Monday, March 03, 2014

Municipal Voters: Partisan Intervention is Coming Your Way

Did you mistakenly think that the Manning Centre's attempt to bend the 2013 Calgary municipal election to more "conservative" was an aberration?  You would be quite wrong.

The author of the Metro News article is considerably more charitable than I am about the matter - but then again, he was in Ottawa, not Calgary and didn't necessarily see the full breadth of the effort on the part of the angry right wing to twist the election.
When right-wingers from across the country huddled in Ottawa last weekend for the Manning Networking Conference, they understandably had their eye on the next federal election, but they also examined city politics and their perceived weakness there. 
One talk on the conference agenda was entitled, “How conservatives can succeed in the last bastion of the left – City Hall.” 
The title — and the talk — began from the assumption that the bicycle-riding, fancy-coffee-sipping socialist hoards by and large have a lock on city councils. ...
That's far from true, but what does happen at the civic level is that council decisions have a more direct impact on people's day to day lives than does a decision about interest rates in Ottawa, or Harper's rather naive and bellicose approach to foreign affairs.

Consequently, people tend to vote for councillors that actually do a good job of representing their local interests.  Whether that's ensuring that garbage gets picked up, or the snow is removed from the roads - political stripe doesn't usually matter to most people.

On the other side of the coin, apparently the far right thinks that they are imperilled somehow.
One might argue that as tax and spending cuts became orthodox at the other two levels of government, municipalities have had to step into the resulting gaps. And Ottawa had a right-leaning mayor not so long ago who vowed to hold the zero-means-zero line on tax increases — until reality caught up with him. 
Pantazopoulos allowed that conservative ideology as it’s articulated at the federal level may not filter down perfectly to Main Street: “What does smaller government really mean at the municipal level? Does it mean fewer roads get paved? Does it mean less snow gets cleared?” 
In city politics, he said, it’s more helpful to talk about supporting “market-oriented” candidates. That’s what the Manning Centre tried to do in Calgary’s elections last year with their Common Sense Calgary campaign.
"Market Oriented candidates"?  If you're as surprised by that mealy sounding term as I was when I first saw it, I can't blame you.  Once again, the far right is trying to sugar coat a turd.   In this case, the turd being a candidate who is on the political right wing, but madly running about trying to mask how far right wing they are, or what interest groups think they can control them.

The "Common Sense Calgary" thing was, fortunately, more or less a failure.  But it didn't fail because they weren't trying to get their message out - they spent hugely on advertising.  It failed because someone saw Cal Wenzel talking about trying to buy control over city council in the upcoming election via the Manning Centre and leaked it to the media.  People were expecting a bunch of Astroturfing to take place, and when it arrived, it mostly fell flat.
‘The idea was to really try and talk about some of the issues from a conservative perspective. And if you think that would be very harmless and that people would have no objection to that, you’re wrong,” said session moderator Monte Solberg, a former Conservative MP. “Mayor (Naheed) Nenshi was really quite outraged about all of this because it drew great scrutiny to his record.”
Well, actually the attempts to "scrutinize" Nenshi's record were not only blatantly partisan, they were full of lies to boot, and the Manning Centre's report on "council voting patterns" turned out to be a bunch of poorly analyzed statistics which really did not show what the far right claimed they did.

I don't think the Manning Centre/Developers did themselves any favours by having Jon Lord play the "angry old white guy" candidate for Mayor either.  He simply ended up looking stupid, especially when competing against incumbent Naheed Nenshi whose tireless work during the June flooding crisis had likely already won him the election entirely.  The real fight was to ensure that the developers didn't get their way with controlling the individual members of council.
But the Manningites also have some ideas about how citizens can use information technology to keep better tabs on city council. Researcher Jeromy Farkas crunched numbers from Calgary city council, from councillors’ attendance to the number of questions they ask staff to how often they vote with or against the majority. 
Some of the data’s meaning is open to interpretation. A councillor who asks a lot of questions may be keeping a skeptical eye on the bureaucracy, or just fond of the sound of his own voice. But the point is voters get more data to interpret. The Manning Centre intends to offer this analysis for other cities, including Ottawa, and that’s pretty cool.
 The problem is that these kinds of statistics aren't overly meaningful, especially the way that the Manning Centre went about the analysis.  It was clear enough that they were trying to interpret things to draw a particular picture.  As the old saying goes:  "There are 3 kinds of lies in the world:  Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics".  Like the Fraser Institute's "ranking" of schools, you have to realize that there is a political agenda being played out, and groups like the Manning Centre are pushing their agenda.  Examine their statistics very carefully, and interpret them with a healthy dose of skepticism.

One last reminder about the creeping partisanship in Canada's municipal politics:  The Fords in Toronto are very well connected to the federal CPC.  It is no big secret, or surprise, that Rob Ford received significant help from the CPC campaign machinery when he was last elected.  Further it is no surprise that we keep seeing the Fords using the same rhetorical practices that Harper has used.

This isn't healthy, it is ultimately undermining Canada's democracy at all levels.

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