Marc Bureau is used to putting his name on a ballot. The unassuming businessman became a city councillor in Hull in 1999, before beating the incumbent and moving into the mayor’s seat in the amalgamated city of Gatineau in 2005. Four years later, he cruised to re-election against five opponents.
But this year Mr. Bureau will be up against a new kind of opponent: a political party.
Municipal parties are being created at a record pace in Quebec, and the province’s chief electoral officer says requests to create them for the Nov. 3 elections across the province have more than doubled since 2009.
The province is going against the grain, as municipal parties are the exception in most of the country. The situation is perplexing at first blush, given recent revelations about municipal party fundraisers taking cuts on public works contracts.
But there is an easy explanation: election rules introduced by the Marois government this year have put independents such as Mr. Bureau at a disadvantage against party members. The law cut maximum donations to municipal politicians to $300 a year from $1,000.
Even worse for independents, they can raise funds only in the 10 months before an election and have only a year after the election to pay off debts. But political parties – such as the new Action Gatineau, which is trying to unseat Mr. Bureau – can engage in constant fundraising, whether it’s an election year or not, and can carry debt permanently.
Gatineau is one of the few big cities in Quebec (with Trois-Rivières and Saguenay) not governed by a party, and Mr. Bureau hopes things stay that way. He argues that parties became embroiled in a series of corruption scandals because of their constant need for funds to pay for permanent staff and offices.
“I don’t understand the logic of favouring political parties, especially after everything that we have seen,” Mr. Bureau said in a recent interview.
Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin, a Gatineau city councillor since 2009, defended his decision to launch Action Gatineau. He argues that in the 21st century, cities need new governance regimes to go with their big budgets and responsibilities over matters such as infrastructure, culture and poverty.
He said Action Gatineau candidates support six broad goals, which will provide a blueprint for Gatineau’s development. He added that his city councillors will have total freedom when it comes to voting on local matters.
“We’re inventing something that is interesting. We think we can actually help political parties to recover their credibility,” he said.
Mr. Pedneaud-Jobin rejected the allegation that a political party increases the odds that a municipal administration will be beset by kickbacks and fraud. He said Action Gatineau has already reinvigorated the democratic debate in the city.
“It’s not structures that are corrupt,” Mr. Pedneaud-Jobin said. “It is individuals.”
The creation of Action Gatineau has already changed the political landscape in the city. In the past, Mr. Bureau worked to achieve consensus among city councillors, striving to reach deals that ensured the unanimous passage of budgets and other key votes.
The dynamic changed after Action Gatineau vowed to run candidates in every district in the next election, including against all incumbents. Suddenly, the five Action Gatineau supporters on city council started attacking their 13 non-aligned colleagues on a regular basis, polarizing debates at city hall. As the animosity grew, members of Action Gatineau started to dub the independent councillors as belonging to “the mayor’s party,” even though there is no such entity in legal terms.
Mr. Bureau had a strong lead over Mr. Pedneaud-Jobin in the most recent poll. Still, he is not necessarily looking forward to governing the city, if he wins re-election, alongside members of Action Gatineau: “It will be much harder to achieve of consensus. There will be a systematic opposition, just like in the House of Commons.”
Mr. Pedneaud-Jobin, however, hopes to convince a majority of electors that they deserve “a real municipal government.”
“Our goal after election night is to remove the Action Gatineau logo on our platform, slap on the city of Gatineau’s logo, and that is what we will be doing for the next four years,” he said.