By Mike Archer. In an Op Ed piece in the New York Times this summer, NYT columnist Paul Krugman wrote about people’s disengagement from the political processes which govern their lives.
I was reminded of what has happened in Abbotsford over the last decade.
He was discussing the fact that, in the US, Democrats balance budgets and get rid of public debt while Republicans run deficits and debt through the roof and milk the public purse for all it’s worth. His point is that, if you ask the average person they will likely tell you the opposite.
A similar case can be made in Canada – the Liberals eliminated the deficit; the Conservatives brought it back – and, to the point of his column, people are simply unaware of the facts surrounding many of the major issues of the day.
They have opinions, even strong feelings, but those opinions can generally be summed up by saying that politicians are untrustworthy and that the media has its own agenda which may or may not align with the interests of citizens who consume the news the media produces.
Moment of Truthiness[excerpt] Am I saying that voters are stupid? Not at all. People have lives, jobs, children to raise. They’re not going to sit down with Congressional Budget Office reports [or City Council agendas*]. Instead, they rely on what they hear from authority figures. The problem is that much of what they hear is misleading if not outright false.
Put it all together, and it’s a discouraging picture. We have an ill-informed or misinformed electorate, politicians who gleefully add to the misinformation and watchdogs who are afraid to bark. And to the extent that there are widely respected, not-too-partisan players, they seem to be fostering, not fixing, the public’s false impressions.
*Our italisized insertion
Abbotsford’s Oligarchy Of Old, White Men
Ironic, perhaps, that in an age when we have the largest amount of information available to the largest number, within easy, mostly free, access, we have some of the most ill-informed citizens we’ve ever had.
In municipal politics, you would think (and I would say you were right) that citizens are closer to their politicians and to the issues which their community faces. It doesn’t seem to have led to more informed voters. Could it be that there are two Abbotsfords?One that is made up of the majority who consider it a bedroom community where they moved because they could afford the combined costs of real estate and commuting and are not particularly involved in the politics of their community.
The other is made up of those who are deeply involved in the politics of their community either because they have a direct pecuniary interest in how their friends’ and neighbours’ taxes are spent or because they form part of a number of religious communities within Abbotsford who vote in blocks for candidates from their own faith.
Since the second group end up controlling the agenda and the way everybody’s money is spent, I would argue that, more than most communities in the western world, Abbotsford suffers from being run by an entrenched oligarchy made up of old, wealthy, white, conservative and religious men who have a very particular set of beliefs about how their city ought to look and how it ought to be run.
In journalism school I was taught not to rely on ‘authorized knowers’, i.e. the voices of the power structure or what Krugman refers to as ‘authority figures’, when seeking the whole story. Authorized knowers, authority figures, spokespeople for the wealthy and the powerful in the power structure who seek to control access to public money and the decisions about how it is spent, will only provide one point of view – and a very slanted, some might say warped, point of view at that.
Why Are Most People Not Paying Attention?
Why do people not pay attention at a time when paying attention is easier than ever? I believe it has to do with two enormous changes which have occurred over the last generation.
1) A few large corporations have purchased the media. Local publishers are no longer self-made local business men or women, they are mid to low level functionaries in large corporations which simply speak the language of quarterly profits. Since the majority of their revenue comes from national advertising and flyers, they have absolutely nothing to gain by even keeping up the appearance of acting on their readers’ behalf and taking on the not insubstantial risks involved in providing real journalism.
2) The average adult in today’s society has enough stress to deal with in their waking hours – money, job, house, mortgage – that even much of their ‘free’ time is spent working on ways to alleviate one or all of those stresses. Issues such as municipal debt, local water rates, or taxes – economic development, planning, infrastructure – affordable housing, abuse of drug victims, homelessness … can become far too large and complicated to absorb and far too stressful to contemplate when you’re worried about losing your house, your job or your business.
What has occurred in communities such as Abbotsford, which has been so ill-served by its power structure and its traditional media, is that a growing, if still small, number of citizens have become involved and vocal in local civic affairs.
Based on the way they managed to have their friends and neighbours join forces and reject George Peary’s plan for a new water supply we didn’t need, the few who object to what is going on have grown in both number and influence over the last five years.
For years, politicians like Simon Gibson, Patricia Ross, Dave Loewen or John Smith, have been able to rely on the fact that a very small portion of society cares enough about local politics to get involved … even to the extent of voting.
Plan A was not only passed by a miniscule margin, hardly anybody turned out to vote in the referendum which allowed it to proceed. Even with a full court press using taxpayer funds and getting both newspapers to support the thing, Plan A only passed by a tiny margin.
Those who keep getting re-elected despite their demonstrated inability or unwillingness to read their briefing notes, or even bothering to find out how municipal government works, have learned that, as long as you can convince one or two groups, representing eight or nine thousand people, that you will champion their agenda at the council table, you can be a city councillor in Abbotsford.
Those narrow interests, as well-meaning as they may be, have demonstrated that they have very little interest in the overall health of the community at large so long as their agenda is well represented where it counts – at the council table.
The Politics Of Interest Groups
And so; you end up with a community which is run by four or five overlapping interest groups which all seem to have wealth, land ownership and land-use agendas to protect and foster, business interests and, in Abbotsford, what used to be a monolithic agreement on a religious moral agenda. They seem to be the only ones whose interest make it to the table when the time comes to make the rules and spend taxpayers’ money.
The monolithic nature of the Mennonite factor in Abbotsford politics is beginning to break down. People of the Mennonite faith can no longer be relied on by the business elite, the wealthy or the landowning class to blindly support anything the political leadership decides.
Breaking with tradition, it was a number of strong Mennonite voices who stopped council and Mayor Banman from opening the taxpayers’ wallet for the YMCA financing proposal.
The control of the old media has been destroyed in Abbotsford by a small but significant portion of the population who simply didn’t believe what they were being told about Plan A, George Peary’s deal to finance the Calgary Flames with his friends’ and neighbours’ money, or his simply untrue statements about the dire need to spend $300,000,000 on a new water supply which he knew we didn’t need.
Though small, that group has been significant enough in numbers to throw George Peary out of office, deny him and his administrators their phony new water supply, deny Bruce Banman his YMCA giveaway and pose a serious threat to any narrative being promulgated through the old media about the financial health, prosperity and outlook for the community.
Simply put; no one believes what they are told by City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce or the newspapers in Abbotsford anymore. They have individually and collectively told too many untruths, made too many wild and inaccurate forecasts and promises and made too many serious and costly blunders to deserve the trust of their fellow citizens.
A Sorry And Embarrassing Legacy
John Smith, Bruce Beck, Simon Gibson, Patricia Ross and Dave Loewen have been responsible for:
1. Landing the City in court over our subhuman treatment of our homeless fellow citizens
2. Eliminating the surplus built up by Mayor George Ferguson
3. Destroying the DCC fund and leaving it in arrears
4. Saddling their friends and neighbours with a generation worth of debt and high costs to pay off
5. An infrastructure of roads, water and sewer that simply cannot accommodate the levels of growth required to pay back all the money they borrowed or committed on our behalf
It is a sorry and embarrassing legacy and on every important decision which has pushed us closer to moral and financial insolvency and disaster – the old media has been there, cheering these people on and attacking those in the community who were warning against their mistakes. The Chamber of Commerce has supported every major decision made by these incompetent politicians except to argue that they should pay less in taxes for what they get.
Some may despair that not enough good people are yet paying attention to issues of importance in our community. Krugman’s antidote; for good people who know the truth to simply keep plugging away and revealing to those who will listen, is already showing promising results in Abbotsford.
The senior bureaucrats who deserve most of the blame for the mismanagement of the City of Abbotsford’s bureaucracy over the last decade are now gone.
We avoided committing $300,000,000 on George Peary’s phony water crisis and we dodged a bullet on Bruce Banman’s YMCA tax giveaway. Most people who pay attention to municipal politics in Abbotsford no longer put much weight in what the corporate newspapers tell them about civic politics.
The outrageous and immoral treatment of our homeless and drug victims has brought us international attention which none of Bruce Banman’s shucking and jiving can eradicate. The truth is that it will probably be the court cases on behalf of our homeless fellow citizens which will force the City and its police force to abide by the law and treat its citizens with dignity.
As we face the tough decisions we have to make in order to fix the various messes left by Smith et al over the next decades, we will at least have the benefit of a larger, more involved and more empowered electorate with a healthy distrust of those who have sold us a bill of goods … and the media and organizations which cheered them on.
The Abbotsford Chicken Manure Homeless Incident may be Abbotsford’s Moment of Truthiness. The men and women from the City of Abbotsford and the Salvation Army who perpetrated such a disgusting and shameful act may have finally brought enough shame on our community that even the most hardened oligarchs within the power structure will be forced to loosen their grip on the levers of power they have abused so badly.
Bit by important bit we’re building the foundations for a better community together despite the money and power which has supported and ruined our mostly decrepit and discredited political class. How else to describe a group of men and women who have ensured some interests have been protected, indeed prospered, while their city was allowed to fall into disrepair and disrepute.
With apologies and thanks to Stephen Colbert