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Keith Gerein: Could Edmonton's municipal election fall victim to excessive democracy?

Edmonton Journal logo Edmonton Journal 2021-07-12 Keith Gerein
a sign in a field: Candidate signs dot the side of the roadway in Edmonton Riverbend in advance of the Oct. 21, 2019, federal election. © Provided by Edmonton Journal Candidate signs dot the side of the roadway in Edmonton Riverbend in advance of the Oct. 21, 2019, federal election.

The beard, gone. The hair, trimmed. The smile, wider.

Heck, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even made a rare appearance in Alberta last week.

All of which indicates that a federal election campaign is soon set to begin, perhaps as early as next month.

But while Canadian airwaves, advertisers and attention spans brace for the coming partisan showdown, I worry it may overwhelm the arguably more important municipal election races here in Alberta.

Public bandwidth for civic elections is a struggle at the best of times. And this year, it is being further squeezed thanks to the UCP government’s decision to tack on a concurrent Senate election and a provincewide referendum .

While far from ideal, I’ve never subscribed to the belief that those two add-ons — both of questionable democratic value — will significantly pollute the municipal campaign.

But a full-on federal campaign is a different story.

Unlike the U.S., where multiple votes are regularly bunched together, having dual (or duel) campaigns for different orders of government is relatively rare in Canada.

The most recent example occurred in Saskatchewan last fall.

Two weeks after Scott Moe’s government claimed victory in a provincial election, municipal elections were held. Voter turnout was an abysmal 21 per cent in Regina and 27.4 per cent in Saskatoon.

Yes, COVID was raging at the time, there wasn’t much drama to most races and a bad snowstorm hit on municipal election day, all of which limits how much stock we should put in the results.

Still, the Saskatchewan example doesn’t exactly provide a ringing endorsement of overlapping campaigns.

As for the timing of the expected federal campaign, for what it’s worth, a few sources have suggested a writ drop sometime in mid-August, putting election day sometime in mid to late September.

If that proves accurate, it would leave just a few weeks of breathing room before the municipal vote on Oct. 18.


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In terms of how one election might affect the other, the lack of examples and research on this subject means there are more questions than answers. But the questions are fascinating, said Jack Lucas, a political scientist at the University of Calgary.

Will a repeat of the 2019 federal election results — Alberta votes heavily Conservative but the Liberals win nationally — drive frustrated conservatives to the municipal polls?

Will the issues of one campaign — Indigenous reconciliation, infrastructure, taxes, government debt, climate change, etc. — carry over to the next?

Will some civic candidates work with federal candidates, or try to latch themselves on to partisan campaigns?

“People’s partisan attitudes and the extent to which they feel negatively toward other partisans, all of those things are heightened in an election context,” Lucas said. “So you can imagine that if a federal election is held proximate to a municipal election … that’s likely to spill over.”

There are also logistical concerns.

Partisan elections, in part due to their tribalist nature, tend to suck up a huge amount of resources, energy and public patience.

So instead of regularly seeing the faces of Michael Oshry or Amarjeet Sohi, Edmonton voters will instead be getting plenty of Trudeau and federal Conservative leader Erin O’Toole for a while.

Instead of being led to the website of Kim Krushell or a story about Mike Nickel , voters will be inundated with coverage and campaign materials of federal parties.

When there’s a knock on the door, will it be a candidate for MP, mayor, city council, school board or Senate on the other side? How easily will voters recognize the differences?

There’s an argument that municipal candidates should simply put their campaigns into low-power mode for the weeks of the federal race, given the lack of traction they’re likely to find.

A handful of civic hopefuls have also told me there has been a real struggle this year to raise money, a problem that will only get worse when dozens of federal nominees also put their hands out. As well, Lucas notes there are a limited number of volunteers willing to answer phones and plant signs.

The constraints here could be particularly tough on rookie candidates who already face a huge disadvantage against incumbents.

Lucas said there remains a possibility that public interest in politics created by the federal race may carry over to the civic races. But he feels it’s more likely that the federal campaign will overwhelm everything else, in part because Canadians tend to rank national politics as more important than local.

“If there are multiple elections going at the same time, people are likely to pay attention to the one they are getting the most information on or they think is most important,” said Lucas. “And it’s only after that election is done that people turn their attention to the municipal election. So it becomes really compressed.”

While I can wish Trudeau might push back the writ drop, I suspect the fate of Alberta mayors, reeves and councillors isn’t part of his deliberations. That’s fine, but it means the onus is on us as local voters not to get sidetracked.

My plea here is to leave ourselves the mental bandwidth to keep focus on what is perhaps Edmonton’s most pivotal municipal election this century.

Given the issues our city faces, the decision of who fills the seats in council chambers should be seen as at least equally vital to the question of who fills the backbenches in Ottawa.

kgerein@postmedia.com

twitter.com/keithgerein

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