London just went through its annual budgeting process, and thanks to social media and the new connectedness of the largely under-40 crowd, this generated more interest in this demographic than ever before. As you can see from my previous posts, affordable housing was a big issue in the debate, and social media allowed us to both care and to learn, so we could care in an informed manner. Addressing poverty is a Canadian value, and now it was tangible and easy in a local context to see the link to policy-making.
This budget was somewhat of a water-shed moment. A couple of veteran councillors suggested that they had never received as much citizen feedback on any issues before as they did for this budget debate. It was clear that we were talking, and it was heard that we were talking, but were we really heard? On the other side, as mentioned by the Mayor, budget debates always bring a lot of discussion. Particularly, those groups or agencies that feel at risk will attend in order to defend their interests. So, would this new level of engagement mean that council would attend to their vocal constituents, or would the buzz be ignored as special interest groups protecting their cash?
Well, the votes were clear. Councillors who voted to cut housing, disability retrofitting, and union jobs were confident that greater community support was with the 0% tax increase, and that the 1300 surveys, dozens of emails and phone calls, and 75 people in the gallery were a vocal minority, a special interest group. Councillor Orser explicitly stated so. The thing is, they’re wrong. They probably aren’t wrong about the 0%, we don’t have city-wide representative polls asking for a 0% increase and no housing, versus a 0.x% increase and housing, so we can only assume that the election points to a public in favour of 0%. But rather, they are wrong that we are a special interest group.
The truth is, many of the individuals I sat with in the gallery I had never met face-to-face before. And, many of the individuals who wrote letters to council had never thought much about affordable housing before. Rather, we are young(ish) Londoners who by accident or by fate are becoming engaged in our city. And we know what we want. We want a city where the rich and the poor can both live comfortably and have their needs met. We want a city where public transit will move us rapidly from home, to work, to entertainment, and back. We want a city with trees on our boulevards, in our parks, and in our yards. We want a city that is accessible to those with disabilities. We want a city where we can work, regardless of our skill level, and know our jobs are safe.
Unfortunately, the fate of the city is currently being decided largely by the deep-pocketed, traditional political establishment that is appealing to the lowest common denominator. The valuing of a 0% tax increase is largely based on a skepticism of politics and politicians, a sense that money is mismanaged, so we should give ‘them’ less. And ‘them’ is a ‘them’ because both politicians and the public have set aside the ‘representative’ portion of representative democracy. Politicians are no longer seen as members of the community that have the same interests as us, but ‘fat cats’, padding their own pockets off our sweat, blood, and tears. It’s this belief that will lead us to vote for less and less taxes, less and less public sector employees, and less and less government until it practically vanishes, along with all the services it provides that we don’t realize we value until they are gone.
So this is where we find ourselves, looking towards an ugly future, being decided by those who will be gone by the time it arrives. We aren’t a special interest group, we are Londoners who care because our futures are tied to this city for the long-haul. Our task doesn’t lie in educating councillors, because believe me, they know what they are doing, our task is to bring politics and government out of the gutter where the lowest common denominator is rewarded and revive it to the point where we would ask for a 2.5% increase, because we know the London we want, and we’re happy to pay for it.
So for those who felt defeated last night, don’t despair. In a politics of us vs. the government there will be winners and losers, but in a politics of citizens and government working together, we can only succeed.