Frances Bula header image 2

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, 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.

Categories: Uncategorized