Opinion
May 26, 2012

Reality check: Partisan influence in municipal politics

As a new professional in municipal government, the notion that municipal politics are bereft of partisan influence is fascinating to me. Commonly, the general public assumes that parliamentary political parties are solely creatures of the provincial and federal realms, and that their activities and influence are directed upwards in our voting behaviour, and in the impact they have on local politics.

Hopefully this article will serve as a springboard to stimulate thought among new professionals – be they politicians, public servants or academics, in considering the importance of officially examining the role and reality that partisan influence plays in municipal governance.

It is important to consider the role that mayors and councils play in public policy subsystems. In an increasingly open and inward-developing policy cycle, especially at the agenda setting stage, municipal politicians are uniquely poised to deliver public opinion perspectives that positively or negatively impact growth and prosperity to their regions.

One could argue that for local politicians to succeed in their fiduciary mandate to serve “resident” needs and best interests, they would be wise to develop relationships as deep as possible with provincial and federal cabinets. As the executive arm of government is at the centre of policy interest networks, and is inherently aligned with a political party, it follows, albeit cynically, that one’s partisan affiliation could positively influence access and consideration.

For example, consider the quasi-lobbying role of the mayor in securing program dollars in a highly competitive environment. If a mayor is a card-carrying member and networks well within party spheres, is she or he able to advocate more effectively to a federal government of the same political stripe? Would he or she be less successful in lobbying a provincial government of a different partisan affiliation?

Taking the concept of “political neutrality” into consideration, one could argue against such scepticism. However, socio-ideological alignments are powerful agents in successful inter-personal dynamics and the procuring of outcomes.

We should also look to the evolution of local political candidates. Do party riding associations target municipal leaders and work to populate local councils with charismatic members who display strong partisan stewardship? Although the Ontario Municipal Elections Act prohibits the fielding of candidates under partisan banners and the formation of local parties to achieve such aims, in practicality it cannot prevent their influence.

In fact, if one were to poll local councils, card-carrying members of various political stripes, riding association officials, ex-provincial or federal parliamentarians and candidates from previous elections would be found. Further, during local elections it is common for MPs and MPPs to reach out to party members and provide friendly encouragement on the ideal choice for mayor or council.

In James Cowan’s National Post article summarizing the 2006 mayoral elections in Toronto, he identified the NDP’s direct involvement by holding a nomination meeting in the Trinity-Spadina Ward. Current Toronto Mayor Rob Ford openly ran a successful ideologically conservative campaign, in which he was elected. Recently, in a failed attempt to secure program dollars from the provincial Liberals, he has publicly threatened to wield his partisan influence at a local level through the “Ford Nation” to topple the Liberals in the upcoming election.

There are many factors to consider before one can posit the argument that political parties should be allowed into the municipal realm. This article has not even touched upon the structural-functional differences between councils and parliaments. Would a party system in council chambers preclude the direct democracy afforded citizens through delegations to council, or necessitate principles of parliamentary secrecy, undermining provincially mandated transparency? Would party politics work to further paralyse decision making, as issues give way to ideological incompatibilities? Is a hybrid model possible through existing provincially legislated frameworks?

Positives could be seen as the potential for heightened civic engagement and increased voter turnout. One thing is certain: the level of partisan influence in local politics is ever present. Perhaps it is time to consider formally embracing this reality.

Lyndon Ashton is the National New Professionals Representative for the IPAC Hamilton Regional Group. He is an Economic Development Officer for the Niagara Economic Development Corporation.

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