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When did civic politics get so interesting?

March 27th, 2009 · 18 Comments

It’s Friday and I’m feeling philosophical about life and what I do for a living. Something that has jumped out at me repeatedly in the last while is how drastically the civic scene has changed since I first started writing about the city and city hall back in 1994.

It’s hard to remember, but in those days, no one cared about city hall. It used to be me and a couple of Chinese-language-media reporters who would hang out in the pews at city council chambers on Tuesdays. When I went to the committee meetings on Thursday, I was usually the only reporter there. People coming to speak to council issues sometimes thought I was the recording secretary. And it was like that for quite a long time. Years and years, really, although Allen Garr started writing for the Courier after a while so then there was, thankfully, one more person.

This week in Vancouver, when city hall was stuffed like a turkey with news — the budget, cracking down on crummy SROs, whether to allow mixed martial arts events, police budgets being wrecked by gang investigations, Councillor Suzanne Anton grilling the mayor like he was a naughty boy about campaign financing — there were as many reporters and outlets covering the events as at any session of the provincial legislature. When Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts gave her annual addresss to the Board of Trade out there a couple of weeks ago, it was covered like it was a throne speech.

The change started in Vancouver, of course, with the surprise election of Larry Campbell and COPE in 2002, the first of the signs that, with the Liberals in charge in Victoria, the left was going to concentrate its efforts at other levels. The ongoing battle for power between the two major, now more equal, parties and the big issues the city has had to tackle have kept the interest going. But in other municipalities, upsets by new mayors — Dianne Watts in Surrey, Pam Goldsmith-Jones in West Van in 2005; and then Rick Green in Langley, Ernie Daykin in Maple Ridge and Richard Stewart in Coquitlam in 2008 — make it clear that people are paying attention to civic politics and are ready for change. They’re also ready to boot people out the minute they think they’re not performing.

And this is even though big media haven’t always been that interested in civic politics lately. Unlike in the 1980s, when the city hall “press room” routinely had camera crews hanging around and a paper like the Vancouver Sun had not one but two city-hall reporters plus usually a columnist covering city issues, the bigger TV and print don’t always have even one person assigned to the beat any more.

The community newspapers, which are not suffering at all from the same kind of “what do we do now” angst of the big metro dailies, have helped fill that void will their increasingly strong coverage. As well, the surge of interest in civic politics in blog world has also moved in to fill the gap.

It’s kind of weird but provincial politics hasn’t produced anywhere near the kind of blogging that we’re seeing on the municipal level. Bill Tieleman runs the most aggressive blog in covering provincial issues and a few others comment, but really, a lot of the energy is way more local. I keep puzzling over why that is — as the world gets more complicated, it’s easier to focus on the local stuff because we can understand it? where we live right here seems more important these days than out there? Or we now see ourselves more as from our neighbourhoods than as Canadians or BCers?

Jordan Bateman, whose Langley politics blog used to be the main read out there (and an informed one, since he’s a councillor and former newspaper reporter), has seen three other blogs on Langley politics pop up in the last while. Paul Hillsdon keeps up on stuff in Surrey; there’s a North Van politics blog; and, of course, here in Vancouver, there seems to be a new blog every couple of months: me, Mike Howell at the Courier, Charlie Smith at the Georgia Straight, Christine Montgomery at the Province for a while until recently, the two former Sam Sullivan aides, Daniel Fontaine and Mike Klassen at citycaucus.com, and many others (sorry if I didn’t mention you all by name).

That’s all a good thing, I hope, because it turns out that it actually makes a difference to the political process when there are eyes watching and people talking about what happens. In Russell Smith’s lovely column in the Globe recently, where he was talking about how much he loves newspapers (oh, yes, the feel of them and the sense of connectedness to the world), he pointed out that, when newspapers die, it has a direct impact on local politics and how engaged people are in them.

So, even though I now can’t get a seat at the media table these days if I come late to council, and it feels sometimes like everyone is falling over each other to get the latest little tidbit from the city, it’s okay — and even kind of fun — that it’s crowded.

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  • Darcy McGee

    Quick answer: they always were. Municipal politics is the level that touches people the most, and they have tend to have the strongest reactions.

    Other quick answer: when the voters of this city got their heads out of their sand holes and voted for Larry Campbell (who I thought was a horrible mayor, but at least he wasn’t as predictable as milquetoast.)

  • foo

    A: When the internet made it possible for people to participate in the debate, instead of just being distant spectators.

  • Denis

    Heck, when Mike Harcourt was mayor, watching the council meetings on TV was pretty standard for many of us. Nathan Devinski, the “chess expert” used to get up and ramble. The” ankle biter,” George P. used to get nasty, and the “voice of the people” Harry Rankin was always worth a listen. I can’t quite rememebr when the ” pastor” Bernice gerard did her tour of Wreck Beach in her full regalia of plaid. But heck Francis, some of us are older than you. We stopped watching or listening when “The Kid” Gordo became mayor. Sad days in Vancouver back then. Interesting times again.

  • Otis Krayola

    The above answers are as good as any. I’m sure many here will have others to offer. For myself, there are a number of factors converging into the proverbial Perfect Storm. A couple of the principal ones are:

    – Immediacy and Influence. By which I mean that decisions (and subsequent actions) seem to take shape quicker on the civic level than provincially or federally.

    And, in spite of their willingness to work for their constituents, my MP is far away in Ottawa where change is glacial in pace; my MLA (while much closer) is hampered by an ever-shrinking calendar of sitting days. So it really doesn’t matter too much whether either (or both) call me by name or if I have access to their cell.

    But I know from experience that if I appear before a Jane Bouey, or a Stuart MacKinnon or a Suzanne Anton I will be listened to. I represent a vote. And, by extension, if I appear numerous times, and with others like me, I represent a trend. Or a movement.

    In short, Something might really Happen.

    – Both senior levels of government have consistantly downloaded (or neglected entirely) their rightful constitutional responsibilities in housing, or education or caring properly for the mentally ill, or … (some days the list seems endless).

    There’s an old axiom that applies as well to politics as to many other situations – S**t Rolls Downhill. So, like it or not, in many cases the cities are left to pick up the slack. It’s not just mill rates and zoning bylaws down at City Hall any more. Add to this, cities are severely limited in ways to garner revenue to meet these new challenges.

    There seems, more than ever, to be a clear divide between those who are content to talk about sidewalks, and those who think we need to also consider who’ll be sleeping on them. Fought out on innumerable fronts.

    Both camps want the same thing – a decent night’s sleep. One wants to anticipate and mitigate social breakdown before it reaches a crisis. The other favours (especially because it falls clearly in the City’s purview) an increase in the police budget.

    Makes for an increasingly important discourse. You were ahead of the wave, Frances.

  • crumplestiltskins – didn’t close the tag above, sorry about that.

    .

  • Great post as usual Frances! One more thought: what happens when various political bloggers are given a shared space to post their reporting and observations communally? You get a model like The Tyee’s Hook http://thetyee.ca/Blogs/TheHook/ — where your posts often appear along with many other colleagues. Maybe The Hook, and communal blogging, is a version of the newspaper 2.0?

    Dave

  • fbula

    Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments. I do know that city council in the 1980s was considered the place to be. Council was routinely filled with activists of various sorts. When I was covering it in the 90s, people would remind me of that and say that it died off when Gordon Campbell, in an effort to get control of meeting times and content, eliminated public delegations at the Tuesday meetings and shifted them to the Thursday ones.

    David — Extremely remiss of me not to have mentioned the Tyee, where Monte’s coverage of issues that are often in the civic arena, provides a wealth of information.

    To all those who say the interest in municipal/civic is because it’s closer and more available — so why was no one around in the 90s? Why the growth of interest now? And I still don’t get why not more bloggers, aside from Sean, on the provincial scene. Sure, there are still lots of reporters there. But there’s heavy reporting on civic stuff, though granted from a less beat-savvy crew, and yet all kinds of people are weighing in.

  • Bill Lee

    Alan Fotheringham made his name covering City council meetings
    as a joke, and personality palaver. That was in the “old days”

    Youth these days, it’s wasted on the young with no memories.

    and in the 1920s there were three cities in Vancouver and 3 papers
    what was then. Or was it all respectable before the NPA in the
    1930s. That was when the wisdom was to have yearly elections
    and wards and they could be tossed out easily.

  • Otis Krayola

    “…so why was no one around in the 90s?”

    Tonight’s two points:

    – Not yet the need. There was a lag time from the effect of the Mulroney/Reagan/Thatcher cant of no-cost government. Softened somewhat by successive NDP governments in Victoria.

    In short, the chickens hadn’t come home to roost. Just yet.

    – The simultaneous decline of the importance of rural BC and the rise of the new Metro/Citystate.

    Resource economies are seemingly in the tank for good, and the issues of the City (region) render those of the Province negligible.

  • Travis

    I wonder if we are starting to see a shift that has begun at the municipal level and will (hopefully) rise to the provincial and federal political arenas. Perhaps one day, bloggers will be fighting for position in press galleries across the country. This is already happening in the U.S. where CNN turns to The Huffington Post and Politico (granted more online news than blogging) for political commentary. It has a lot to do with the changing form of journalism and that more people are feeling that their voice matters because they actually have a voice. While there is obvious challenges that others have written about ad nauseum, the emergence of a strong interest in municipal politics in the blogosphere is a positive one to be sure.

    To throw this out there. I wonder how big of a role the Olympics has in all this. Maybe once the tax payers saw a single event that so much of their money was going to they took more interest in what was really happening to that money.

    Just a thought.

  • obscurantist

    I’m sure it’s possible to overstate the role of particular personalities, but one way in which politics has been “interesting,” at least in the city of Vancouver, has been the personalities of the last two mayors.

    Every mayor between 1967 and 2002 was elected to at least two terms. Then you had Larry Campbell and Sam Sullivan, both of whom antagonized people for similar but not entirely identical reasons (Campbell being a gregarious blowhard and Sullivan more of a wonk and a lone wolf).

    As mayor, both tended to be control freaks. So did Gordon Campbell, as he continues to be today, but Larry Campbell and Sullivan just aren’t quite as good at it. So Larry Campbell became the first mayor in recent memory not to run for a second term, while Sullivan became the first in recent memory to fight (and lose) an open nomination battle.

    I’d like to think that Robertson is a bit more grounded than either of his two predecessors, so that two years from now we won’t be in the middle of another free-for-all battle for the mayoralty, because I think the circus-like quality of the last two mayoral administrations wasn’t all that productive. And so far Robertson and company seem to be fairly canny political operators in the way that Gordon Campbell is. But then you could have said that about Larry Campbell or Sam Sullivan at this point in their tenure. So who knows?

  • Stheticwrit

    Great perspective for a newcomer to Vancouver politics like me. Btw, typo in the second graph,
    …”When I went to the committee meetings on Thursday, I *(was) usually the only reporter there.”

  • Frances, upthread said
    “Sure, there are still lots of reporters there (in matters p’funk). But there’s heavy reporting on civic stuff, though granted from a less beat-savvy crew, and yet all kinds of people are weighing in.

    Ya, but, that means that the responders are way more beat savvy, and there are way more minders…and protocol etc…..thus, it’s a tougher nut to crack.

    There is another possibility….which is that the rough and tumble of the political bloggodome just hasn’t made it across the water yet…. (ie. I don’t see much civic blogging on South VanIsle either).

    ___
    And Mr. Beers is right, of course – The Hook is good, and on matters provincial (in addition to the mirror-site stuff from Mess’rs Tieleman and Holman) Andrew MacLeod has been outstanding…Although I would be softballing it if I didn’t mention that I’ve noticed a little bit of the run of the mill ‘beat’-type stuff starting to sneak in there lately, which I think is a mistake.

    .

  • A. G. Tsakumis

    Two points:

    1) ‘The Hook’? More like ‘The Hooker’…anything that suits the far-left, regardless of balnace or reason, and if you don’t like it, take a hike because that’s what the Tyee has been reduced to. Please don’t flatter yourself David…you USED to have the absolutel best online newspaper. Those days are long gone.

    2) Allan Fotheringham (now retired) was one of Canada’s best writers–period. He took no prisoners, pulled no punches and was literate and entertaining. Always fair and always knowledgeable. It did not matter where he started, that kind of talent is rare and good no matter what he’s writing about. Fair commentators always see that. Rush Limbaugh, famously wrote of Christopher Hitchens (the finest English language writer alive) that he and Hitchens agree on little, but that he’d read his column twice, with pleasure.

    The reason there is more attraction to reading of the machinations, political and otherwise, municipally (as well as federally) is because people are becoming more interested in their immediate environment (thanks to ten years of Grit rule, the feds are much more involved in your life–intrusively so). Provincially, we’re screwed until the Premier’s friends and apologists are either fired or retired.

    Sean Holman can’t carry everything on his back. One in a million…

  • Awwww Alex–

    Not everybody at The Hook can be the little guy in the middle of the front row…..

    .

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  • Agustin

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