Perception of fairness will make or break next Mayor and Council

Winnipeggers would be well advised to cherish April 30, as it will be the last day until after October’s municipal elections that we won’t have the various mayoral and city council candidates in our faces. The official 2014 municipal election campaign season gets under way on Thursday, May 1.

By all rights, this should not be a great year for incumbents. After four years of hearing about cost overruns, councilor temper tantrums, land deals gone wrong, the mayor’s Arizona activities, and an absurd attempt to rush a water park deal through Council that ended badly, the best thing one can say about City Council’s term in office is that it’s almost over.

Needless to say, public trust in City Council’s management of the city’s affairs is running a bit low right now.

Public trust is vital if City Council is to do its job adequately. As noted in a paper presented at a conference on civic culture held at the London School of Economics last September:

Citizens who comprehensively mistrust their governments are unlikely to give their consent to essential policies . . . Such distrust is likely to have other effects as well, such as weakening tax compliance . . . and even undermining the norms which underpin the rule of law . . . So a reservoir of citizen trust is an important requirement for a healthy democracy. Heatherington sums this up as follows: “Low trust helps create a political environment in which it is more difficult for leaders to succeed”.

The paper, written jointly by four researchers from the University of Essex in Britain and the University of Texas at Dallas, examined a variety of factors that could conceivably influence public trust in government, ranging from age to newspaper readership to party attachment.

But the most important factor of all, aside from how people felt about individual leaders, was the matter of how much fairness and respect for the public was shown by their elected representatives. As they note in their concluding remarks:

If individuals feel that policy delivery is working well and that they are treated fairly, then they will trust the government of the day even if a decision goes against them. If policy delivery appears to fail and at the same time the process appears unfair then they are likely to view the government as both dishonest and untrustworthy.

[ . . . ]

In general the recipe for creating trust in government is relatively straightforward, and it involves treating people fairly while at the same time delivering on promises that the economy and public services will improve in the future. But it also involves members of the political class in Britain, beyond that of the immediate government, behaving in a way which is acceptable to the general public and not trying to take advantage of their privileged position.

This is where the 2010-2014 Winnipeg City Council disappointed us. The various tempests and scandals left citizens, rightly or wrongly, with the impression of a City Hall culture where ‘fairness’ was a cute idea occasionally brought up by naive people who didn’t really understand how politics works.

Yet had City Council adopted a tone of fairness from the very start, they might have found the past four years much more pleasant, and also found themselves facing much less of an anti-incumbent mood than they will be facing when the campaign season officially opens on Thursday.

The same need for fairness ought to be heeded by both the federal and provincial governments as they prepare for elections in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Even if it’s not a top-of-mind issue with the public, the federal Conservative government’s proposal — parts of which it is now retreating on — to have party loyalists assume what should be impartial electoral oversight roles creates the impression of a sneering attitude toward the idea of a level playing field, with matters not being helped by the government having airily dismissed concerns raised by political scientists and a widely respected former auditor general.

So too have a recent series of cack-handed moves by the provincial NDP government pertaining to the Melnick Affair, the Manitoba Jockey Club and the Health Minister’s disastrous comments to a legislative committee.

Within the next two years, we will have held elections at all three levels of government. How compliant or how obstinate the public is about the incoming administrations’ plans will be determined in no small part by their attitudes toward being fair-minded. If they adopt the attitudes of present administrations, they might find themselves dealing with a lot of unnecessary stress.


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

One Response to Perception of fairness will make or break next Mayor and Council

  1. VoteSheegl says:

    Scary to think that only one who really had it right all along was Councillor Harvey Smith. Most of the others went along like dunces and followed the puppet master.

    Anyone who voted for Sheegl should be shown the door, there was no excuse. HE HAD NO EXPERIENCE

    And if you can’t get that past your skulls, then you deserve what you get.

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