The last bastion of democracy

City politics may be messy at times but at least someone’s listening

It’s almost fitting that the last vestiges of functioning democracy for Albertans should be occurring at the municipal level — a layer of government that is totally beholden to the provincial legislature for its continued existence.

The federal government under the Conservatives has given up pretending it is interested in transparency accountability or parliamentary democracy particularly with the recent unnecessary damaging and Orwellian “Fair Elections Act.”

The provincial government is taking it a bit slower undermining critical thinking and therefore many of its critics with the destruction of our post-secondary institutions which will now function largely as centres for business and the trades. More overtly the recent anti-labour rules intended to muzzle government employees (Bill 46) — which was unambiguously castigated in a recent injunction by Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Denny Thomas — is an affront to those who do the work of government.

In other words it’s a dark time in Canada’s democratic history particularly if you find yourself in the petrostate homeland.

And then there’s our municipal government.

Say what you will about the cast of characters we have on council — some good some bad some borderline parody (okay just one) — but they make their unique voices heard engage in debate and keep you guessing as to the outcome of each vote. Sure some of the debate doesn’t make sense but there’s also the opportunity to engage councillors and the mayor directly to show up at council to tell them something doesn’t make sense to write letters and emails they might even read and to help shape the tone and outcome of a debate.

The city administration for its part is almost detrimentally focused on citizen engagement for projects like the cycle track network interchanges budgets and more; seeking citizen input to the point where you wish they’d just make a decision already. For an example of how citizen engagement and the inability to say no can become a problem look at the dizzying arts plan that became an arts “strategy.”

It’s messy at times but it’s downright refreshing when you look at the other levels of government or what’s left of them.

Citizen engagement at the federal or provincial levels seems designed to ignore the views of citizens — more a spit in the face than a shake of the hand. Want to comment on an oilsands project? Better not have a view that differs with government or industry. Want to get in on a pipeline hearing now that the federal government has changed the rules? Good luck with that. Majorities in the legislature and Parliament ensure that what the ruling party wants the ruling party gets. Hell the federal Conservatives are even trying to make it harder for you to vote after first castrating the traditional checks on a government’s parliamentary power.

In Calgary meanwhile we are having big discussions about what our city is going to look like and how it’s going to function. From densification to transportation alternatives to financial arrangements with developers this is an important time in Calgary’s history. Rather than shutting the door and planning away the government to one degree or another has invited the citizenry in and attempted to form a consensus around where we’re going. It’s been acrimonious at times (see the Wenzel-Nenshi fight that became a conflict between suburban developers and the city) but it has never degenerated to a level where one side was shut out of the debate.

It can be messy and confusing and it’s also a lesson that Alison Redford and Stephen Harper would be wise to learn as Canadians and Albertans grow increasingly tired of the heavy-handed paternalistic governance of the Conservatives. It’s democracy like it or not.