Wanderings – Sleepwalking our way through big ideas

It feels like we have been sleepwalking from one election to another the past year. Twelve months ago the federal election was winding down, less than four months ago the provincial election was in full swing, and now we’re ramping up for the fall municipal election.

Elections are a pain in the posterior – they really are. The meetings, door-knocking, bravado, and hubris – it’s so exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, voting in an election is one of the greatest civic duties we get to do, but the lead up to casting a ballot has become camp – for lack of a better word. Elections are not what they used to be.

My interest in politics began in the 1980s. Where we lived in Northern Ontario, my parents’ living room was a polling station for the 1984 federal election.

I remember watching CBC and CTV during that campaign and seeing rallies, 30 second clips of campaign stops, and a bunch of old white guys yelling at each other. I was eight, this stuff left an impression.

A year later the unthinkable happened and the big blue Tory machine in Toronto sputtered, and someone wearing a red shirt usurped the establishment. Exciting stuff for a nine-year old. Again I was getting my news from 30 second sound bites and the occasional story from the local weekly newspaper.

What I remember most about this not-so-recent recent history was the big ideas. In 1988, it was Free Trade; in ‘93 it was the GST and in-between we voted on the Charlottetown Accord. Okay the grown-ups did, I was in high school and couldn’t vote then.

Even in provincial elections there were big ideas to talk about. Public auto insurance is one that stands out.

Municipal elections had big idea discussions too, usually centred on development and “what kind of a community do you want to live in” questions.

Flash forward to elections in the past few years, and it’s been boring. There are no real ideas being talked about. It’s just fluff.

Yes, the last federal election had the ideas of universal childcare, and dental/pharma-care programs talked about – but there is a difference. Floating ideas that should already be in place is playing catch up, it is not doing new things.

This spring’s provincial election was a snoozefest, it really was. There was none of this “fire in the belly” that many talk of. No big ideas to speak of. There was nothing new. It was the choice of stick with what you know or go with the other two parties who both needed new leaders and ideas. Familiar won.

Which brings me to this fall’s municipal elections. For many communities in the region, not just the one I live in, there are election races that can determine ideological shifts for those councils. Neighbours to the north, west, and east are presented with multiple choices that – in any combination – can yield a great council, mediocrity, or far worse. So far looking at these races and talking to some of the candidates, there are no big ideas out there. Come on!

Believe it or not, municipal governments have the most direct daily point of contact with our lives. Roads, water, sewer, parks, etcetera – all those are from the municipal level. So are things like economic development, whether we have schools in our community, and whether our sidewalks have crumbled into mountain climbing hills. No big ideas are to be found.

Why do I want big ideas in municipal politics? Well to start with – to make an election interesting. Having big ideas out there for others to see means having big ideas to discuss and debate. Why is it in the last 20 years we have become timid in debating ideas? When I say debate, I mean respectful and meaningful conversation of ideas, not waving flags around with obscenities and blocking roads. Talking about what we want our community to look like 10, 20, and 40 years down the road isn’t a bad thing. Having a vision isn’t a bad thing – it’s actually the opposite. As one retiring mayor recently commented, we need to dream big.

This election, no matter the municipality, I don’t want to read or have to write about candidates saying they are going to be the “voice of the people” or that they will “be accountable”. That’s part of the job description for the position which they seek. What I want to know is what are their big ideas for the community. What’s their hope for the next 10 and 20 years? What big ideas do they bring to the table if elected?

I don’t know whether I am a optimistic pessimist, or a pessimistic optimist in this regard. But I hope to see big ideas, and not the opposite. We will know in less than two months if there is any sleepwalking involved in this campaign too. I hope not.