COLUMN: Terrace is a community, not a business

Local columnist discusses voter participation in municipal elections

Columnist Andre Carrel (File photo)

Voter participation in Terrace municipal elections is abysmal; on that point I agree with council. Where I disagree is on the questions of why, and on what to do about it. I share philosopher Joseph Heath’s view that “Popular democratic theory … puts a huge amount of emphasis on the practice of voting and comparatively little emphasis on argumentation and debate.”

The candidacy of the Kool-Aid Man in the last election should not be derided; it may well be pointing to a reason for the low turnout. It is not the election per se; it is the election’s aftermath that adds gravitas to the procedure. What difference, if any, does it makes who gets to sit at the council table? One of the Kool-Aid Man’s questions in the last election was: “How do you get young people to turn out to the polls?” Terrace did elect a young person to serve on council in that election. She resigned halfway through her term on the grounds of “feeling unheard,” of being “spoken over”.

The juxtaposition of the reasons given by that councillor for her resignation to council’s practice of compressing the three required readings for the approval of bylaws – (1) introduction, (2) discussion on the principle and content, and (3) final discussion on changes made along the way – into one single vote raises a troubling question: Where does this process provide time and place for debate and argument? Every single vote council took on bylaws in 2021 was unanimous. Not a single vote in opposition to any bylaw reading in 2021. Imagine our provincial Legislative Assembly or our federal Parliament – where the approval of laws also requires three readings – approving laws by way of a single vote? First, second, and third reading compressed in one single vote: Take it or leave it, yeah or nay! Try to imagine every single vote on laws before the Legislative Assembly or the Parliament of Canada in the course of a whole year being adopted unanimously, without a single opposing vote? How much of an incentive would that leave for citizens to participate in elections?

To accuse council of running a closed shop may be unfair, but the resignation of a rookie councillor left to feel as an outsider does suggest that council’s culture scorns new blood and challenging ideas. The municipality is not a “major business,” and council is not “running a $29 million corporation.” This may be the problem; Council acting as if it were a board of directors of a major $29 million dollar corporation. The City of Terrace is not a mini-Walmart; it is a community just as Thornhill is a community. Citizens vote for a council, not a corporate board of directors.

The problem of low voter turnout has nothing to do with difficulties in getting to the polling station. A government can erect hurdles to suppress voter participation, but it cannot seduce citizens to vote by business-style offerings of bonus points and free goodies. We are not the municipal government’s customers, and efforts to lure us to the polls with offers of goodies are an insult to democracy.

Consider this passage from Joseph Heath’s Slow Politics Manifesto: “Fast Politics has changed our way of making decisions, making us prey to demagogues. This threatens our democracy and our way of life. Slow Politics is the only truly progressive answer.”