‘Stop the pandering’ and reclaim B.C.’s capital city

It will take a courage and effort by all three levels of government to reclaim what was once the most beautiful city in Canada, columnist says

Times Colonist
March 22, 2021

March 4: Police investigate second death in as many days at Beacon Hill Park, Victoria: Darren Stone
— March 4: Police investigate second death at Beacon Hill Park, Victoria: Darren Stone

It becomes clearer by the day that once the COVID-19 crisis passes, a major restoration program is needed for B.C.’s capital city.

Several commercial districts, ­Douglas Street among them, have become a ­wasteland of closed and boarded-up stores, victims of the two-year hiatus in cruise-ship visits and exorbitant rents.

Downtown parking is brutal, homeless people sleep in doorways, and some of the city’s best loved parks, Beacon Hill among them, have been systematically wrecked.

It will take a concerted effort by all three levels of government to reclaim what was once the most beautiful city in Canada.

But it’s not just the COVID-19 epidemic that has hammered our downtown. Victoria city council also has a lot to answer for.

The Clover Point debacle [a plan to limit parking and access] is a subject of more critical letters to the editor than I can recall in 20 years, is merely the latest in a constant stream of head-slapping decisions. Among them we can count byzantine traffic rerouting to accommodate cyclists.

The question is: What’s going on? I worked in government all my career.

I’ve seen dumb things done (some by me), foolish choices made and later regretted.

But I’ve never witnessed a group of governing politicians persist in outraging their voters, all the while appearing totally ­unconcerned.

Part of the problem is that although city council is in theory a governing body, it doesn’t behave as one. Rather, councillors function as nine ­separate individuals, pandering to various interest groups in the lively expectation of being rewarded come election time. In effect, our civic leaders are pursuing minority agendas, often at odds with city-wide needs.

This is identity politics at its worst. And it is a reminder that local governments, ­unreformed and ailing, are remnants of a bygone era, when the duties assigned them were far less complex or demanding.

Which brings us to a different aspect of the problem. During the 2018 municipal ­election, only 43.5 per cent of eligible ­voters in Victoria cast a ballot, and that was ­actually one of the higher turnouts in recent years. What this means is that city councillors can get away with ignoring the needs of the many, if they concentrate on the desires of the few who, though a minority, will come out and vote.

What can be done? It’s too bad we can’t make voting compulsory. That would force candidates to reach for a wider audience.

But this has been tried in various countries, and rarely with success.

A municipal party system might ­encourage broader platforms, and more effective links with the community.

Yet here too this has been adopted in ­several cities — Vancouver and Toronto among them — with little to show for it.

It might help if a requirement were set in place that anyone elected to city council must actually live in Victoria. At present four do not.

But the hard truth appears to be that if we want true community-wide leadership, the solution lies with the voters. It’s up to us to end the pandering, and take back our city.   

 – Lawrie McFarlane is a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist.

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