THE DEMOCRATIC REPORTER
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Toronto Star - Aug. 28, 2009 - By Christopher Hume Urban Issues, Architecture, email@example.com
Afghan vote turnout puts us to shameInternational observers are fretting these days about the legitimacy of the recent Afghanistan election; according to some reports, only 30 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot.
Makes you wonder what those same observers would think if they came here?
In 2006, the last time an election was held in Mississauga, even fewer voters – 26 per cent – managed to drag themselves to a polling station. Toronto figures are marginally higher, but only just.
Afghans can rightly argue that they must dodge bombs and bullets and risk their life to vote. In fact, more than 30 people were killed during the election.
Democracy there remains a bold experiment. Here, it has become an inconvenience. In Afghanistan, it awaits implementation; here it longs to be revived.
We're talking about civic elections, not national. Federally and provincially, Canadians do better, but voting rates are down everywhere. Yet municipal politicians, those very office holders most of us can't bother to vote for or against, possess serious power. Indeed, they are the ones whose work most affects our daily lives.
The federal government may set foreign policy, for example, but compared with a water hook-up, building permit or parking sticker, that's pretty abstract stuff, certainly not the sort of thing that impinges on us directly.
When democracy finally dies in Afghanistan, it will be with a bang; here it will end with a whimper. It will be over before anyone notices.
Again, the example of Mississauga is revealing, especially now that long-term Mayor Hazel McCallion, 88, has announced she will run in that city's next municipal election in 2010. McCallion was first elected chief magistrate of Mississauga in 1978, just four years after it was incorporated.
And McCallion's longevity may be exceptional, but it's not unusual; in councils everywhere, the quarter-century club keeps on growing and growing. The power of incumbency, combined with widespread apathy, makes it all too easy for voters to resist the contempt bred by familiarity. Indifference makes the world go around.
Some have suggested the answer is term limits. As brilliant as McCallion and her fellow council veterans may be, they have stifled several generations of potential leadership. Now, Toronto Mayor David Miller has said he also plans to run next year, for a third time.
Given the dysfunctional state of civic politics, it's hard to imagine how a two-term limit, say, could make things any worse. In Toronto that would amount to eight years in office; surely enough time to figure out how to get things done. Perhaps limits would also speed the glacial pace of municipal decision-making.
It doesn't help that local parliamentarians, federal and provincial, make themselves invisible and irrelevant. The GTA caucuses of the three major political parties have done little for the city or region.
Perhaps the development process is the only place where the democratic impulse remains intact. This is when neighbours gather to shout and scream, hurl insults, ask rude questions, debate and decide. Often, the cause is nothing more than a condo or social housing project ratepayers are anxious to stop. Their ultimate concern goes no further than property values.
From this perspective, the turnout in Afghanistan doesn't seem so bad after all. And just think, if, somehow, the NATO intervention were to succeed, it will mean decades from now, Afghans can opt to stay home on election day, not because it's too dangerous to vote, but because their country has a stable democracy strong enough to survive its own demise. Like ours.
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