Don't call it democracy if people won't vote. Brampton needs to decide on its future

Don't call it democracy if people won't vote. Brampton needs to decide on its future

It's unclear who first coined the phrase "all politics is local," but former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O'Neill gets the nod if you go by the latest Google algorithm. Still, it's a truism that's hard to dispute.

Since humanity started gathering in wolf packs on the Mesopotamian plain, city dwellers have been voting in lawmakers to represent their interests. That vote had been limited, first to men with property, then men without property, women, teenagers, and, finally, members of Canada's First Nations, who, sadly, did not gain full voting status in this country until 1960.

The system was corrupted from the very beginning by moneyed interests, and candidates on the take, and it quickly inspired such cynicism that the nastiest of all the Roman emperors, Caligula, famously nominated his horse for the Senate. It wasn't a bad idea since horses don't fish for favours from developers in exchange for a vote, or swing an election by gerrymandering a district.

Today, our political process has gone tribal. Alt-news slinks out from the dark recesses of the Internet, on so-called "media" sites or in the shape of 3 a.m. tweets concocted in the upstairs bathroom at the White House. Political operatives are motivated to dig up dirt on opponents, then cue their communications team to produce another round of attacks that have taken on all sorts of forms, from traditional ads and robocalls to blitzkrieging message boards and densely concentrated spin on all other platforms. These Machiavellian maneuvers have bastardized the original intent: to create laws that were created by and for the good of the people.

Which brings us to the Oct. 22 municipal vote in Brampton. A full slate of candidates (seven) is running for the mayor's chair. Four councillors: Grant Gibson, Elaine Moore, Gael Miles and John Sprovieri, with a total of 98 years of service are retiring. (Sprovieri is one of the seven making a run for the mayor's seat.) This offers a real chance for political renewal. The school board is, well, the school board. A light dusting of voters will choose the trustees, while few will even notice.

Voters these days seem motivated to "throw the bums out of office" more than casting a ballot because they're inspired by a candidate. Justin Trudeau rode an anti-Stephen Harper wave to victory, and Doug Ford slammed a Liberal party running on fumes, embroiled in a laundry list of scandals, and led by a leader who gave up on the possibility of winning even before the vote. Trudeau rode into power after 71 per cent of eligible voters participated in the one fundamental process of any functioning democracy. For Ford, the participation number across Ontario was 56 per cent. That outcome, and the future of the province, might have been dramatically different if even an extra ten per cent of eligible voters had turned out.

In Brampton, Susan Fennell was ousted after voters flatly rejected her leadership style. But the turnout number in 2014 was an abysmal 36 per cent. Spin the clock back to elections past, and the news gets worse. In 2010, only 33 per cent of Bramptonians turned up to vote, far below the 44 per cent average across the province. In 2006, it dipped near the Mendoza Line, barely reaching 31 per cent. In both cases, Fennell won re-election over a lacklustre group of candidates. The lousy 2014 turnout is more troubling because it was arguably a "change election."   

The farcical participation in our city's electoral process belies the entire concept of democracy. Author Gore Vidal called it a nonsense word. Journalist H.L. Mencken said it's a synonym for the collective fear and prejudice of an ignorant mob. He also predicted that one day soon a "White House will be adorned by a downright moron." He didn't live long enough to see a real estate chiseler with a thirst for porn stars and Russian caviar fulfill his prediction.

 Louis Lapham, the former editor of Harper's Magazine, who now heads his own literary publication, took up the disinterest of voters in his book Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy. He believes democracy only works if individuals are willing to raise a voice against the presumed wisdom of the mighty and powerful. In other words, democracy is a joint venture, a deal between voters and candidates.

 Nothing stirs the blood, or sounds the trumpets like talk about democracy. In the western world, we've defended it to the death, in two world wars. But millennials are not so keen on the concept. A recent paper by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk caused a furor because it said 25 per cent of American millennials said democracy is a "bad'' or "very bad" way to run a country. They also feel warmer about authoritarian or illiberal ideals. The authors call it "Democratic Deconsolidation.''

Brampton could very well serve as the poster child for those challenging our system's fundamental premise: if the people obviously no longer care about who makes some of the most important decisions directly affecting their lives, then why not just let some autocrat or despot try to do a better job than the cardboard leaders who hide behind their "democratically" elected status as proof that, despite lacking any mandate from citizens, they get to rule on their behalf. Alarming results in Brampton's "democratically" held municipal elections highlight the ruse. Take the example of incumbent Brampton Councillor Martin Medeiros.

In 2014 he ran for elected office for the first time, after working with Linda Jeffrey and other Liberals as a bureaucrat inside Queen's Park. With no past experience in public office, and after providing few firm platform details to serve as a commitment to fight for what voters in his ward were demanding, roughly seven per cent of them chose to send him to City Hall to represent them. Using the frighteningly low city-wide turnout, 36 percent of eligible voters who actually cast a ballot in 2014, an upside-down hockey stick represented the percentage of people, out of all eligible voters in Medeiros' ward, who chose him from a list of 15 candidates in total. And he is somehow supposed to represent all their interests within the system of municipal governance, which helps determine everything from the way garbage is collected and public transit is funded to whether or not hospitals will be expanded and when Brampton will finally get a fully functioning university campus.

 The woeful lack of diversity on Brampton council is another example of what happens when citizens don't bother to participate in determining who will reflect their concerns on council. In a city where almost three-quarters of the population belongs to a visible minority group (73 per cent), 10 of 11 council members (91 per cent) are white. 

There is no suggestion here that a white councillor cannot properly represent all the interests of a non-white constituent. But for anyone who has keenly watched Brampton council as it has tried to deal with culturally sensitive issues such as the reciting of the Lord's Prayer during its meetings, matters that involve the city's diverse places of worship, or even the controversial proliferation of secondary suites, it's clear that a broader range of cultural knowledge around the dais would help in formulating legislation and policies that better reflect our city's shared community values.

When the people don't properly participate in the political system used to govern them, they get divided into groups, because it's convenient for politicians. It's the sort of thing that can easily happen when political apathy replaces democracy. When voter turnout sinks to the dangerous levels seen recently in Brampton the door opens even wider for all sorts of actors trying to influence the system for their own gain, not the good of the public. 

 Again, here are the numbers that represent the percentage of eligible voters who actually cast a ballot in the city's last three municipal elections: 31, 33, 36. That averages out to about one-third of eligible voters in Brampton who chose to directly decide on issues in their own backyard, including: what they pay in property taxes, crime, healthcare, transportation and post-secondary education. The vast majority of recent candidates in Brampton's municipal elections have failed to articulate any vision about issues such as funding for early childcare, affordable housing, population growth, programming at city libraries, summer camps for children and dozens of other municipal issues that directly impact the day-to-day life of residents.  

Dr. Michael McGregor, assistant professor of the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, has focused his recent efforts on local government. He's principal investigator of the Canadian Municipal Election Study, which studies attitudes and behaviour of voters and non-voters towards elections in eight cities.

He's also bullish on Ontario's Bill 181 passed in June 2016. It granted municipalities the authority to use ranked ballots in future elections. He said the province was responding to a grassroots movement in U.S. municipalities like San Francisco, Minneapolis and Portland where voters wanted government to better represent the electorate and a system that does not overwhelmingly favour incumbents. "The decision to adopt the system at the municipal level in Ontario is thus not without precedent," he writes.

One city, London, Ont., will give it a try in October. Unlike in Brampton, where our council voted to reject this increasingly popular electoral system (which differs from the current system in one key way, incumbents are not overwhelmingly benefited by it) in London the city council decided to allow citizens who cast a ballot in October to rank candidates first, second, third, fourth and beyond. A ranked points system ensures the winner will finish with over 50 per cent of the vote, plus 1. If the first vote shows no clear winner, the lowest candidate is eliminated and the numbers are reshuffled again and again (if needed) until a winner is declared. 

This eliminates the first-past-the-post system and has been advocated for years by Toronto artist and civic activist Dave Meslin of A self-styled political rabble rouser, best known for his TED Talk called "The Antidote to Apathy", he urges everyone to visit the group's website and see how the new system works.

Brampton Mayor Linda Jeffrey was appointed Ontario's municipal affairs minister in 2013 by then-premier Kathleen Wynne. One of her goals was to reform the ancient Municipal Act (1849), and the Municipal Elections Act. She didn't stay long enough to do both. She resigned to run against Fennell in the 2014 election.

Voters didn't exactly flock to the voting booths, but they replaced Fennell.

This October, the political rutting season is back. Jeffrey is now the incumbent, with four years of council bickering in the rear view. If Fennell's last four years were tumultuous, Jeffrey's first four were Dysfunction 2.0. Her backing of the Main Street route for the proposed Light Rapid Transit plan inflamed half of council. The mood remained toxic and the disharmony led to internal gridlock. Large questions about the location of the new university, what to do about all the new arrivers to the city (Brampton is one of the fastest growing cities in Canada, according to the last census), and how to revitalize a sterile downtown core remained unanswered. 

Jeffrey can't be blamed alone for some of the inertia. She was vigorously opposed by a bloc of councillors who openly expressed their disdain for the mayor, who did the same toward them.

The Pointer-commissioned poll has Jeffrey ahead of her nearest rival, Patrick Brown, but it's too early to predict the outcome. One thing is predictable, however: this year's voter turnout. History teases, but it doesn't lie. It's clear that between 30 and 40 per cent of Bramptonians will vote for their local representatives on Oct. 22.

There is something terminally wrong with all this.

But maybe the London vote will change minds, and voting patterns. It might even motivate other cities, like Brampton, to follow suit.

No doubt, we'll have plenty of time to spin the numbers, and decipher it all on Oct. 23.

Submit a correction about this story