Newfoundland and Labrador, as you know, is in something of a state right now. The provincial government is lumbering around without a head, lurching from one self-created problem to the next. You can’t trust either of the parties as far as you can throw them and some days it feels like the whole system is just circling the drain. It’s a pretty grim affair, all told.
But lately I’m wondering how much of the disorder we see at the Confederation Building stems from the fact that our municipal politics in this province are an even bigger mess. Local government is actually the one that impacts our lives the most, but it usually gets the least attention. It’s the town that collects our trash and keeps the water running and decides whether or not the place where we live looks like garbage. If everything is out of whack at the most basic level, it probably follows that everything above it is going to be messed up too.
Our own city of legends is a perfect case study. The scene in St. John’s is absolutely dismal, even by the soul-crushing standards of that brutalist bunker down on New Gower. Like the rest of the political architecture in this province, what passes for city council was haphazardly slapped together out of crooked timber years ago. The rot is really starting to show.
Council is always flying by the seat of its pants. St. John’s biggest selling point is its distinctive cultural scene, but there is absolutely no plan in place for its heritage buildings. Taxes are disproportionately high with little to show for them. The provincial government gets a free ride on our backs from municipal services that it does not pay for. The city has no real plan to deal with either of these problems.
Compared to every other major city in Canada, we are like a bad improv comedy troupe. Council has seen sexual harassment claims, loan sharking, petty theft, unaccountable campaign donations, and brain-dead development projects championed by local oligarchs. The city vetoed attempts to bring in some desperately needed ethics rules, and there is virtually no transparency surrounding any of the decisions taken to manage our money. There is a small library of studies and reports on city development gathering dust at the office.
To say the status quo at city hall is bankrupt doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Into this morass now wades Andy Wells, St. John’s once and future king. Done playing Pontius Pilate at the Public Utilities Board, Wells is back to save us from ourselves through the power of being a brash and blustering arsehole. He’s here to slash taxes and sell The Southlands and put the city’s unionized workers back in their place. He may or may not believe human-caused climate change is real, which is an excellent ambiguity when it comes to electing the mayor of a coastal city.
It would be absolute madness to put Andy Wells back up in the mayor’s chair, but madness is all the rage in politics these days. Between a largely useless city council, a depressive political culture where no one expects politicians to actually accomplish anything good, and Newfoundlanders’ abiding love for angry old cranks, he’s almost certainly a shoe-in. What better way to restore public confidence in city council than by grinding it to a halt for a four-year screaming match?
You can’t really blame people from turning their heads in disgust, which is why the spectacle just degenerates further, and more people turn away. It’s a vicious cycle that keeps us circling the drain. It’s bleak.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. There are sharp, young, forward-looking people running for positions all over the city. We actually have options this year besides returning to dreary business as usual or sending in a clown with a wrecking ball. Renee Sharpe is a no-nonsense, working-class community activist. Maggie Burton is a culture-sector prodigy with a sweeping urban vision. Jamie Finn is a teacher while Ian Froude and Hope Jamieson are young entrepreneurs, but all three have serious social conscience and community spirit.
Young people with good ideas getting involved in local politics is a sign of democratic health. It means that people give a damn. It means the city is on the mend. It means we can have a future.
And if St. John’s can get its act together, then maybe the province can too.