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City Idol Begins

Last night I attended the opening night of City Idol. It was held in my neighbourhood at the Music Hall (which was so far behind in renovations that workmen were assembling seats right up until the scheduled 8pm start time).

City Idol is an attempt to get Torontonians interested in municipal politics, and to improve municipal politics. City Idol was planned to be a process that would begin with 100 regular people interested in becoming City Councillors and narrow them down through speeches and votes until 4 winners were selected, who would then be supported in this November's municipal election. That plan is now being put into action, albeit with slightly less than 100 entrants.

On the whole, the evening was entertaining, and the speakers were commendable... although few stood out as particularly noteworthy and inspiring.

The City Idol website lays out its philosophy, and the same idea was echoed in last night's opening remarks.

Elections have become so dull and mundane that most people simply tune them out. Is it possible to turn things around? Can an election actually be a time when people step forward with new ideas, new energy, a sense of optimism and maybe even a little imagination?

Both the City Idol website and the opening remarks last night were based on the premise that the problem with municipal elections in Toronto is that they are uninspired and uninteresting. I'd argue that -- at least for 2003 -- the reality is quite different. Within what I'd consider realistic limits, the 2003 election actually was "a time when people step(ped) forward with new ideas, new energy, a sense of optimism and maybe even a little imagination".

As someone who was involved with the 2003 mayoral race, I'd say that the election was rightly famous for being a great contest. Several credible candidates engaged in nearly a hundred thorough and substantial debates, culminating in a great deal of media attention and general buzz.

Although nearly 700k ballots were cast for mayor, the turn-out was still disappointingly low and the City government's results have been uninspiring. However, the problems for this are many.

If voters have had poor involvement in municipal governance, it's because of apathy. But I don't believe one should assume that voter apathy can be fairly blamed on the candidates and the inadequacy of politicians in general.

Municipal voter apathy could just as easily be attributable to

  • Voters' general comfort with their lives, allowing them to concentrate on more entertaining or rewarding aspects of life
  • The general competence of even the worst municipal governments that, as clumsy and wasteful as they may seem, tend to function acceptably within the most basic needs for most citizens
  • The fiscal and legal constraints that limit municipal politicians' ability to affect dramatic change, thus reducing their relevance
  • A low sense of "duty" generally, and specifically with regard to the task of citizen involvement with governance
  • A low degree of understanding of how municipal government works, and limited interest in finding out -- it's too boring and complex
  • The small scale of party-free, ward-based, municipal politics in Toronto that prevents council races from breaking into broader, more popular media channels

Apathetic municipal voters are willing to invest only a minimal amount of time in understanding the issues and their local candidates. Without a party system, most of these voters have very little to go on beyond name recognition, and perhaps rudimentary advertising, when they step up to vote for their city councillor.

The 2003 Mayoral election may have had a relatively strong element of deliberative choice involved, as extensive media coverage, a marathon of community debates, and the resulting talkability generated enough interest to inform voters. This was all supported by a need felt in the community to clean up our act following the Lastman-era scandals and embarrassments.

However, informed choice at the City Councillor level still required too much personal effort for most citizens.

City Idol's goals are commendable. But to me, City Idol seems more likely to get one of its participants elected than it does to increase voter turn-out and involvement.

In some ways it may be better viewed as a new-era political party, with a hip candidate -selection process and a generally like-minded base of supporters.

In any case, the organizers have already brought a remarkably new level of creativity to their mission. With more than 6 months to go, we should wait and see what they've got planned next.

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