Wilting Democracy

February 17, 2010

We here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke have been thinking a lot lately about the state of local democracy. Well, not all of us. Urban Sophisticat seldom ponders on the subject as his preference would be for a benign dictatorship that banishes cars from cities and permits cannabis cafes on every street corner. This is not a belief conducive to thinking straight about democratic institutions.

But for those of us here not wandering around in a perpetual haze of glassy eyed, marijuana induced idealism, we have been mulling over our situation as duly appointed participants in the democratic process. Yes, it all seems alive and vibrant while in the midst of an election campaign. Caught up as we are in the proceedings, it’s hard to fathom that there are those out there more akin to Urban Sophisticat’s mindset who aren’t devouring every little morsel of news and information coming in off the campaign trail. Neither are they eagerly awaiting October 25th in order to be first in line at the polling booth to mark the requisite Xs in their appropriate ballots.

Trolling through the interwebs as is our want, we stumbled across the fact that over 60% of eligible voters did not vote in Toronto’s last municipal election. I’m sorry. You said over 60% of voters did vote in Toronto’s last municipal election, right? No, we didn’t. Over 60% of eligible voters did not vote in Toronto’s last municipal election. (Note the use of the bold, italics and underline functions for emphasis. Twice.)

Holy mackerel, that’s low. That’s low, right? Yes, it’s low. Criminally low as it would be in some places like Australia where voting is mandatory under penalty of prosecution. Keelhauling, we think they still do down there, what with their naval and shipping of convict heritage, if found guilty of voter neglect.

Yet not voting is par for the course here in Toronto. To say that we have a disengaged electorate is to dally in the shallow waters of DoYaThink!?! Creek which is a tributary of WellD’Uh River. When it comes to municipal politics, Torontonians are passionate about their lack of interest. It’s tough to fight City Hall when you’re not even sure where it is. That funny shaped thing, down by the Eaton Centre, right behind the outdoor skating rink, yeah?

From our inception, All Fired Up in the Big Smoke has chalked up voter apathy – not just in Toronto but in municipalities all across the province of Ontario – to the fact that those we elect as mayor and councilors don’t really have the power and resources to deal with the demands placed upon them. The purse and authority lie with our elected officials at the provincial and federal levels. So why waste time worrying too much about the hired help?

Turns out things might be a little more complicated than that, as much as it offends our sense of strict black and white reasoning to admit. The democratic deficit under which we are operating is a broader, deeper pit of entropy according to those who actually examine the phenomena rather than simply opine glibly about it. If Toronto isn’t alive with voter fervor, it is most definitely hopping with enthusiasts who want to change our complacent attitude toward elections.

A quick trip through the tubes and pipes of the internet reveals a bubbling cauldron of activism at work on behalf of local democracy. At a website of Kris Scheuer, city hall bureau chief for the Town Crier newspapers, there’s a concise overview of the voting (or rather non-voting) habits here in Toronto. In that post, there is a link to a blog from a fellow named David Meslin.

mez dispenser, the blog’s called and it is the work of a self-proclaimed artist and organizer who doesn’t appear to need any sleep. As the site shows, the list of his undertakings is long including City Idol where participants vied to become candidates in the 2006 municipal election. One of his latest projects is Better Ballots which is a push for electoral reform in Toronto; a drive shared by other organizations such as the Toronto Democracy Initiative.

While impossible to summarize in a single post, among other overriding concerns of such individuals and groups is the exclusionary nature of our voting system. The traditional first past the post method is a boon for incumbency that has become so entrenched that City Hall is a pale (pun intended) reflection of the diversity of Toronto. Females and visible minorities are vastly under represented while some councilors can get re-elected with just 20% of the votes cast! (I’m sorry. Did you say that there were councilors at City Hall who got elected with–Yes, I did. Such is the sad state of democracy in Toronto.)

It is a hole that we will not dig ourselves out of quickly. Aside from the usual difficulties of transforming a well fed status quo, there is the ever present problem of having to get the OK from Queen’s Park for much of the proposed electoral reform. And this is a government that was lukewarm at best toward the 2007 provincial reform referendum on proportional representation. So it’s hard to see how they would be all that permissive in allowing Toronto to have a go at it on its own.

Still, you either throw in the towel, shrug your shoulders in defeat and head off to the nearest cannabis café to watch passively as more and more of your city is handed over to those who think of it as their own personal playground or you stand up and say, there is a better way to do things. Democracy is not dead as long as there is enough of the latter kind of people. From that standpoint, I think Toronto’s doing just fine.

upbeatedly submitted by Cityslikr