THE BLOG

The Kind of Government Canadians Ignore

06/04/2013 12:25 EDT | Updated 08/04/2013 05:12 EDT
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Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Do you know why Canadians are not interested in municipal politics? It is because they don't know much about it.

How can we reverse this trend? Provide Canadians with knowledge.

It is often said that municipal governments touch the lives of Canadians more directly than provincial or federal governments, yet Canadians appear to be dramatically less aware of their local government affairs than they are with their provincial and federal governments.

Municipal voters turnout is also significantly lower.

Here are examples of the functions that municipal governments are responsible for: roads, public transportation, water and most times electrical utilities, garbage disposal, libraries, community centres, parks, urban planning, commercial and residential zoning permits, policing, fire departments and commercial and residential property taxes.

Such a list reminds us how relevant municipal or regional governments are to our daily lives.

Despite their significant role, municipal governments appear to receive the least amount of attention from the media, (notwithstanding the recent media frenzy regarding the Rob Ford alleged crack video scandal.)

Media organizations tend to dedicate a lot of resources to cover provincial and federal governments. Their journalists are mandated to investigate hot files and constantly report on the administration of government. Journalists, at times, are more effective in exposing controversial subjects than opposition parties and are able to hold governments accountable to their citizens.

Since municipal and regional governments tend to have smaller audiences, investigative journalism is almost absent. Outside of superficially covering day-to-day city council activities, the media allocates little resources to dig deeper into local government affairs.

Provincial and federal governments tend to have independent watchdogs like auditor generals, independent commissioners reporting to parliament, ombudsmans and quasi-judicial agencies that evaluate and verify the conduct of governments. Those offices have independent authorities that empower them to investigate and publicly report on government business. They are empowered to initiate their own examination or respond to citizens' complaints. They are expected to operate without political bias or interference.

Municipal and regional governments have very few, if any, independent watchdogs. The lack of independent watchdogs over municipal governments is a serious problem.

Watchdogs can provide citizens and media with information on matters such as value for money, financial safeguards, conflict of interest, governance, transparency and quality of services provided.

It is true that municipal governments perform their affairs publicly. However, only highly interested citizens spend their time attending council meetings or reading their minutes.

Most Canadians are busy with their daily life and don't have ample time or the expertise to examine decisions made by their governments. So when they don't hear much about the conduct of their municipal government, they don't reach out to their municipal representative to offer their feedback, until years later after the fact when government decisions have been implemented.

The more informed citizens are, the more engaged they become in the affairs of their governments and the wiser they are when choosing who to represent them.

Perhaps that is why less Canadians vote in municipal elections than they do in provincial and federal elections.

One possible reason why municipal governments don't have watchdogs is that they run small budgets and the cost of funding independent commissioners may be prohibitive.

Since municipal governments are creatures of their provincial government, provinces should consider establishing offices such as municipal auditor generals to be jointly funded by the province and a pool of municipal governments that can share the services provided by their offices.

The need for municipal watchdogs is not to suggest that municipal politicians are more prone to corruption or that municipal civil servants are not conducting their responsibilities honourably. Most elected councillors and municipal officials believe passionately in public service and care deeply about their communities.

But the reasons why we have independent watchdogs over provincial and federal governments are not because we believe provincial and federal politicians and civil servants are inherently corrupt. Those institutions are created out of our fundamental belief that democracy works best when citizens are provided with independent sources of information about the status of their governments.

Democratic governments work best when accountable. Accountability is best achieved through transparency. Transparency require providing voters with access to full information through non-partisan and credible sources.