Nova Scotia·Opinion

Municipal council is more important than you think, says Graham Steele

A well-functioning municipal council will have a more direct, positive impact on your life than anything the provincial legislature or federal Parliament will do.

MPs, MLAs don't have same impact as municipal councillors, yet municipal elections have lower turnout

Municipal elections will be held across the province on Oct. 15. (Robert Short/CBC)

Municipal election signs are sprouting like autumn weeds.

Though the Oct. 15 election date is known far in advance, most municipal election campaigns don't start in earnest until after the Labour Day weekend.

When I was an MLA, I was keenly interested in who my municipal councillors would be. In an ideal world, provincial and municipal politicians would co-operate closely. Many issues cross provincial-municipal boundaries, and we were serving the same citizens.

But it doesn't always work that way.

Close to the people

Municipal elections are a big deal. There are many hundreds of mayor and council positions available across the province. And let's not forget school boards, which are elected at the same time.

Citizens are fuzzy about who's responsible for what. So when I was a provincial politician knocking on doors, probably three-quarters of the issues people raised with me were municipal.

Municipal government issues — roads, development, water, sewer, waste, police, fire and the like — are close to the people.

That's why a good councillor is gold. A good mayor can lift a whole town. A well-functioning municipal council will have a more direct, positive impact on your life than anything the provincial legislature or federal Parliament will do.

Yet turnout for municipal elections is usually lower, and sometimes much lower, than turnout for provincial elections. Where I live, municipal turnout is roughly 40 per cent; provincial turnout is roughly 50 per cent; and federal turnout is roughly 60 per cent. The numbers may be higher elsewhere, but the proportions are similar.

Lack of resources

The most obvious explanation for a lower voter turnout in municipal elections is that candidates lack the resources — time, money, volunteers — to mount effective campaigns.

Until you've tried, you wouldn't believe how hard it is to connect with citizens, tell them something about yourself and motivate them to vote for you. People are wrapped up in their own lives.

In the Halifax Regional Municipality, the municipal districts are larger than the provincial constituencies — and school board districts cover two municipal districts. So the candidates are trying to reach a very large number of voters with scant resources. 

In municipal elections, there are no party leaders, no party colours, no party advertising, no party fundraising, no party loyalty. 

The result is that most voters have no idea who their local candidates are.

Parties not all bad

Is it a good thing that we don't have parties at the municipal level? Most people would answer with a resounding yes. 

We value our councillors' independence of thought and action.

But parties are not all bad.

Apart from their inability to run effective campaigns, independent candidates for mayor and council can't guarantee what will happen if they are elected. Any ideas they have must be adopted by the whole council, and there's no guarantee that will happen. 

In provincial politics, at least we know that the governing party can follow through on its campaign commitments. When you have a majority in the House of Assembly, there's a short distance from idea to action.

Political parties also allow members to divvy up the work. Councillors, in contrast, have to know a little about everything, and it makes them less effective. They can't lean on teamwork like an MLA can.

Behind the scenes

Some people would argue that we do have political parties at the municipal level, just behind the scenes. 

At their best, like-minded councillors can form effective voting blocs. At their worst, these blocs have all the look and feel of an old boys' club.

There's no question that provincial parties are involved municipally. The parties see municipal councils and school boards as a farm team for provincial politics. That's the first place they go when looking for candidates.

Besides, life is easier for an MLA if they can get along with the local councillors. Party ties help ensure issues will be discussed and resolved in private.

It can be quite aggravating if a mayor or councillor or a whole council is causing public trouble for an MLA. Maybe a councillor or mayor is even thinking of running provincially, and they use their municipal profile to undermine the MLA.

That's why on Oct. 15, municipal election day, MLAs will be watching very closely. It makes a big difference to the quality of their working life.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.