Eccentricities part of the democratic process
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.