In Canada, attention to the importance and role of municipal government is on the rise – fuelled by public and media interest in the corruption inquiry in Montreal, the trials and tribulations of the Rob Ford regime in Toronto, and the role of local government in disaster relief in Calgary and Lac-Mégantic.
Greater public attention to the importance of municipal government in Canada is long overdue. In many respects, local government is the level of government closest to the people, and the state of democracy in the country as a whole is closely related to the state of democracy at the local level. The fact that voter participation in local elections has declined to abysmal levels is a symptom of the so-called "democracy deficit" that has now spread to the provincial and federal levels.
In our country there are 308 elected federal officials. In the run-up to the 2011 federal election, about 4,000 Canadians gave serious thought to running for a seat in the House of Commons. In Canada, there are also about 800 elected provincial and territorial officials, and over the last election cycle about 9,000 Canadians likely gave sincere thought to running for a provincial or territorial legislature.
But there are more than 25,000 elected municipal officials in Canada, not counting elected school boards and health boards in many jurisdictions, and some 75,000 to 100,000 Canadians likely gave serious thought to running for their municipal council over the past three years.
And while there are numerous think tanks, interest groups, party organizations and communications vehicles that provide intellectual capital and training opportunities for politicians at the federal and provincial levels, candidates for municipal office are not nearly as well served. This is a situation that needs to be remedied – not by bringing federal or provincial party politics to the municipal level, but by creating and supporting more think tanks, training programs, and communications vehicles dedicated to the provision of better ideas and training for those willing to run for municipal office.
Of course, political innovation of this type at the municipal level will run into the same criticism and opposition that invariably greets political innovation at any level in Canada. The political establishment at the civic level – those who have been politically successful without such help – will say more and better ideas and training at the municipal level are neither needed nor welcome. Others will invariably see a conspiracy behind such attempts to innovate – a right-wing conspiracy if new think tanks and training programs are backed by businesses or a left-wing conspiracy if they are supported by unions.
But hopefully, in the longer run, the majority of sensible Canadians will agree that strengthening the knowledge, skills, ethical foundations and leadership capacities of candidates for municipal office is a good idea and well worth supporting if we want to strengthen democratic governance in Canada at its most basic level.
Preston Manning is founder of the Manning Foundation for Democratic Education.