Editor's Letter: Slates can undermine grassroots democracy

Let's be clear from the get-go. The union buttered my bread for a time in the late '90s. As a full-time paid union rep for the union that represents this newspaper, I worked hard to get left-of-centre candidates elected (not in New Westminster) and to this day firmly believe that unions are not only necessary in our society, but make it a better society.

So it is not without some very sober thought that I wade into the whole "machine" conversation.

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At Wednesday night's all-candidates meeting in Queensborough there were several pointed references to being "in-de-pend-dent." There were not so many emphatic references to being endorsed by the New Westminster and District Labour Council. Only one candidate, James Janzen, made a strong proud reference to his endorsement by the NWDLC.

The endorsement from the NWDLC is, of course, a stamp of approval from both labour and the NDP. In civic politics in New Westminster it is a powerful endorsement, not just because it signifies that a candidate supports certain union and left-of-centre policies. It is what that endorsement brings with it. Most importantly, it means that an endorsed candidate gets a seat on "the machine's" figurative campaign bus - a bus that has a significant base and organized resources.

Now, is there anything wrong with this? Of course not. It's a democracy. Politics is a game where the candidate who gets the vote out will win, plain and simple (some households in New Westminster with union members have already received four phone calls encouraging them to get out and vote for the NWDLC slate). If there was an equivalent organized campaign bus for right-of-centre candidates, then you can be sure there'd be a lineup for endorsements at that bus's door. But there isn't. Comparisons between developer donations and NDP/labour support just don't cut it. There are no comparable phone bank/campaign organizations that the Liberal party pulls out for civic elections. Attempts at creating a quasi-Liberal slate in previous elections (called VOICE) never truly tapped into the Liberal Party's resources. And, that, thankfully, is a good thing in many ways.

One only has to look at New West's neighbour, Burnaby, to see how provincial politics have tainted the civic level of government. Decisions are often made in response and in direct opposition to Liberal policies. The city's homelessness policy is the most obvious example of how a civic government can take an ideological position (eg: it is the province and federal governments' responsibility, therefore as a city we will not help homeless people in our city) and do a disservice to the larger moral principles of simply doing what you can to help folks who are in desperate need on your home turf.

New Westminster, thankfully, did not take such an ideological stand and addressed the problem with supportive housing, permanent shelters. Now we seldom see homeless folks in sleeping bags in back alleys in this city. Contrast this to Burnaby, where homeless folks are now camping in Central Park and being hustled out by city workers and police officers.

Burnaby is a one-party state. The Burnaby Citizens Association is, essentially, a civic branch of the B.C. NDP. All elected officials in Burnaby are members of BCA on both school board and council. Now, if you lean that way, then it's a good thing. But if you think political diversity, like any other kind of diversity, is something to strive for, then it's not such a good thing.

Is New Westminster on this road? I have no doubt that the NWLDC would welcome a mirror-like setup to Burnaby. What political activist group wouldn't want to have a model like this? If your life's goal is to further progressive policies, then that's the fastest way to do it. And again, good for them. But, sadly, in my opinion, this is bad for grassroots citizen involvement.

Civic politics should not be a farm team for provincial or federal politics. It should not be a closed shop. Yes, I may be expressing a childlike naïvete when I say this. To be sure, that horse has already left the barn in Burnaby. For New Westminster to go down a path like Burnaby, may result in faster social change, but it simply leaves people of other political stripes feeling left out and their voices devalued. That, in my opinion, is a very bad thing.

One-party rule also creates a culture of entitlement and arrogance.  Some of this attitude, unfortunately, also grows around all incumbents to some degree. The once-temporary political representative role starts to feel like a permanent job, and with that feeling comes undue entitlement.  One New Westminster city councillor recently scolded a disgruntled resident who told council he would remember how councillors voted when he went to vote on election day. Really? Isn't that to be expected? Shouldn't residents base their voting decisions on whether or not they agree with how their elected representatives vote? Why on earth would a city councillor scold someone for telling him that his vote in city council will make a difference in how he votes?

In any case, slates, however subtle, devised and supported by much larger organizations, are not going away.  They are, in fact, gaining steam. But that doesn't mean voters are compelled to vote by slate.

To be clear, I am not saying that slate candidates are all robotic political pawns. In New Westminster, many carrying the NWDLC endorsement are quality candidates who may not blindly toe the party line. But there are also some independent candidates who could bring much to the table.

Some lazy voters will tick off party endorsed candidates just because it's easier than going to an all-candidates' meeting or checking into the individual candidates. I understand that - I've done that.

But the best way is to consider each candidate as an individual, and consider all of their experience, their motives, their ability to work with everyone, their individual aptitudes and vote based on those judgments. And yes, their party affiliation may be important to you. But it should not be the deciding factor.

New Westminster is still a pretty small city. Most, if not all, of the candidates seeking your vote are easily accessible and would welcome a genuine conversation. This is not Vancouver. You don't need to pick packages to run for council, you can pick people.

Pat Tracy is the editor of The Record and Burnaby NOW newspapers.

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