Municipal party politics doubtful for city

By Elizabeth Howell

While federal and provincial governments revolve around official parties, municipal politics have remained, for the most part, officially untouched by party politics.

Despite recent speculation, some Ottawa city councillors say parties — municipal or federal — will not appear until long after the Nov. 13 municipal election, if ever.

A few large Canadian cities, such as Vancouver and Montreal, see their councils elected from municipal parties.

Although a municipal party slate may align with the federal parties ideologically, officially they are separate groups, with different names.

Montreal, for example, has two official municipal parties: governing party Montreal Island Citizens Union (MICU) led by Mayor Gérald Tremblay and opposition party Vision Montreal.

Municipal parties do not exist in Ottawa, and while unofficial allegiances to the federal parties exist at Ottawa’s city hall, no formal alliances have been forged between city councillors and the Conservatives, Liberals or New Democrats.

Some councillors say this will not happen.

“I don’t think there’s any chance at all (of party politics coming to city hall),” Capital Ward Coun. Clive Doucet says. “City politics is too much work for (federal parties). It’s too intimate. It’s too personal.”

Rideau Coun. Glenn Brooks says as it stands now, many people participate in municipal politics because without parties, their voices are more likely to be heard and not overwhelmed by the views of the majority of the party.

People who support an alternative view from the party in power would have to give way to the majority, which would make municipal politics less democratic, he says.

“I don’t support party politics at the municipal government level,” Brooks says.

“I think we have an abundance of politics at the provincial or federal level.”

Caroline Andrew, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa, says party politics would force councillors to be more accountable, since all members of a party would be responsible for actions of their fellow party members.

Currently in Ottawa if a voter does not agree with the actions city council takes the only way to make changes is to complain to a single councillor, she says. Since each councillor acts independently on council, it is more difficult to get things done because there is no single party holding a majority.

“Now you vote for somebody and there’s no accountability,” Andrew says.

“There’s only this mass of individuals. Cities are becoming too important and too complex for us not to have a political capacity.”

Bay Coun. Alex Cullen agrees cities are complex, and says in response to that complexity Ottawa councillors have already aligned themselves under invisible party banners.

Cullen calls himself a “card-carrying NDP” member and says that Mayor Bob Chiarelli is, undoubtedly, a Liberal. Bringing the federal parties into city council would make this more evident to voters, he says.

“It makes more sense to organize around a political platform to get things done, ” he says.

“People make connections to political parties because they can tap into political experience. I think it would be better for the citizens if it was more transparent.”

Somerset Coun. Diane Holmes says municipal dealings with the federal government makes councillors’ political affiliations with the national parties transparent enough.

Chiarelli’s Liberal leanings, for example, made it easy for the provincial and federal Liberal parties to agree to fund the $600-million O-Train expansion last year, before the federal Conservatives came into power, she says.

“I think councillors prefer to be independent and represent their constituents rather than represent party politics,” she says.

Andrew says although academics including herself say parties will be better for cities, voters prefer their municipal representatives to be independent.

She says a 2005 survey conducted by the Centre of Research on Information on Canada shows 48 per cent of Canadians hold local politicians in high esteem, compared to only 38 per cent for provincial politicians and 24 per cent for federal politicians.

“Municipal politicians are seen as higher than federal or provincial politicians because of a lack of party politics,” she says.

Holmes says in the end, it should be the voters — not the academics — who decide whether national party slates appear at Ottawa City Hall.

“No matter who is in power, voters need the ability to talk about what is best.”