As a literature nerd, I’m a fan of Machiavelli. Good writer, fascinating bio, and a thought-provoking take on politics and power. But there’s a reason we don’t generally invoke his name as praise when we discuss governance: the ends, it turns out, aren’t terrific justification for all manner of means.
Even within the confines of a heavily regulated political system, there’s a lot of latitude for politicians, bureaucrats, and citizen groups alike to get a little Machiavellian. It’s easy to forget in the pursuit of noble ends that we all share a responsibility to uphold not just the letter of the law, but also the spirit of the democracy we live in.
For the people who govern our country, province, and municipalities, hopefully there’s a lesson to be learned from the decline of the Harper Conservatives: the Canadian public cares about more than what our leaders achieve. We care about how they achieve it. A couple events in a single meeting of our local council last week left me to conclude that point hasn’t hit home yet for everyone.
When council debated an increase to their compensation at a committee meeting, I happened to be watching, and took to Twitter. I think councillors probably deserve more pay, but I had an issue with the way it was unfolding. When Coun. Jesse Helmer said he didn’t think it was necessary to consult with the public again, I expressed my view, as a member of that public, that I disagree.
The reasons for my disagreement are immaterial to my point: most of the response I received (though not from Helmer) was about the merits of increased pay, not the process. I’ve never been too backward about coming forward on the issue of how things get done at city hall, particularly when I find them inequitable, so it’s not the first time I’ve encountered this response.
I’ve met the same inability to separate means from ends whether I’m opposing an organization’s ill-timed request for funding (“Don’t you support their cause?”), calling out an unfair process for selecting boards and commissions (“These are all good hard-working people”), or speaking up about backroom deals that should be in the open (“That’s how things get done”). It’s frustrating to say the least, and disheartening to be more honest.
So I was glad when, in the same meeting I already mentioned, Coun. Mo Salih took staff to task about a report on Orchestra London funding options that had been requested but never delivered. Watching the meeting, I got the sense that many around the horseshoe felt Salih’s point wasn’t worth pursuing since, nearing the end of the budget year and having already dragged heels, it was time to make a decision on the funding as presented.
In the end, council moved ahead anyway, despite nays from Salih and Helmer, completely disregarding the fact that the process they’d decided on had been altogether circumvented. I hope council will take steps to avoid it happening again, but I worry the community doesn’t particularly care. After all we support funding for arts, don’t we?
As a community, we seem to be fine with keeping the dirty bathwater just because we think the baby turned out okay, and we need to change that, or pretty soon something’s going to start to stink in here.
Originally published November 5, 2015 in Our London.