I have noticed that when speaking about politics, there tends to be a level of government that is easily overlooked. Municipal governments – and by extension municipal issues – are often cast to the sidelines, with their value and importance being presented as subordinate to the ongoings of the two larger levels of government. Municipal governments are sometimes praised as ones that have the most direct line to the people that they represent, since they address some of the most regular issues that citizens have.
From basic concerns about the quality of the water coming out of your tap, to your concerns surrounding public transportation and affordable housing, these issues, although typically shrouded with a veil of mundaneness, play a vital part in the daily operations of our communities. As a result, regional and city councilors have a significant role to play in how you get to school, the quality of water that you drink, and when you throw out your trash. But if these issues are seemingly important, why does nobody care about municipal politics?
The issues present within regional and municipal governments tend not to be associated with as much pomp as provincial and federal issues, such education or immigration. But furthermore, at least within Ontario, municipal and regional politics tend to be dominated by the same politicians as it is incredibly difficult for a newcomer to defeat an incumbent. By virtue of not being associated with any political parties, all candidates in municipal and regional elections run as independents. The lack of party influence within these governments has its benefits, but inversely, they create a sense of voter apathy. Without the money and history that political parties often bring to elections, voters turn away from municipal elections – they’re simply less interesting.
This however creates issues. When people are not paying attention to important topics or issues, two things occur: Firstly, the general public loses interest and devalues the role of municipal politicians and their responsibilities. Secondly, people who still see the value of these positions will continue to operate, unsupervised. This loss of interest, which removes the court of public opinion away from these politicians, can create a general problem rooted in misconception and misinformation. If the public is uninterested in municipal issues, and are unable to identify their own councilor, would it be fair to expect them to hold their representatives accountable?
Running in the most recent municipal election as a school trustee, I was approached by a potential voter. The gentlemen were intrigued by my youthfulness and inquired about the political party that I was running with. I informed him that municipal elections, as trustee ones are non-partisan. He wanted to get to know my platform, so I eagerly handed him a leaflet. Before I could jump pre-rehearsed 30-second spiel, he asked, “What are your thoughts about admitting more immigrants? What about welfare? Abortion?”
I was annoyed. But more importantly, I was concerned. Here was a full-grown man asking me about issues that, although important to him, had nothing to do with the position I was running for or any other municipal position. He didn’t want to know the ways that municipal governments were working to construct affordable housing, he wanted to hear about the reduction of refugees. Due to the fact that people were unaware of what municipal roles and responsibilities pertained to, they can easily be misled. Being uneducated and unaware about basic politics makes peoples susceptible to misinformation and this creates an opportunity for people to exploit these ill-informed peoples for their own personal gain.
Specifically, some misinformation that was being perpetuated during the 2018 municipal was rooted in individuals like Kevin J. Johnston who ran for Mayor of Mississauga (and managed to secure 16,079 votes – or 13.49% of the vote). This is the same man who in 2015 distributed flyers in the neighbouring area of a proposed site for a mosque that dawned the headline “Stop the Mosque” and citied potential concerns such as ‘an increase in vandalism, a loss of freedom of speech and an increase in the number of sexual assaults.’ Just in 2019, he was ordered to pay $2.5 million in damages to the owner of Paramount Fine Foods for defamation, with the judge citing that Johnston’s rhetoric amounted to hate speech and called for strong condemnation from the courts. The ability for Johnston to taint the role of Mayor – even just by running for the position – is indicative of the fact that there were not enough people paying attention to the election and the issues that existed.
To be aware of political happenings is an individual concern and responsibility – but this is not to neglect the onus that representatives and candidates have to ensure that their constituents are properly informed about their roles, duties, and how (or if) they are living up to them. Familiarize yourself with who your local representatives are and their track records –maybe even contact them. You might be surprised how easy (or difficult) it is to get a hold of them.
If people cared about municipal politics and genuinely concerned themselves with local issues it would encourage others to run and implement meaningful and positive change. The bar surrounding the expectations within municipal politics will only be raised as high as the citizens set it. Currently, that bar is extremely low.