Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

There are more than 25,000 elected municipal officials in Canada, compared to 757 elected provincial and territorial officials and 308 elected federal officials.

Large urban municipalities such as Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary have larger populations than six of the provinces. And yet, in several important ways, the development and needs of municipal governments receive much less academic, media and public attention than deserved.

Most of Canada's public-policy think tanks and political science departments are far more focused on federal, provincial and international issues than municipal issues. Municipal government is most often seen as the "third" level of government rather than as the first level, closest to the people. It is becoming increasingly difficult to persuade qualified citizens to run for municipal office and to create truly competitive races at the municipal level. And municipal government structures and practices – usually defined by provincial statutes – have generally failed to keep pace with the country's urbanization.

Story continues below advertisement

Political and administrative weakness at the municipal level has contributed to corruption in Montreal, reputational damage to Toronto and chronically low voter turnouts in municipal elections all over the country.

In Calgary, where going to the polls is a very safe and easy exercise, the average voter turnout over the past five municipal elections has been 36.7 per cent – embarrassingly low compared to turnout in recent elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, where going to the polls can get you killed.

So what can be done to strengthen municipal politics and governance in Canada?

First, think tanks and academic institutions engaged in generating intellectual capital for participants in our democratic processes should devote more of their resources to the municipal level. For example, prior to the last municipal elections in Calgary, our Manning Foundation for Democratic Education conducted a large, city-wide public opinion survey identifying municipal issues of most importance to Calgarians. These turned out to be traffic congestion, cost of living, accountability, and crime at Calgary's C-train stations. We then produced 10 policy papers on these and related issues, all of which were put in the public domain for any candidate to view, use or criticize.

Of particular interest and use to voters was a tracking system developed by researchers David Seymour and Jeromy Farkas for tracking City Council performance on everything from councillor attendance, to time spent on particular subjects, to votes and voting patterns on key issues. Their system is described in a paper titled The Democratic Tool Box and has application to tracking the performance, for accountability purposes, of any municipal council where there is relatively free voting.

Second, in most major cities where it does not yet exist, we are probably moving toward a "municipal party system." But the transition process needs to be very carefully thought through if it is to be accepted as a positive development.

In Calgary, where most candidates present themselves as "independents," our polling showed strong opposition to the municipal involvement of federal or provincial parties, as well as opposition to independent municipal parties or even "slates" run by interest groups.

Story continues below advertisement

At the same time, our analysis of voting patterns on Calgary City Council – who votes with whom on what issues – showed the existence of clearly identifiable coalitions of councillors who increasingly vote together on particular issues and who therefore constitute "shadow slates" or "shadow parties" that eventually may coalesce in a more concrete form.

For example, we identified Coalition A, whose members tend to support increased spending measures, a slightly smaller Coalition B, whose members tend to constrain spending, and a third group of "pragmatists" who could go either way depending on the persuasive powers of their fellow councillors, interest groups and electors.

It is these shadow slates and coalitions that could transition into loosely organized "municipal parties" in the future. But this transition will be a positive development only if we address head-on the general public antipathy to political parties – the highly prevalent view that political parties are self-centred, ideologically or emotionally blind to positions other than their own, authoritarian rather than democratic, adversarial rather than co-operative and prone to unethical conduct.

On the optimistic side, however, the evolution of new municipal parties may provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent "the political party" – to create new forms of political organization less prone to the deficiencies of the past and better suited to practising the democratic politics of the future.

In undertaking such a venture, it's worth remembering that democracy itself was an invention of the city-state politics of ancient Greece. It should not surprise us therefore if its reformation for the 21st century in a form more capable of inspiring citizen support should occur at the municipal level.

Preston Manning is founder of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies