Don’t Tune Dissent Out

http://www.nationalpost.com/news/canada/toronto/story.html?id=2652842

“Furey I still don’t understand. Sure, City Hall does and should regulate quorum but we can’t regulate people from getting their feelings hurt. The most important thing is to not be dismissive toward the public, which is what Paula Fletcher did. I don’t care if she is being dismissed, she’s paid to deal with that. I’ve campaigned for a lot of candidates and some of them write off a disgruntled voter who disagrees with them at the door. They say, “Oh that’s just a plant from the opposition.” But this is lazy and counterproductive. The disgruntled voter is probably just a non-partisan resident with a complaint, and as an elected politician or candidate you are being given an excellent opportunity to engage with someone, hear their complaint and address it. That is, if you actually care. I’m guessing Fletcher doesn’t.”

Monday, March 8, 2010

Don’t Tune Dissent Out

National Post

THE POSTED TORONTO POLITICAL PANEL

On the theory that there is much to talk about between now and the Oct. 25 municipal election, Posted Toronto has assembled Chris Selley, Anthony Furey and Jonathan Goldsbie (their biographies are below) to regularly dissect the race. Their conversations will appear on our city blog, PostedToronto.com, and also in the newspaper. This week, our panel discusses City Hall’s partisan politics. Furey One of the main factors that motivated John Tory to not run for mayor was that he claimed politics in Canada and specifically City Hall has been diminished into an endless partisan shouting match. Last week, Councillor Paula Fletcher exemplified this childishness by verbally attacking a resident at a council meeting because he didn’t support her views on the budget (ironically, she accused him of being a Tory puppet). Gentleman, do you think there’s any chance our next mayor can bring non-partisan or post-partisan discourse to Toronto?

Goldsbie Well, there are always going to be people — on council and among the public — who at one time or another lose their temper. That’s not to say such behaviour is acceptable in most contexts, but rather that I’m not sure how directly connected to partisanship it is. A surprising proportion of council flare-ups actually concern conflicting understandings of procedural rules, rather than ideological discord. You throw together that many strong, passionate personalities and larger-than-life characters on such a consistent basis, and yeah, things are gonna get icky every once in a while. One of the tricks to mitigating the situation, however, is to not allow councillors (or anyone else) to feel boxed out such that they believe they have to shout to be heard.

Selley I don’t have that big a problem with the odd shouting match between genuinely aggrieved parties (as opposed to the kabuki theatre in Ottawa). But it does illustrate the unfortunate ideological divide. As did what we

heard from the port side of the spectrum last week (I’m paraphrasing): “The city mustn’t contract out running two money-losing ski hills because privatization is bad, and we mustn’t shut them down, because it’s good to have two ski hills.” People, we’re broke! If the narrow goal is to bring a less ideological voice to City Hall, then the choice (among those on offer) is clear: George Smitherman. But unless everyone else has an incentive to (ugh, sorry) think outside the box, I don’t see the tone of the overall debate changing.

Furey Jonathan, can you explain what you mean by not allowing councillors to feel boxed out? Citizens, the media and other councillors have a right to badger elected officials about their choices. If they have emotional problems with that, then that’s just too bad.

Goldsbie Of course people have the right to badger elected officials; as both an activist and a journalist, I’ve done more than my share of it. What I’m talking about is not letting anyone believe they are being dismissed out of hand, almost regardless of whether they deserve to be. The loudest people on council and off are inevitably the ones who feel shut out the discussion. And given that a reputation for intimidation is his primary schtick, I fear Smitherman would only exacerbate whatever silos already exist.

Furey I still don’t understand. Sure, City Hall does and should regulate quorum but we can’t regulate people from getting their feelings hurt. The most important thing is to not be dismissive toward the public, which is what Paula Fletcher did. I don’t care if she is being dismissed, she’s paid to deal with that. I’ve campaigned for a lot of candidates and some of them write off a disgruntled voter who disagrees with them at the door. They say, “Oh that’s just a plant from the opposition.” But this is lazy and counterproductive. The disgruntled voter is probably just a non-partisan resident with a complaint, and as an elected politician or candidate you are being given an excellent opportunity to engage with someone, hear their complaint and address it. That is, if you actually care. I’m guessing Fletcher doesn’t.

Goldsbie Perhaps I was unclear. If anyone felt boxed out (justifiably or not), it was the debutant. Fletcher losing her own cool was an isolated incident that is not representative of the many more common reasons that people tend to raise their voices at City Hall.

Selley Well, I think we have very nicely set out the problem, and established that it shan’t be solved any time soon. When I said Smitherman would be a less ideological voice, I certainly didn’t mean he’d calm everyone down or elevate the level of discourse — indeed, as Jonathan says, he’s an inveterate silo-exacerbater. I just meant that owing to his Liberal heritage, he’d likely be less ideological about jamming discourse’s head into the toilet. If civility is what you’re after, I fear we’d all be better off with David Miller sticking around — which suggests that civility may not be what we’re after.

THE PANELLISTS

– Anthony Furey has written on municipal issues for the National Post and The Globe and Mail. Follow him at twitter.com/anthonyfurey – Chris Selley is a member of the Post’s editorial board. Follow him at twitter.com/cselley – Jonathan Goldsbie is a public space advocate and freelance journalist. Follow him at twitter.com/goldsbie

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