The following article by Janet Newbury was originally published in Policy Note on March 27, 2014.

Upcoming Municipal Elections: Business as Usual?

With municipal elections on the horizon in British Columbia, it is worth paying attention to the nature of political discourse in this province – and considering its implications and alternatives.

Increasingly, business parlance is finding its way into what still holds the pretence of being a democratic institution.  As with our most recent provincial election, economic growth seems to be the bottom line used to pursue votes by many who are campaigning to lead us.  Throwing all our eggs into the fiscal basket can be a real missed opportunity, however – even when it comes to economic development.  While we all have a vested interest in seeing communities thrive economically and otherwise, I am increasingly becoming convinced that going the business route in our democratic systems will not ensure this is the case in a long term and sustainable way.

People Power

When exploring the question of what makes communities desirable places to live, an extensive 2008 study from the US determined there are three qualities that attach people to their communities: social offerings (such as places to meet), openness (how welcoming a place is), and the area’s aesthetics (beauty and green space).  While we are often quick to assume these are luxuries that can only be considered once basic needs have been addressed, I think we might be well served to consider the possibility that attending to these three areas of community wellbeing could actually contribute to economic prosperity of our communities in very real ways

As it happens, I am currently visiting family in Newfoundland.  During the single week that I am here in Corner Brook – a community of 20,000 people – there are two large events taking place: The Haywood 2014 Ski Nationalsand the March Hare.  The Ski Nationals is the largest cross-country event in Canada; which is expected to provide a boost to the local economy to the tune of over two million dollars.  The March Hare, interestingly, actually began in 1988 when three poetry-loving golfers were looking for ways to generate business for their club in the slower days of early spring.  It has grown since then to become the largest poetry festival in Atlantic Canada, and generates business for more than the golf club, but also hotels, restaurants, pubs, airlines, and so much more.

Combined, these events clearly bring a significant influx of money to the region, and they came about as a result of the hard work of two distinct but equally committed groups of engaged citizens who have been working throughout the year to make them happen.  Having attended both of these events this week, it seems to me that rather than business savvy (or at least, in addition to it), it is clear that what drives the scores of volunteers involved in making both the Nationals and the Hare such successes is a deep commitment to their community.

If policy makers understood that people are our biggest assets and attended to the three qualities identified above by the Soul of Community research project, then they could spend their time and energy doing the good democratic work of engaging and responding to the populace.  And we, as community members with a range of skills and resources could spend our time engaging in ways that enhance the communities we live in, economically and otherwise.

This is Asset-Based Community Development 101.  Rather than re-allocating resources from social services and public goods to ‘grow the economy’, we might instead invest more in these things and understand that this will, in fact,serve our economies because there will be more citizens in healthy positions from which they can then fully engage.  And the Soul of Community study suggests that, given the opportunity (health, time, and resources), people will.  Without a deep commitment of people to community, the huge economic boost provided to Corner Brook by both the Ski Nationals and The Hare would not be taking place during what is arguably the bleakest time of the year.

Economic revitalization

My concern is not only that prioritizing an economic bottom line in community development is not the most effective way to go; I am actually concerned that it can be an impediment to fostering the kind of citizen engagement described above.  I currently live in Powell River, a small community which – like many others in BC – is undergoing some significant transitions, particularly when it comes to our economic realities.  If wellbeing takes a back seat to dollars on a municipal level, then of course citizens will follow the dollars (right out of town) if given the opportunity, too.  Many rural communities throughout Canada are experiencing this, and being in Newfoundland as I write offers a very strong caution about the fate of small communities that don’t invest in local community life and citizen wellbeing.

2013 report by Powell River’s Mayor’s Task Force for Economic Revitalization identified a broad range of possible strategies for revitalizing our local economy.  The Task Force report had no clear direction when it came to how we would approach economic revitalization in our community, however, and included such a range of options that any direction new city counsellors guide us in could be justified with its reference.  But I would suggest that we have good reason to believe that citizen wellbeing makes better sense (ethically and fiscally) as a bottom line than chasing dollars.  Campaign time in BC municipalities will soon be upon us and when voting, we as citizens could also do well to consider this.

Much like Corner Brook, Powell River has its share of volunteer-initiated events that contribute significantly to not only the social and cultural lives of community members, but the local economy as well.  PRISMA, for instance, is a two-week symphony event that is said to bring half a million dollars to the economy of the isolated mill town.  Our political discourse so often pits the arts against the economy, but when viewed from this perspective I don’t see them as competing interests.

Importantly, economic revitalization efforts such as these do not require huge taxpayer-reliant investments in infrastructure up front – such as airport renovations, port development, aquaculture parks, or water bottling facilities (all of which appear among many other suggestions in Powell River’s Task Force report).  In the scheme of things, supporting citizen-driven initiatives such as those described earlier can be seen as great return on minimal investment that also enhance the quality of community life.   Seems like a win at every level to me.

Democratic leadership or business as usual

And still, all across the country we see more and more business leaders ‘marketing’ themselves as suitable democratic leaders.  At the moment, here in Newfoundland I witness the PC party leadership race and the top candidates are two of the biggest business owners in the province with no political background.  Chances are within the year, Newfoundland will have a CEO as Premier.

If we mean it when we say we want to diversify our local economies and keep people living (well) in our communities, then perhaps we need to question our growing cultural acceptance of business norms in political process.  As has been articulated clearly time and time again, running government like a business is not only dangerous, it can be counter-productive to our own aims of electing leaders who can support us and our neighbours in the pursuit of a good life.  Prioritizing people over dollars does not mean throwing economic caution to the wind.  It means making the surest investment there is.

When we go to the ballots this year for municipal elections, we might do well to listen beneath the immediately presented numbers, and consider which leaders will do best to revitalize what remains of our democratic process.  I am convinced the numbers will follow.