Gerald Caplan is an African scholar, former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power and Politics.
Francis (Frank) Underwood, the exuberantly cynical and wildly successful protagonist of Netflix' House of Cards, makes it only too easy for other countries to mock America's political culture. But Canadians should restrain their sense of superiority. It's true that in general Canadians don't take politics to the unnerving extremes that are only too common south of the border, where winning is the only rule, as Vince Lombardi might have said. But we are coming along nicely. The Harper government has introduced forms of political bullying and Machiavellian tactics with a gusto that far surpasses anything we've seen before. And then – you knew this was coming – there are the Ford Boys, who have plumbed depths so previously unexplored they have even fascinated jaded Americans.
But however much we've learned about the Fords, few people know what really goes in governments below the headlines. We really only know what the media tells us, so we know more (relatively speaking) about national politics than provincial politics and almost nothing except headlines about municipal politics, which rarely receives any but the most superficial attention. Attending a municipal council meeting is almost as fascinating as reading Hansard, and few normal people do either. Each council is a self-contained universe with its own arcane rules, language and agenda, which may or may not have anything to do with real life. As a first-time councillor, Doug Ford never grasped Toronto council's intricate workings, which makes him just as qualified as his little bro to be mayor.
Usually it takes bad news to remind us of our various levels of government. I guess anyone who reads a paper in Toronto knows that the huge Toronto District School Board has become a nest of snakes. But it was once a fearless, pioneering progressive board and its degeneration is both tragic and mysterious. Maybe it's because most voters haven't a clue who their school trustee is and so don't bother voting for one. So getting re-elected in perpetuity simply requires uninformed voters.
Brampton, Ont., is another example of a growing city known for all the wrong reasons. Mayor Susan Fennell, first elected in 2000 and now running for a fifth term, has been accused of using the city's budget as her personal ATM. When you read the deluge of accusations against Ms. Fennell – a sense of entitlement run amok which she waves off with disdain – you gasp that she seems to have gotten away with so much for so long.
I live in a small city north of Toronto called Richmond Hill, which the Toronto Star described this week as "sleepy." My feelings aren't hurt, but the reason the town has made the news is that our mayoralty race has attracted notice entirely because of Mayor Dave Barrow's opponent, a first-term councillor named Carmine Perrelli. Think of him unkindly as our own Giorgio Mammoliti. Perrelli has been a disruptive force on Richmond Hill Council, mostly in a pointless and destructive way.
Here's a pretty typical example of how honourably Carmine Perrelli plays politics. The Richmond Hill Liberal, a free local tabloid, asked a non-partisan community advisory board to rank our nine elected councillors. Mayor Barrow got the highest mark at A-. Councillor Perrelli got the lowest grade at D. There were no other A's or D's. But of course no one is perfectly good or bad so there were capsule comments summarizing each man's negatives and positives.
Well, you can see where this is going. Sure enough, this week Perrelli sent out a flier that unmistakeably conveyed the impression that The Liberal had endorsed him for his "strong leadership". What followed, of course, were the negative remarks about Mayor Barrow and the positives about himself. Yet what the board actually said was that Perrelli was "immature," "does not pay attention," was "arrogant, disrespectful," and opposes "just for the sake of creating roadblocks".
The unambiguous conclusion of the report card was that Barrow had been the best elected official and Perrelli far and away the worst. So Perrelli's flier was a total distortion of the community board's conclusions, in fact completely reversing its findings. At least he earns an A for chutzpah.
Faithful readers will know that Rob Ford's popularity has convinced me that I no longer understand anything about politics. The present election campaign confirms my deep sense of failure as strategist and pundit. Doug Ford may yet succeed his brother as mayor of Toronto on Oct. 27. Unbelievable, but possible. It's true that Susan Fennell over in Brampton will be unceremoniously turfed – but it's taken 14 years. And here in sleepy Richmond Hill, a man who represents democracy at its shabbiest might well defeat the unassuming guy who is mayor. Mayor Barrow has my support, if not very enthusiastically. But I'm pretty sure who Frank Underwood – now U.S. president Francis Underwood – would be promoting. Carmine Perrelli is Frank's kind of politician.