Interests before politics on council

  • In The News
Ottawa Citizen

Written by Joanne Chianello in the Ottawa Citizen

City Hall not place for parties

When Stephen Blais suggested to council that the city consider a ban on outdoor smoking, more than a few eyebrows were raised.

The move seemed out of character for the right-ofcentre councillor from Cumberland ward who isn’t exactly a big proponent of socalled nanny state regulations.

So what moved Blais to make the bold recommendation? His own life.

The east-end councillor has small children and understandably doesn’t want people smoking around them when they’re playing at a park. Indeed, he calls for “a full-blown prohibition” near youngsters in public areas.

On the political front, there was some thought that Blais had stolen the thunder of the city’s public health board.

After all, the board had been considering the issue for as long as two years and preparing to announce a public consultation on the issue that will now come before council, likely in the first half of 2012.

Yet, when asked about Blais’ bulldozing ahead on the possible ban, Councillor Diane Holmes couldn’t have seemed happier. As the first chair of the public health board, the Somerset ward councillor was thrilled to have the support.

“It’s a nice change from 10 years ago, when we had to drag councillors kicking and screaming,” Holmes said recently, referring to the thencontentious ban on indoor smoking at most establishments (which, by the way, did not result in the widespread closure of bars and restaurants, as direly predicted at the time).

One suspects Holmes is pleased not only to have the backing of a council colleague, but also particularly one like Blais.

After all, it’s hardly a surprise to see Holmes, one of the more left-wing council members, support a widening of the smoking ban bylaw. To have a more conservative councillor like Blais speak up for it, well, that’s useful political currency.

That teaming up would have been impossible if there were political parties in city government.

Party structure demands that members strictly follow a partisan line, regardless of personal conviction. That’s the point of political parties, after all. Voters know what each stands for and cast their ballots accordingly.

However, voters would often prefer individuality over party discipline.

The provincial election last October offers up a prime example. The Progressive Conservatives proposed making the sex-offender list public, a move that the police and even the federal safety minister have opposed. In the United States, releasing the names and whereabouts of convicted sex offenders led, in some cases, to vigilantism.

Yet a number of local PC candidates – not to mention scores of urban 20-and 30-something Tory workers – didn’t really believe in that platform plank. (I could hear it in the way they robotically repeated the party line, or in some cases, even rolled their eyes.) The promise was a sop to the party’s socially conservative faction, voters thought to have stayed home in the previous provincial election. The voting public could see through the ploy.

That perceived lack of conviction on this policy wasn’t the key reason the PCs lost the election, but it’s a striking example of what can be avoided in city politics.

Sure, many councillors identify, at least informally, with one of the three big parties. Nor are councillors lone wolves on most matters. They compromise and form temporary alliances.

But only at the municipal level are elected officials still free to vote however they see fit issue by issue. You may not agree with Blais’ view of the smoking ban, but at least you know he’s acting on conviction.

As for the argument that it’s hard to get on with the job of city-building without parties, how so? In 2011, for better or worse, council forged ahead with the lightrail project, the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park and revamped the public transit system. It also passed a number of measures to modernize how the city deals with trash, including a shift from weekly to biweekly garbage pickup.

That last item demonstrated how natural party lines aren’t followed at city hall.

Councillor Maria McRae, the environment committee chair, championed less frequent garbage collection and expanded recycling in order to ease pressure on the city’s landfill site. Her stance was expected.

The surprise was the support she won from her vicechairman, Councillor Scott Moffatt, a small-c conservative representing RideauGoulbourn ward. Moffatt admits that, if he was locked into a “party system” with likeminded councillors, he likely wouldn’t have been able to back biweekly collection.

In fact, among the garbage plan’s more predictable opponents was one of Moffatt’s more natural allies, Councillor Blais.

But, then, given Blais’ gung-ho backing of smoking bans, and the general lack of rigid ideology at City Hall, perhaps “predictable” isn’t an adjective that can be used freely in local politics.