May 13, 2013

The Need for Tone at the Top

In my previous post, “Political Health in Action,” I provided examples on how grassroots movements are effective in influencing change and therefore, a key component of political health. However, political leaders need to set good examples as well, for they can be a source of inspiration for others to follow

Not to mention, good political leaders need to reach out to their adversaries and grassroots organizations to ensure policy is drafted in the interests of all stakeholders. But what happens when political leadership is absent from a critical issue?

The most important issue the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area is faced with today is addressing gridlock, as well as how to pay for the transit expansion required to accomplish this goal. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford steadfastly refused to support any revenue tools and attempted to defer the City Manager’s report on this subject at an executive committee session until after Metrolinx – the regional transit planning authority – released their report on revenue tools on May 27, 2013. Given City Council recognized the importance for the City to provide input on revenue tools before the Metrolinx report, they overturned the deferral at the May 7, 2013 session with the required two-thirds majority (27-13). 

Unfortunately, the debate descended into anarchy with councilors submitting conflicting resolutions (e.g. replacing the Scarborough RT with the subway, while supporting the existing transit plan to replace it with light rail transit), as well as promoting their own pet transit projects for their constituents instead of looking at the needs of the city at large. In the end, council failed to endorse a single revenue tool and has left the decision on this matter in the hands of the provincial government. These circumstances clearly illustrate the need for effective leadership in reconciling competing interests on critical issues such as transit.
More important than the need for elected officials to lead by example, is the need to recognize political health is a two way street. Citizens are an effective resource for expressing their concerns to elected officials and holding government accountable. However, individuals have varying points of view based on employment, interests, networks, and community organizations. 

The aggregation of these points of view is where elected officials come in, while the leaders (e.g. mayor, premier, prime minister) need to consolidate the priorities presented by elected officials to ensure the interests of society are reflected as closely as possible. Political parties can hinder this process with elected officials required to vote along party lines, especially in confidence matters such as a budget. Even so, the two-way view of political health still applies, given the potential for citizens to influence change as discussed earlier.

To close off this post, here is a TEDtalk featuring former Toronto mayor David Miller on the need for commitment by both citizens and elected officials alike, and why this commitment needs to be consistent. Just as how we cannot simply revert to our old ways after achieving a particular weight loss or other fitness goal.

Raise a toast!
Rob Z (e-mail)


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