Coalition-building is the essence of politics. If you want to get things done in the political arena, you have to deal with people who have different views from your own on some issues, or maybe many issues, find objectives you can agree on, and work out a way of combining forces to achieve those ends.
This forces everyone concerned to make compromises they are less than happy with, and occasionally to keep company they would rather avoid, but the alternative is to allow others to set the political agenda. In democratic politics, there is no such thing as perfection: There are no princes, but if we wish to have a say in the making of public decisions, we still have to kiss a lot of frogs.
All these observations are true of politics generally, but at the moment, perhaps particularly germane to Canadian city politics, where, for a century or more, one coalition in particular has repeatedly dominated local decision-making and other potential political influences have frequently been sidelined, at least in part because they have found it difficult to make common cause with anyone except those whose views coincided very closely with their own.
The generally dominant group in Canadian cities is a business coalition, usually led by the largest locally-based businesses, together with a broad cross-section of large and small players in various branches of the land development business, including development companies themselves, as well as people involved in real estate, construction, and real estate law. We would have to delve deeply into the history of Canadian urban politics and municipal government, not to mention political economy, to get to the bottom of all the reasons for this group’s recurring dominance, but one very obvious reason is that business people are good at cutting deals and not worrying too much about differences of opinion regarding matters peripheral to whatever is being negotiated. Any business person who can’t manage that much is unlikely to stay in business.
The willingness to undertake the kind of compromise and deal-making that is essential to coalition-building is less in evidence among those who are most likely to find fault with the business agenda. Among potential opponents of a typical business agenda, two groups show up again and again: liberals, who take a particular interest in land use, transportation and environmental issues, generally from a moderate perspective; and leftists, whose main focus is on such issues as poverty, affordable housing, racial discrimination, radical environmentalism and community development in low-income areas of the city.
While business people like to be thought of as keen and entrepreneurial, political people like to think of themselves as principled, and sometimes their principles override their common sense. In fact, the left-liberal divide barely scratches the surface of the divisions among those who are broadly of like mind regarding the direction of city politics. In Winnipeg, there are at least two leadership groups, two groups of advocates for cycling, a transit group, a social housing coalition, a number of groups concerned with a variety of urban development issues, and more. A community coalition has been formed to try to build a common front, but, at this writing, the groups, including the coalition, continue to operate largely in isolation from one another.
Some of this division is simply a matter of inertia. People stay with old habits and old associations because forming new associations takes a lot of time and energy. Some of it has to do with the well-established and long-standing left-liberal divide. There is a strong tendency among liberals to view leftists as ideologues, volatile, divisive and out of touch with political reality. Leftists, for their part, may see liberals as elitists, more concerned with aesthetic issues than poverty and hunger. To both sides, trying to forge a common front often looks too much like kissing frogs.
In fact, it is the rare person on either side of this ideological divide that even remotely resembles either stereotype. More to the point, there is no apparent reason why it should be harder for leftists and liberals to negotiate compromises than it is for business people. The differences between, say, a poverty agenda and an environmental agenda, or an agenda favouring public transportation and one calling for social housing, are not likely to be more difficult to overcome than those between condominium developers and developers of suburban housing, or industrialists and retail trades people.
Sometimes it may not seem so, but liberals and leftists can overcome their differences to make common cause on points of agreement. Although business interests are usually dominant in Canadian city politics, there have been conspicuous periods during which leftists and liberals exercised serious influence, but in all cases, the agenda in question was neither exclusively left, nor exclusively liberal.
Examples are the period from the late 1960s to the early 1980s in Vancouver when TEAM (The Electors’ Action Movement) was dominant in Vancouver politics; a number of years in the 1970s, when David Crombie, Toronto’s “tiny, perfect mayor” very successfully walked a tightrope between right and left factions on city council; and, in Montreal, the era, in the 1980s and 1990s, of the Montreal Citizens’ Movement. In all three cases, influences countering the business agenda involved some combination of left and liberal policies and in all cases, the eras in question left legacies, consisting of both concrete accomplishments – such things as affordable housing, heritage preservation, and more rigourous and thoughtful development practices – that have continued to exercise influence in the years since then.
I began researching and reading about Canadian municipal politics and political history more than 30 years ago, and in all those years I have not encountered a case that contradicts what I like to call the iron law of Canadian municipal politics: Either the business community dominates the political agenda absolutely or there is a coalition of forces that push in a different direction. I know of no other possibilities that have demonstrated their viability. If those who find a business agenda problematic wish to have a serious influence on municipal politics, they must learn to work with people who disagree with them on some issues. Good governance of our cities depends on it.
To be sure, there is nothing wrong with the business community having a strong influence in city politics. We all rely on the jobs and the goods created by successful entrepreneurs, but we also need many other things, and an agenda dominated by a single set of interests is by definition self-regarding and in practice ultimately self-defeating. It is heartening, therefore, to note that, in a number of Canadian cities, oppositional political activity is beginning to become visible. The Centre d’écologie urbaine de Montréal and its proposed Montreal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities; People for a Better Ottawa; a revitalized Coalition of Progressive Electors in Vancouver, as well as the municipal coalition still in its infancy in Winnipeg: All of these are straws in a wind that may be blowing some new ideas into the governance of Canadian cities.
Canadian cities face many challenges that are not being adequately addressed: the deterioration of the environment; the isolation of the poor in marginalized, low-income neighbourhoods; the high cost of housing; the deterioration of municipal infrastructure; the need to develop a 21st Century urban transportation system, and much more. They will only be addressed if a diversity of influences is felt in political decision-making. Moreover, community coalitions in different cities may well be able to increase their effectiveness if they combine forces and learn from each other.
I like to end my blog entries by citing academic and other sources for my research, but when it comes to the broad sweep of Canadian urban history, there is really nothing to cite. Various individuals, including John C. Bacher, Warren Magnusson, Jon Caulfield, John Weaver and I, have contributed to the documentation of bits and pieces of this history, but a magisterial history of Canadian cities has yet to be attempted. The closest we can come is two well-written and informative texts on Canadian local government:
Mary Louise McAllister, Governing ourselves? The politics of Canadian communities. Vancouver, UBC Press, 2004.
Richard and Susan Nobes Tindal. Local government in Canada (Sixth edition). Toronto: Thomson Nelson, 2004.