Q: Are there party politics at Peterborough City Hall? —Whitney, Peterborough
Goyette: Yes and no, but don’t give up on me just yet.
Officially, party politics do not exist at City Hall. There is no formal organization of Liberals, Greens, Conservatives, New Democrats, Communists, or any other political party that directs the work or the decision making of the elected Councillors. This is not to say that there are not well established municipal political parties elsewhere. They are a common feature of political life in Rome, Stockholm, Tokyo, Berlin and London.
In Canada, they have a foothold in Vancouver, Montreal and Quebec, and we have seen parties and caucuses formed in cities such as Surrey, Richmond, Edmonton and Winnipeg. Even Toronto has played around the edges of formal partisanship with the Responsible Government Group. I want to suggest that the greater the regional polarization among provincial or federal parties, the greater the likelihood of municipal partisanship.
Most Ontario politicians do not see the need for new municipal political parties, because it could weaken their own riding association or supporter base. Worse, it could result in a popular local politician rising to challenge the provincial leadership outside of the control of the traditional political parties. There is a quaint notion that little local issues do not rise to the standard of weighty provincial or federal issues, and therefore do not merit the discipline of political partisanship.
Those opposed to municipal parties also argue that City Hall is a place that, unlike an opposition party with its duty to oppose, has a duty to find consensus, and that the creation of consensus would be undermined by partisanship. On the other side of the argument, political parties are seen to give voters real choices; help replace “personality voting” with more substantive “issue voting;” permit a healthy electoral debate about vision rather than potholes; and increase voter turnout.
Locally, partisanship is like the reality that dares not speak its name. Some Peterborough City Councillors belong to political parties; all have political leanings. Some attend and speak at partisan electoral events and conventions; some rely on party election workers and fundraisers. But voting patterns at City Council are not expressly partisan. Instead, they are based on a combination of influences such as staff advice, personal values, assumed or expressed constituency preference, electoral implications, alliances with other Councillors or applicants, self perceptions as team players or mavericks, and the play between intellectual principle and emotional immediacy.
As I see it, municipal political parties are not on the local horizon and there is no desire to see political partisanship come out from under the covers.
Councillors understand that if you want decisions that best represent community opinion, you are more likely to find them based on a consideration of the merits of each individual issue, coupled with the creation of one-time alliances, than you are through predetermined partisanship. Not only that, but partisans sink or swim with the party, which can make for some very short careers.
David Goyette is the Executive Assistant to Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett. For more on his Backroom Briefing column, click here. Email your burning questions for David about City Hall to firstname.lastname@example.org.