September 11, 2019

Tearing Down the Democratic Process

Over the past twenty years, Dave Meslin has become one of Toronto’s leading city builders. You may recognize some of his projects such as Spacing, Dandyhorse, Cycle Toronto, RaBIT, Downtown De-Fence Project, and the Toronto Public Space Committee. His new book – Teardown – draws from those experiences and those from other political roles to help educate people on the obstacles of our political system and how to overcome them.

Throughout this book, Meslin calls on readers to challenge their thinking of different aspects of our democracy; especially with the “Mechanics of Exclusion” chapter where he explores ways governments can learn from businesses. In the retail sector – which for full disclosure I work in – businesses use flashy, easy to read advertising to encourage people to buy their products and design their stores and/or websites to be as open and easy to navigate as possible. Governments, on the other hand, appear to do the opposite from engaging citizens. A closed committee room door could give potential speakers the impression they aren’t welcome, while development proposal signs and other public notices used to be boring and filled with jargon average citizens don’t understand to reduce opposition. Citizen engagement is further depressed with the holding of committee and city council meetings during weekdays; meaning people have to take time off work or school to speak on an item of interest. Finally, Toronto city hall has been slow with bringing in WiFi and doesn’t allow food and beverages, signs, or clapping despite councillors being able to do so.

Old Toronto development proposal notice (via Spacing) compared to new notice (via City of Toronto) - notice how easier to read the new sign is

The chapter on political parties called “It’s My Party (and I’ll Cry if I Want To)” is a big bag of hurt for hardcore partisans, yet timely with today’s official kickoff for the October 21 federal election. Even so, Meslin’s observations remind me of my experiences volunteering with campaigns. While grassroots protests have lots of creative home-made signs, they are banned from political party rallies along with signs from local candidates. Only hundreds of the same leader sign with a short slogan are allowed and the leader’s spontaneity is dampened with the excessive use of teleprompters. Election canvassing has become less about discussing issues and more on identifying supporters for a GOTV (get out the vote) operation; something Meslin dismissed as a scam. (ouch) Parties and riding associations make very little effort to recruit new members except during leadership or candidate nomination races, while party discipline is more strict in Canada’s House of Commons than in other Western democracies. Despite these weaknesses, Meslin still encourages people to join political parties to help change the process.
Ontario NDP rally from June 2018 - A similar experience can be found with other parties
While “Teardown” discusses other problems such as complex bureaucracies, lobbyists, campaign financing, ballots, and billboards, the book provides lots of solutions which Meslin admitted at the end readers may not always agree. At City Hall, Walmart-style greeters could help guide citizens to the desired committee rooms, while city council and committee meetings (and elections) could be held on evenings or weekends to encourage greater participation. Free light refreshments could be served at public meetings to help make people feel more comfortable. Randomized seating (done at Toronto city council), legalized co-sponsoring of bills (done in America), and electoral reform (more in this post) can help reduce the adversarial nature of federal and provincial legislatures. To help level the playing field with well financed corporate interests, the book suggested using public lobbyists and diverting some funds from charities to registered not-for-profits which are more focused on the causes of social problems (a.k.a. upstream advocacy). In response to Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s imposed cut of Toronto’s City council, a fourth tier of government could be explored to deal with more local issues while municipal governments could help fund neighbourhood residents’ associations to further build our social bonds.
A Yonge TOmorrow open house showing the possibilities for the future of downtown Yonge Street
One chapter which falls flat is the one calling for the “End of Heroes”. Despite the excessive concentration of power with party leaders and the Office of the Prime Minister (or Premier) being an important issue, selecting government representatives at random as they do with jury selection (a.k.a. sortition) and scrapping the head of government are very unlikely to happen anytime soon. Especially when humans have become indoctrinated from cradle to grave to submit to authority – which the book did mention – and the desire for heroes has run deep since time immemorial. The idea of selecting people at random to decide public policy can make many people feel uncomfortable as there is the risk of selecting one who has no experience. Something one could counter by referring to America’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the NDP’s Ruth Ellen Brosseau who served as bartenders before being elected to public office, yet they have done exceptionally well and become well respected by their constituents (and beyond). Personally, I would have preferred more practical solutions such as giving more power to individual politicians including the ability to remove party leaders who lost the moral right to govern, randomized seating, and electoral reform.

The book wraps up with a call for readers to not ask for permission, but rather invite themselves to participate in their communities and to start small within their neighbourhoods, schools, and workplaces. Small scale projects done over time will help build confidence in the ability to influence change and dismantle existing barriers, which in turn would inspire even more citizens to participate. It all starts with you coming forward and focusing on what issues matter to you.

Fight on!
Rob Z (e-mail)

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