Nelson: Sadly, it's time for party politics in civic voting

What has changed — and not in a good way — is the huge amount of money being raised, not by the candidates themselves but by special-interest groups known under the acronym PACs

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Just because a single Calgarian out of every 50 is fully behind what our council’s been up to lately, doesn’t mean the current mayor and councillors won’t all be coming back after we return to the polls in two years’ time.

Such is civic politics these days. It actually doesn’t take that many votes to get elected, especially if you have a well-funded special-interest group bankrolling the campaign.

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Ironically, being disliked can bring its own reward: annoy enough people and the list grows of those figuring they have a good shot at knocking you off that political pedestal, thereby splitting the vote so many ways that name recognition is all that’s required for re-election.

Midway through this current crop’s four-year term, it’s hard to recall a council or mayor so disliked. When recently polled, only two per cent of Calgarians strongly approved of council’s performance. Mayor Jyoti Gondek’s approval rating — at a desultory 30 per cent — makes her the least popular person to hold the office in recent history.

In the last civic election, three current councillors — Raj Dhaliwal, Terry Wong and Kourtney Penner — succeeded despite capturing less than 30 per cent of votes cast. Only Coun. Peter Demong got the nod from a majority of citizens who bothered visiting a polling station.

That’s another issue: the relatively small turnout of Calgarians in civic elections compared with federal and provincial votes, despite city council being more responsible for our day-to-day lives than other levels of government. (Voter turnout was a miserly 46 per cent two years ago.)

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Calgary city council budget talks 2023
Calgary city council. Photo by Darren Makowichuk /Postmedia Network

This isn’t new. Low turnout allied to name recognition and opposition vote-splitting has given incumbents a leg up for decades: nobody said democracy was fair, only that it trumps the alternatives. And to be equally fair, many of this current council were newbies themselves back then; unknowns on the ballots as many sitting councillors had called it quits.

What has changed — and not in a good way — is the huge amount of money being raised, not by the candidates themselves but by special-interest groups known under the acronym PACs.

These political action committees are not bound by the same fundraising strictures as actual candidates, thanks to the naivety and duplicity of both the provincial NDP and UCP, who separately loosened the independent money-gathering rules so much they created a political Frankenstein now running rampant through municipal politics.

Worse, few people outside those who become active members of political parties understand how much the ground has shifted beneath our feet in civic elections.

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We once voted for some nice local candidate who knocked on our door and impressed us. If subsequently peeved about their performance, we’d provide an earful at some regular ward meeting. It was rough and it was ready, but there was political beauty in such an arrangement.

That has gone. Calgary’s Future, a PAC that supported our current mayor and a slate of current councillors in 2021, spent almost $2 million — much of that contributed by CUPE locals 37 and 38, whose members are mostly municipal workers.

Hey, they won, maybe because the two main challengers, Jeromy Farkas and Jeff Davison, backed by their own special-interest groups, raised far less.

Effectively, we have party politics under the covers. Yet most folk are clueless how this game has changed. Those innocent days of that independent, community-minded candidate are long gone.

So, let’s pull back the curtain and accept our city is so rich and so big that upfront party politics, with a stated program and a single candidate for each party in each ward, is the honest way ahead.

It’s sad there’s no room left for individuality these days. But we’re being played for rubes by clinging to the political past.

Chris Nelson is a regular Herald columnist.

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