Analysis

Mayor Watson vs. Mayor Doucet: What would you get?

Watson is proposing almost exactly what's been on offer for the last four years. Doucet's policy and persona add up to across-the-board change. So which will voters choose?

2 most experienced candidates offer starkly different proposals, styles

Incumbent Mayor Jim Watson offers a stay-the-course platform for the next four years, while challenger Clive Doucet has some radical changes in mind. (CBC)

It's a cliché to define an election as a choice between the status quo and change.

But in the Ottawa mayoral race between two-time incumbent Jim Watson and contender Clive Doucet — Watson's only serious challenger — the incumbent's stay-the-course quality and the challenger's take-a-chance vibe give the old platitude new meaning.

Watson is proposing almost exactly what's been on offer for the last four years. Doucet's policy and persona add up to across-the-board change. Which will voters choose?

Let's look at their platforms.

Watson: Modest moves forward

Watson's platform is largely about incremental improvements on issues that council has already agreed to, such as photo radar in school zones, increasing councillors' budget for traffic calming by $10,000 a year, or boosting Invest Ottawa's budget by $500,000 to attract new high-tech talent to the capital.

His environmental platform includes trees and bees, hardly transformative stuff in the wake of alarming reports on worsening climate change.

Watson is in favour of inclusionary zoning to help increase the availability of affordable units — who isn't? — but is not committing new money next term to build housing

Even some of the bigger-ticket items have a more-of-the-same sound to them.

Watson vows to hire 75 more officers over the next term of council, including encouraging 15 of them to be assigned to traffic issues, although councillors can't tell the police force how to spend its money.

That's definitely an increase in officers, but it's also a continuation of the Ottawa Police service's recent practice of hiring 25 new officers a year.

Watson has promised to continue the ongoing hiring blitz at the Ottawa Police Service. (David Richard/CBC)

Unlike previous campaigns, Watson has made no marquee promise, outlined no new city-building project or vision. In 2014, he promised a new central library, which has been approved but won't be completed until 2022. 

Instead, he's running on his record. The LRT may be late, but it is getting built, with a funded $3-billion extension in the works — that's no easy feat. The city opened a beautiful new art gallery, attracted an Amazon warehouse and oversaw a decidedly successful year of Canada 150 celebrations in 2017.

As far as records go, it's not inconsequential.

Doucet: Vague overhaul

Somewhat surprisingly, both Watson and Doucet are promising tax increases from 2 to 3 per cent.

And Doucet has repeatedly said he's committed to the expansion of LRT, but would wait a few months once the first phase is up-and-running for Ottawans to give feedback on the system before signing the contract for the next phase.

Given the light-rail project has been twice delayed — and we still don't know the date it will be handed over to the city — a short breath between the two phases doesn't seem like such a bad idea.

But that's where any similarities between the two end.

Doucet launched his campaign with an uncosted promise to bring regional rail to Ottawa in four years, a pledge that appears all-but-impossible to fulfil. 

Doucet's vision for regional rail involves running trains to Smiths Falls, Fitzroy and Limoges, among other far-flung destinations. (Clive Doucet)

Whereas Watson is committed to the long-term plan to raise transit fares by 2.5 per cent annually, Doucet is vowing to lower them for each of the next four years. 

On affordable housing, Doucet has lambasted the incumbent for not doing enough — among other things, Watson has overseen the building of 354 supporting housing units and provided 386 rent supplements — while 10,000 families remain on the waiting list for social housing.

Doucet is promising some real measures to increase those numbers including a bylaw that would protect the number of rental units in the city, a landlord licensing program that could help protect tenants and increased funding for city inspectors, which could help prevent the deterioration of lower-rent private developments like Heron Gate.

A way to do things differently

But his insistence that some of the "intensification tax" be put toward affordable housing is somewhat baffling. Doucet is right when he says that rezoned, taller buildings bring in more property taxes to the city. But that money goes into the city's coffers, and we are spending those funds every year.

So while it's laudable that Doucet wants to build more affordable housing, he never does explain how much money he plans to spend, or where it would come from.

For Doucet, these sorts of details are beside the point. Once he gets into office, he argues, council will set new priorities, experts will open up the books and money will be moved around.

What Doucet really offers is a way of doing things differently. He vowed to address the way the city's long-term care homes are run, with a view to making them more like communities than institutions. He referenced the Parkdale Food Centre as a new model for food banks, which bring marginalized people in the community together. 

But is it doable?

Where Watson has pledged a relatively modest platform, it's likely he'll see those promises through — as he's done with virtually every other campaign promise in the past eight years.

Doucet brings more of a social vision to the mayoral stage, but it's far from clear how he'd bring his dreams to fruition.

A question of style?

Unlike some campaigns — think the north-south rail debate of 2006 — there is no ballot-box question in this election.

With the absence of a single burning issue, for some voters it may come down to leadership style.

An aspect of Watson's style was on national display this past week, after he was sued for blocking people on Twitter. He argues his Twitter account is personal, which is difficult to believe, and that he has a right not to be "attacked and harassed" on social media.

But it may be that Watson believes that those who oppose him are attacking him. Indeed, Watson avoids situations with those who disagree with him.

He didn't show up for any of the multi-day meeting about the controversial 350-bed Salvation Army facility, he refused to visit the illegal pop-up overdose prevention tent last year, and during the campaign, he was unable to attend debates on the environment, gender issues and one put on by more than 45 community associations — all situations where Watson was likely to be asked uncomfortable questions.

Ottawa mayoral candidates (from left) Clive Doucet, Craig MacAulay, Moises Schachtler, Jim Watson and Ahmed Bouragba participated in a debate in Metcalfe Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

He also refused to take part in a one-on-one debate with Doucet.

Doucet has taken advantage of these criticisms of Watson, promising a more transparent City Hall, with open contracts and free-flowing debate. Unlike Watson, Doucet has released his unaudited list of campaign donations, and said he would not take contributions from the development community.

Reward Watson with a third term and you'd know what you're getting: a modest, doable platform and a cautious, reliable leader.

Doucet is another proposition entirely: brace yourself for platform shortfalls and disappointments, but a change of tone and style.

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.