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Blog: Blog2

Parties in Local Government

Photo credit: George Blais/Westlock Town and Country Today

Recently, voters in the Town of Westlock, north of Edmonton, narrowly passed a plebiscite that requires the Town to remove non-government symbols from their flagpoles and crosswalks. The touchpoint on this was pride flags and rainbow crosswalks, but the ripples are much broader than this.

There was a heavy presence of external actors in getting the plebiscite approved. Outside influencers about social topics like this are a harbinger of what’s to come in Alberta’s local politics should the provincial government, and the governing party in particular, get their way.

While it’s only an academic question at this point, I do wonder what the outcomes of the vote would have been if socially conservative groups from outside Westlock had been excluded from the campaign. That wasn’t the case, and entities like Take Back Alberta are claiming victory. These groups want to impose their own social values on the rest of the people under the bizarrely ironic banner of ‘freedom’, and they are willing to interfere will local governments to do so.

Alberta’s conservative government appears to be beholden to groups like this and is actively lending them a hand. This short-term populism is extremely regressive and dangerous for the long-term sustainability of the province and its municipalities.

At the provincial level, the winds of change appear to be blowing. With the support of socially conservative groups and some of its own MLAs, the provincial conservative government has telegraphed that it is considering permitting political parties to be visibly and actively involved in municipal government. This is something that has not existed in Alberta for decades, and even when it did exist in the major cities, it didn’t last very long.

The Premier and others are suggesting that this change is necessary because city council candidates may say one thing when they’re running but do something different when elected, and this needs to stop. I suspect she’s tone-deaf to the hypocrisy in this statement.

I think the reality is much more nefarious than politicians keeping their promises. What’s being sold as a way for local voters to be confident that campaign promises will be carried out is really just a way for formal parties to interfere in local government and for the provincial party to control municipal councils.

Even now, there are only so many volunteers to go around, and the same people working on provincial election campaigns are likely helping out their friends on municipal campaigns, too. T’was ever thus. I take no issue with this sort of individual activism. It’s healthy for democracy.

Why would a community want to elect a slate of candidates representing a party, only to find out that the change means that decisions are being made elsewhere and in private?

Parties that hold a majority in our Westminster system have all the difficult debates in caucus, only to emerge from that room with a pre-made decision. The current requirement for municipal governments is that almost all debate and all decisions must happen in public. The result is that people get to see the decision-making process happen – and judge their representatives thusly. With parties, that openness becomes a black box. There’s an adage that light is the best disinfectant, and that’s especially true for government.

When there is a dysfunctional local council, everyone can see it, and changes can be made at the next election. When the debate and disagreements happen behind closed doors, the citizens really have no idea what is being said and decided.

Currently, candidates for local office are always local people, and usually ones who have a passion for their communities. They’re knowledgeable and invested. Parties may choose to run candidates who don’t have strong focus on the community, but rather they would put people on the ballot who will do what the central party tells them to do. Again, this strips decision making away from the best interests of the local community and replaces those decisions with what’s best for the broader party.

Like minded parties are connected with one another. If parties show up in town, it won’t be long before decisions are made centrally by the party apparatus. This will certainly benefit the parties, their members, and their benefactors. The one group it will marginalize will be the local people.

We complain now about ‘dark money’ in politics at the federal and provincial levels. We don’t really know who’s backing whom with donations and quid pro quo. In our cities and towns, that’s not the case to the same extent, but it certainly will be if formal parties get their way.

The municipal associations in Alberta have spoken out against the idea of allowing parties into Alberta’s local governments, as have experts from a variety of fields. It seems that the only group that wants parties to be active in our municipal governments is the provincial conservative party.

You might get the impression that I am vehemently opposed to the use of parties in local government in Alberta; and you’d be correct. Who really wants to see the ultra-partisan sniping we see among federal and provincial parties foisted on our villages, counties, towns, and cities?

As a municipal leader, what’s your opinion on parties in local government in Alberta? Would it be a harbinger for what’s to come in other provinces led by conservative parties?

As always, you can reach me at  

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