I’ve taken a step back, or more accurately multiple steps back, from politics over the last couple of years. I didn’t get tired of politics and I still believe that politics is important. I just got tired of the lying; of what I saw as the increasing trend to say whatever would be effective, without any regard to whether it was true – the Trumping of politics, if you will.
I find this trend to be both frustrating, and also scary. Scary because it appears, at least to me, that voters care less and less. I call it Trumping, but of course it has been happening for years in Ottawa, Edmonton and at the civic level. And truth is not the only casualty. The attacks have become so personal. Innuendo has morphed to accusation. No one is ever mistaken, they are always “lying”. Their motives are always “improper”. The debate isn’t about policy. It’s just smear. And it drives good people to leave politics or, increasingly, to shun involvement in the first place. And so long as we don’t demand better it will get worse.
You see it in the current civic race, for Mayor and Council. It starts between candidates. The most common and basic lie is to misrepresent another candidate’s position or record. Misrepresent their position and then tear it down – suggesting their “position” was improper for good measure. It’s only a small lie, right? Follow that up by promising what you know can’t be delivered. You’ll try, right? So it’s kind of true? It gets uglier from there.
As an infamous Alberta organizer once advocated: “It doesn’t matter if it’s true, only if it’s believable”.
Anonymous troll twitter accounts pop up. Accusations are floated. There is never any evidence, let alone proof. There is name calling, accusations, lies, and smear of all description. Apparently every candidate is either a “commie” or a “fascist”. It is so destructive and beyond explanation.
It is beyond explanation, because it is so short-sighted. What mandate does a candidate have if they only win by lying? By personally attacking the opposition, by making things up, by promising what they can never deliver? Lower taxes and more services? Of course. It seems absurd, but we vote for that shtick. But what then?
Inevitably winning candidates who can’t possibly live up to their impossible pledges fall out of favour, with no one to blame but themselves. And once elected they will become the new target. The next victim in the dishonest blood-sport they helped to further legitimize.
Candidates need to do better, but voters need to demand better. A good start is to question what you hear and read. If it seems “incredible”, it likely is – lacking credibility. Ignore the personality attacks. Ignore the labels. And in particular ignore candidates when they tell you what the other candidate believes. Just ignore the smear.
On the positive side, try to elect good people – people who study issues with an open mind, who consult and debate. People who listen. People who strive to make policy choices that we can afford and that are supported by those who elected them. We can elect people who seem open to the best solution possible and genuinely interested in taking their constituents’ interests and concerns forward on their behalf. But only by supporting candidates with those traits.
Of course we can be critical in our political discourse. But criticize policy or relevant performance. As an example, I’m critical of my Councillor, Druh Farrell, who is running for re-election. I believe she should be defeated. I believe she has been a very poor Ward representative on Council. Specifically, I am critical of her record which suggests that she believes that she knows what should be done without seeking input of those she was elected to represent. Having just lectured you on advancing unsubstantiated claims, I’ll set out what I have witnessed first hand.
Last year we had neighbours seeking to tear down their fairly modern two story house and one story garage and replace it with a three story house and a detached two story garage with a separate suite on the upper floor. Oh, and a basement and an elevator in the garage – all of which strikes me more as a second house on the property.
To start, I don’t have views on laneway suites, as in I’m neither for nor against, and I have a general view that one should be able to do what they want on their own property. In this case, however, the existing city Bylaw didn’t allow the two story garage and suite as the neighbours’ lot wasn’t wide enough for a laneway apartment. Even if that were not the case their lot wasn’t zoned to allow for a secondary suite. Their plans, which clearly violated both the Bylaw and the zoning, were not supported by the Community Association (which often supports secondary suites). We and 25 of our neighbours wrote letters of opposition to the project. Only the applicant was in favour. So, it violated zoning, it violated the Bylaw and there was overwhelming opposition from the surrounding neighbours. Case closed; right? Not exactly.
Despite all of this, the application moved forward with Ms. Farrell’s strong support. That concerned me, so we contacted Ms. Farrell’s office on more than one occasion to try and schedule a meeting with her, or even just to speak to her, to ask why she was supporting the project and to discuss our concerns. To my shock, she refused to meet with me. She wouldn’t even speak to me. As her staff worked hard to get the project approved, my representative wouldn’t meet or speak with me to discuss why we and the community were overwhelmingly opposed to the rezoning.
In the end, having refused to meet with us Ms. Farrell voted to change the bylaw, she voted to rezone the lot, and and a year later construction is now nearing completion. The neighbour on the east property line was so upset he put his house on the market a few days after Council rezoned. He sold his house within weeks and quietly moved away. This whole issue was no where near that important to me, but then I didn’t live next to the project.
Immediately after the vote Ms. Farrell approached me in the Council Chamber and offered to meet with me. So after it was over, after it was too late, she was willing to meet with me. Why? Presumably it was to try and convince me to support what she had already done. In other words, she was willing to meet with me for her benefit, not to hear my concerns.
I believe that this story, small in the scheme of things, is exactly the kind of performance issue that should matter in an election. It is not personal. It is about how a candidate performed in the job while holding the very office she now seeks to be elected to. And past performance is the best indicator of future performance. During my personal interactions with Ms. Farrell’s staff (as Ms. Farrell wouldn’t contact me), brief though they were, I concluded that Ms. Farrell didn’t care what I or the other neighbours thought, as she knew what “should” happen.
Typically that is not a long-term problem. Politicians who believe that they can just decide what is right without taking residents’ views into account, usually get voted out of office. The electorate gets the last word. If the Councillor refuses to meet or speak to Ward residents who have concerns, there is an election every few years. But voter apathy and vote splitting have allowed Ms. Farrell to hold on to her seat on Council. In 2013 less than 40% of eligible Calgarians voted in the election. Of those who did vote Ms. Farrell got just 37% of the vote, while two strong challengers, including her closest opponent in the current election, Brent Alexander, took 28% and 26% respectively.
Will that happen again? There is a strong risk that it will. In a poll taken in early October Ms. Farrell again had 37% of the vote, with Brent Alexander right behind with 34%. Unfortunately, three other candidates collected just over 28% between them, allowing Ms. Farrell to hold the lead, despite close to 63% support for those running against her (in that poll). With that said, voters are becoming more savvy, and increasingly try to identify and vote for the candidate who has the best chance of defeating the candidate they are seeking to replace. If that happens here it looks like Brent Alexander could be the beneficiary.
But here is the thing. Notice that I didn’t call Ms. Farrell any names? I have strong views on Ms. Farrell’s performance as a Councillor, but I didn’t question her motives. I didn’t suggest she was doing anything improper. And I didn’t do any of those things because Ms. Farrell didn’t do anything improper.
I disagree – fundamentally – with Ms. Farrell’s record of failing to represent the views of her Ward residents. I don’t think it was OK to ignore what the community was telling her, in this instance almost unanimously. I also believe that, at the very least, a Councillor should meet or at least speak with their Ward residents and try to understand what they want and why. Even if Ms. Farrell had pre-determined that this project would have her support.
Do I think Ms. Farrell should be replaced? I do. Do we deserve a Councillor who is willing to at least speak to us if we ask? We do. But I’d rather see Ms. Farrell win again, than to sling mud against her, to call her names or see her brought down by lies. Because when that happens, there are no winners.