Ec­cen­tric­i­ties part of the demo­cratic process

Winnipeg Free Press - - THINK TANK - CARL DEGURSE

WHAT can we glean from an elec­tion process that in­vites a self-de­scribed home­less per­son to run for mayor of Winnipeg?

The cor­rect an­swer is that it’s heart­en­ing to see wide-open in­clu­sion, a pil­lar of democ­racy — even when it means let­ting ec­cen­tric char­ac­ters put their names on the bal­lot.

A less cor­rect, but truth­ful, an­swer is that such an open sys­tem is also frus­trat­ing. For ex­am­ple, can­di­date fo­rums bog down when au­di­ences must lis­ten to no-hope can­di­dates whose pro­nounce­ments only pro­vide ev­i­dence they didn’t study up on civic is­sues and bud­getary ba­sics that a mayor must know.

Yet it’s vi­tal that the demo­cratic process be open to ev­ery­one, not just well-con­nected and smoothtalk­ing pro­fes­sion­als in nice suits. Any­one who can gather sig­na­tures of 250 el­i­gi­ble vot­ers on their nom­i­na­tion pa­pers can de­clare their can­di­dacy for mayor of Winnipeg, and that’s as it should be.

The low thresh­old for nom­i­na­tions opens the door to un­con­ven­tional can­di­dates and, by the stan­dards of po­lite com­pany any­where, some of the cur­rent can­di­dates are ex­ceed­ingly un­con­ven­tional.

Ed Ackerman, of no fixed ad­dress, has re­peat­edly used jokes to dodge se­ri­ous ques­tions at may­oral fo­rums. He has pledged to build a $400-mil­lion “neg­a­tive toll bridge” that pays peo­ple $10 per trip to visit the North End. At a fo­rum on Thurs­day evening, he sug­gested the Panama Canal be dammed.

Don Wood­stock has promi­nently and proudly worn a medal that looks sus­pi­ciously like an Or­der of Canada medal. When asked about it by a re­porter, he said it was an “Or­der of Cana­di­ans” medal, which he said is only one step below the es­teemed Or­der of Canada hon­our. That’s wrong, ac­cord­ing to the Ur­ban Knights, which gave the medal to Wood­stock. They say the medal is only a nov­elty and they want it back, but Wood­stock re­fused to take it off.

Venkat Machi­raju, a Hindu priest, might be the first can­di­date ever ar­rested by po­lice dur­ing a Winnipeg elec­tion cam­paign. He was charged on Oct. 2 for al­legedly phon­ing some­one he is pro­hib­ited from con­tact­ing. He said he had a stroke that af­fects con­trol of his left hand and he un­in­ten­tion­ally “pocket di­aled” the num­ber of the per­son who has a pro­tec­tion or­der against him.

These sideshows might seem amus­ing and harm­less. When Ackerman stated the only par­ties he sup­ports are the ones that oc­cur on Fri­day and Satur­day nights, it sounded like a throw­back to the wit of the Rhinoceros Party, which some­times pro­vided wel­come chuck­les dur­ing provin­cial and fed­eral cam­paigns.

But there are can­di­dates who feel the po­si­tion of mayor is se­ri­ously im­por­tant, and their at­tempts to cam­paign like grown-ups can be thwarted. Ask can­di­date Jenny Motkaluk. She was try­ing to en­gage Wood­stock at a re­cent fo­rum when Wood­stock’s wife re­peat­edly yelled out from the au­di­ence, a dis­trac­tion that is enough to throw any de­bater off her game.

Motkaluk, who is the most pop­u­lar can­di­date af­ter in­cum­bent Brian Bow­man, has said she wants to de­bate Bow­man one-on-one, with­out the dis­trac­tions of fringe can­di­dates get­ting their turn to ram­ble at the mi­cro­phone.

Bow­man seems to be in no hurry to agree to a one-on-one with Motkaluk. That’s un­sur­pris­ing be­cause, un­like her, he has a po­lit­i­cal record to de­fend. The “de­bate” would likely con­sist of her at­tack­ing his record.

The par­tic­i­pa­tion of fringe can­di­dates also makes it harder for me­dia. Try­ing to be fair, me­dia out­lets pro­file all can­di­dates and cover, at least to some de­gree, their press con­fer­ences and ap­pear­ances at fo­rums. The un­for­tu­nate con­se­quence is that a can­di­date for whom the race is a lark can re­ceive me­dia cov­er­age that is overblown when mea­sured by the paucity of the can­di­date’s in­sights.

Some ju­ris­dic­tions have tried to weed out fringe can­di­dates by rais­ing the thresh­old to run for of­fice.

An Ed­mon­ton city coun­cil­lor has sug­gested the de­posit for mu­nic­i­pal can­di­dates be hiked to $1,000, but this pro­posal is un­likely to pass. When a sim­i­lar tac­tic was tried in On­tario, a judge cited the Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms in strik­ing down a law that let $200 de­posits be gar­nished from provin­cial elec­tion can­di­dates who didn’t win more than 10 per cent of the vote.

Le­gal­i­ties aside, there are solid rea­sons why the cam­paign should be open even to peo­ple who are highly un­likely to raise their arms in vic­tory on Oct. 24.

It’s pos­si­ble some­one who is con­sid­ered a fringe can­di­date in this elec­tion is get­ting ex­pe­ri­ence to be­come a more cred­i­ble can­di­date in a fu­ture cam­paign.

Also, good ideas some­times come from un­ex­pected sources and are bor­rowed by more prom­i­nent can­di­dates. For ex­am­ple, Bow­man pledged Oct. 5 to meet with the road con­struc­tion in­dus­try to im­ple­ment 24-7 work sched­ules, an idea first sug­gested in the cam­paign by can­di­date Umar Hayat on Sept. 18.

It would be ideal if may­oral cam­paigns only in­cluded can­di­dates who are well-in­formed, of ster­ling in­tegrity and able to back up their pol­icy pro­pos­als with re­search and an ac­count­ing of costs. But re­strict­ing cam­paigns to such can­di­dates wouldn’t be demo­cratic.

We must all get a chance to speak our mind, and run for of­fice if we think we can do bet­ter. If this means the process in­cludes kooks and chaos, that’s the price we pay for democ­racy.

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