Healthy Skepticism

Ontario’s rookie municipal politicians have a new sandbox to play in.

Its size?

Four years long by whatever latitude municipal staff and re-elected incumbents will allow them. New councillors and mayors will receive orientation and training, and will be schooled in the reasoning and dictates of policies and procedures: in short, why things are the way they are.

A few new faces will have attained election victory because incumbents have either bowed out or chased larger ambitions (as mayors, as regional councillors, or as regional chairs).

Fresh in from the campaign trail, they may feel that they have arrived at City Hall with a mandate for change. Never fear. They will be joining very, very stable organizations that have successfully assimilated newcomers before.

Make no mistake. No re-elected incumbent or upwardly mobile city staffer believes that past decisions adopted around the municipal horseshoe, or the methods used to attain them, are in need of change. Their loyalty to the status quo is quite natural and logical, unless they have been living the last four years as outsiders, shunned by the organization they are elected to lead.

Returning incumbents rightly see their election as endorsement of past behaviour, equally as valid as any newcomer’s mandate for change.

We need only look south of the border to see how difficult change in government actions can be, even where leadership at the very top is backed by massive initial support.

Jane Jacobs attempts to explain why this is so, in her 1992 book Systems of Survival. It’s subtitled “A dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics”, and the work is an exploration of the two very different systems of these worlds (or “syndromes” as she calls them). She concludes that within the realm of government, military, religious and large corporate organizations, with their necessary “guardian” syndrome, there are a number of effective moral precepts that contrast with their equivalents in commerce and trade. Jacobs does not judge these precepts as necessarily good or bad, but believes that they are effective.

Distinctive guardian syndrome precepts include: using deception for the sake of achieving results (the end justifies the means) rather than overt dissent or objection; exerting prowess (pulling rank or citing reputation or qualifications) rather than engaging in competition; and being disciplined and obedient rather than efficient. Jacobs finds the guardian morality in man’s transition from hunter/gatherer and nomad to rooted settler, where territory and the division of tasks must be overseen, managed, and organized. It is this necessary management (the standard operating procedures) that she believes reinforces the values of loyalty over collaboration, respect for hierarchy over initiative, honour over honesty, and tradition over innovation.

New councillors and mayors will be initiated into this world, a world to which few citizens feel connected and fewer still might understand. Citizens and small enterprises live in the world of commerce, of trade. According to Jacobs trade is conducted using moral precepts that often contrast with those needed to administer territories and run hierarchical corporate bodies.

Calgary’s new mayor Naheed Nenshi describes city hall bureaucracy in blunt terms, as a “horrible soul-destroying system” with a “risk-averse culture.” While he’s been elected on a wave of optimism, and Calgary’s government may be worse than some, even there his “12 Better Ideas” will need to be implemented as effective change to a longstanding system of government, and that will be neither easy nor welcomed.

A prime example of this reality is the framing of debate regarding light rail transit in Waterloo Region. Consultants, the development industry, lobbyists, and those who benefit from the status quo have much to lose if real change is implemented. Investments have been made on the basis of present arrangements, and much is riding on the assumption of continuity. Although there is much talk of Smart Growth, and the changes it will bring for our communities, this is policy only, and policy can sometimes be far from the reality of specific decisions. The time-honoured administrative conveyor that turns farmland into subdivisions and lanes of congested traffic will continue unabated, in the name of “housing choice for consumers”.

Never presented as a threat to car-based development and patterns of living, public transit is touted as an added benefit that will complement traditional growth. Its expense cannot be compared to the $300 to $400 million that will be spent moving Highway 7 (from Guelph to Kitchener-Waterloo) into farmland and wetland, estimated by its project consultants to save about 5 minutes of a 20 minute commute. That expense is quietly seen as necessary, but it’s only nominally for transportation. Its real task, as with most road and sewer infrastructure, is to open up land for development. Although its proponents will never admit such a thing publicly, the road will succumb to the inevitable pressures and arguments that created the Woodlawn Road and Victoria Street “gasoline alleys” it is meant to replace. A first, then a second, then more big box developments will be approved by township councils eager for assessment dollars, and less-than-smart-growth will be perpetuated.

Similar logic for rapid transit, that it will spur development, albeit in existing built up areas, falls on deaf ears. The debate over Highway 7 has been framed as one of transportation, of freedom and consumer choice, which plays to a taxpayer’s understanding of the public realm as nothing but support for his private movements. Evidence is glossed over, of how the highway’s further lanes will quickly become as congested as ever. The project’s real purpose: land development, growth, and the profits that flow from it; lies in the background. Light rail transit cannot be sold in similar terms. It is a system of infrastructure that requires an overt shift in where development profit is harvested. The development industry will always prefer greenfield subdivision, with its control of “lifestyle” sales message, over the messy dictates of urbanism. That is the devil it knows, and the mechanism that our civic bureaucracy is designed to support.

Low turnouts at municipal elections are not to be wondered at. While it may be true that a municipality’s services and programs, its policies and procedures, and its way of doing things have greater effect on our lives than any other level of government, it is also true that few citizens believe City Hall can truly change, regardless of how it may affect their children’s future. The apathy does not spring from the issues. It is a view of how our guardians conduct themselves, and their lack of healthy skepticism. Where politicians cite the mantra “On election day the voters have their say, and they are always right” they should add “And on election day, those who do not vote have also spoken loudly: that the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

JM, October 22, 2010, as originally for the Business Times

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