The Purple Revolution

Posted December 2, 2010
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This was originally written much, much differently...

I had begun work on a scathing critique of the level of democracy in Calgary in preparation for the upcoming election. I was ready to pounce on poor voter turn out, electoral ignorance and a genuine lack of intellectual discourse. I was frustrated with how the election was progressing, disappointed with some candidates behaviour, and angry at the media. I had let the negativity get to me. I was wrong, and before the end of the election campaign, I tossed aside what I had written, because I realized none of it continued to make any sense. Something during the Calgary election had changed.

People cared.

It was September 26th when I was so frustrated with what I was seeing around me that I began to rip into the state of Calgary's election. By ripping into it, I mean writing on my computer, and privately, but believe me, it happened, and I typed those keys really hard! All jokes aside, I was upset. I had invested a lot of time and interest in the civic election, only to be disheartened with our democracy the further I got involved. The first thing I found disheartening? Barb Higgins early rise to the top of the polls. Now, those of you who may have supported Higgins are probably groaning and reaching to close the browser, but hear me out. My problem wasn't with her, but the fact that any person could announce their candidacy and be an instant favourite in the race, dominate media attention away from other candidates, and yet not announce any policy. That might be democracy, but it isn't the kind that brings about a great city, it's the kind you found in some sort of junior high school popularity contest. I want a great city. Not a city where candidates discussing policy couldn't get media attention if their lives depended on it.

My next frustration? Well, the media had established who the two 'front runners' of the race were: Ric McIver and Barb Higgins. That's not frustrating (well, perhaps any candidates dominance of the headlines is frustrating, but that wasn't my issue), what was? Civic election forum attendance. The candidates with the shoddiest attendance? The two front runners. I felt awful. The people most involved in the election, who took time from their schedules to attend forums, ask questions, and engage in discussion to genuinely learn about their candidates, were ignored by those favoured to win the race. The forums - the only chance to see candidates not hide behind their PR shields - suddenly seemed moot, the front runners weren't there. I often feel like a minority for caring about politics, and never had it cut so deep as then. When questioned about his lack of attendance to one of the forums, Ric McIver responded that he was at a fundraiser for his campaign. Having already secured the largest campaign war chest of any of the candidates, this explanation only disappointed me further. Ideas should matter more than money, but I know this isn't always (or even often) the case.


Naheed Nenshi poses with a Calgary Sun paper that endorses him as mayor. The Calgary Sun editors went from telling Calgarians they had no reason care about the race, to telling Calgarians to get behind Nenshi, all because Calgarians took time to learn about his policy and demand more. Photo by James / Nenshi campaign.

My frustration finally culminated with an article I read by Michael Platt from the Calgary Sun, titled 'Desperately seeking reason to care'. The article told me that Calgarians didn't care about the election. I had dedicated my time involving myself in the goings-on of the election, and watched countless others do the same, only to be told that Calgary didn't care about it. That it wasn't our fault, because we had nothing to be angry about, that we weren't 'galvanized' as the article put it. The Calgary Sun was attempting to justify our collective apathy as okay. Somewhere in Canada, a veteran mourns. Politics, believe it or not, doesn't have to be polarizing, but it's very tough to see that sometimes. So the Calgary Sun article was the cherry on top. Only the cherry was rancid, and it wasn't on top of a sundae, but on a malaise of spite and discontent for how I was perceiving Calgarians around me. It made for a very lousy dessert.

So I wrote. Furiously I wrote, but before the election campaign was over, I tossed it all out. I wasn't angry with Calgarians, I wasn't frustrated with the level of democratic involvement I was seeing, but the opposite. Things had changed. I was overwhelmed at how positive the conversation was. Michael Platt was dead wrong, Calgarians did care, and they cared all without needing to be angry. Policy discussion was front and center and propelled a candidate not many had heard of, into a front-runner, all without traditional media support. Calgarians who never talked politics before in their lives joined in the discussion. Even my 32 year old brother voted - for the first time. The political environment in Calgary was thriving to the point that whatever candidate won was going to have to earn it, not through celebrity, but on their vision for the city. That my friends, is one healthy democracy!

Apathy isn't okay

You know that phrase that people get the governments they deserve? It's true. Well, at least in developed world democracies where we are blessed with the freedom to choose our governments. If we support candidates purely on sound bites, we will most likely end up with elected officials that spend more time crafting sound bites that sound good instead of developing a vision forward. If we support candidates only due to their name recognition, and not on their policy, we could end up with some very bad policy. If we support candidates that skip out on forums because they have already achieved popularity, how can we expect them to be accountable and not take the electorate for granted? I often hear the old "I don't vote because politicians are lousy" excuse for political apathy, but politicians will only be as lousy as the political environment they are allowed to thrive in. So, get involved, and get informed. The front-runner candidates in the civic election only disclosed their donors after momentum was shifting to a candidate who already done it, all because Calgarians became aware of the issue and demanded it. The smarter we are on the issues that matter to us, the smarter our politicians will be on the issues that matter to us. Informing yourself before you vote is what stops people from electing candidates like this guy (If the fine people of Stark County didn't bother to come out and see candidates vying for nomination, who knows where Phil Davison could have gone!).

Better Citizens. Better Calgary.

People have coined this increase in civic engagement during this election as 'the purple revolution', but that only takes away from what happened in Calgary. Having a majority of Calgarians care about the future of their city in a meaningful and constructive way shouldn't be tied to just one candidate in one election. That level of engagement should be the norm, but it won't be easy. In the middle of the election campaign, Grant Neufield had mentioned that democracy is a lot of hard work. Being discontent with the state of the civic elecion at the time, I just thought he was an idealist - democracy was demoralizing. Grant is right though, democracy is work, it's about staying engaged and continuing the conversation, sometimes when people don't want to have it. But I was also right, it can be demoralizing, which is exactly why creating and maintaining a healthy democracy is such a challenge. So with the election over, let's capitalize on a Calgary that had a record election turn out, and continue the conversation.

I'll be continuing in the conversation at CivicCamp this Saturday, come be a part of it. Your democracy needs you!