Division of Power #5 Winnipeg needs political parties

On Monday, January 23, I appeared yet again on CKUW’s monthly civic affairs panel with local blogger and urban affairs researcher Robert Galston and Dennis Lewycky from the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg.

Although we discussed various issues, the most contentious debate was over the possibility of municipal democratic reform in Winnipeg.

A committee of council recently approved a proposal to change the City of Winnipeg Charter allowing the city to unilaterally add one additional council seat (as it stands, the legislation only allows council to add wards in pairs). This sparked a discussion among urban nerds over the necessity of an extra ward and whether more representation, as opposed to more effective representation, is the answer.

Colin Fast of Metro Winnipeg wrote an excellent column arguing that Winnipeg needs to first look at ways to make councillors more responsive to their constituents—facilitating more effective representation—before adding a new council seat to make up for population growth in South Winnipeg.

I disagree with some of Fast’s conclusions regarding social media and technology in large part because some of the most effective and responsive councillors, like Daniel McIntyre councillor Harvey Smith, are pretty well technologically inept. However, as Rob Galston pointed out during Monday’s panel, Smith returns phone calls promptly and fights for his constituents voraciously, despite his eccentricities.

Similarly, Old Kildonan councillor Devi Sharma (although rather quiet on the council floor) has made a point of not abusing her expense account privileges and has used the majority of her ward allowance to establish a constituency office—-something none of her colleagues, even Smith, have bothered to do.

All of this is well and good. It signifies that, like Fast points out, there are some councillors who genuinely care while others genuinely do not. And it is necessary that Winnipeggers actively elect councillors who respond to the queries of their constituents while turfing those who can’t be bothered to do so.

But the larger issue at play when it comes to civic democracy is summarized best by experts like Nick Ternette and U of W professor Christopher Leo: Winnipeg has cabinet style government without the accountability of political parties.

While one could talk at length about the influence that provincial parties have on city council right now, the fact remains that there are no formal political parties represented in any real way at City Hall.

The provincial NDP gives confusing and bungled endorsements to some councillors (most notably to Jenny Gerbasi and Ross Eadie in 2010) and there is no question that the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives share resources and have covertly or not-so-covertly supported candidates like Gord Steeves, Ian Rabb and mayor Sam Katz himself.

But this is all done in a rough-shod and ultimately unaccountable way. The fact remains that the mayor, regardless of his endorsements or lack thereof, is elected by a popular vote and subsequently appoints members of an executive policy committee to suit his own political purposes; most often to maximize favourable votes on council as a whole.

The recent appointment of Transcona councillor Russ Wyatt, who has been a vocal critic of the mayor in the past, is a perfect example of this. EPC has seven members (including the mayor), and thus holds the power of seven votes on a council of 16. As a result, EPC only needs two more votes to pass its budgets or other policies every year.

Wyatt filled the vacancy left by PC-affiliated former councillor Gord Steeves because the mayor knew he could rely on Elmwood councillor Thomas Steen and council speaker Grant Nordman to vote with EPC on any given council vote.

Wyatt, without an EPC appointment, would have been a wild card.

Did the voters of Transcona vote for a member of the “Katz Party” or an independent maverick when they re-elected Wyatt in 2010? I’m inclined to say the latter.

If we had real political parties on city council, the mayor would run as the leader of a party and would appoint EPC members from that party—-voters would know what the party as a whole stood for and what changes they would make together for the benefit of the city.

Obviously, this would require several structural changes, but I think there is a growing discussion about its necessity. We need to have that discussion.

Division of Power is a biweekly exploration of politics and federalism as it pertains to Winnipeg.