to the Hamilton (Ontario) municipal election, I think Graefe’s comments are applicable to the politics now being played out in many municipalities where the “no new taxes” mantra has held sway now for more than 20 years.

In the Ambitious City, for example, the mayoral race seems to have focussed on two issues:  Light Rail Transit (LRT) and leadership.

Other quality of life issues like poverty, housing and urban sprawl have fallen by the wayside.

Graefe argues that “(w)e don’t organize well enough as citizens for municipal politics.  So, our politicians can make decisions about what the issue is going to be..  One or two themes ” then dominate the debates and become the ballot box question.

To change this we need to have organizations that have long-term commitment and capacity.

While some see politicians following the prevailing opinion.  Another notion, Graefe asserts, is that “without organizations that are really putting specific issues onto the agenda …it is not too hard for politicians to organize us into politics by saying this is what is important to us.”   Politicians do this strategically.

The discussion on In the Neighbourhood seemed to suggest that poverty, as an issue, made it onto the agenda in the 2010 Hamilton election as a result of such organizing efforts.  This time is hasn’t.   I’m not sure I agree with that view.

Nevertheless, we continue to avoid so-called adult conversations on big picture matters like what it costs us to “urban sprawl.”

Maybe this can change.

Graefe holds out hope as there will at least four new Councillors on Hamilton’s 16-member council.

Council work is about making decisions.  These decisions can be “risky.”’  With a new dynamic on council and newer ideas, “what is considered risky and what is considered normal may begin to change.”

Meanwhile, let’s hope that groups like the People’s Platform Initiative (http://www.peoplesplatform.ca/) develop and maintain the long-term capacity required to make politicians listen and thus bring about real social change in our municipalities.

I believe it would be worth your time to listen to the interview.  It runs about 45 minutes.  
*Peter Graefe is an Associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Hamilton’s McMaster University.  Mac’s website notes that “ Graefe's research interests flow from a broad interest in Canadian political economy and public policy, and include: social and economic development policies in Quebec and Ontario; provincial social assistance policies; and federal and provincial intergovernmental relations strategies.”

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