A couple of weeks ago, I was really excited to see in the program a panel featuring Alan Broadbent, Benjamin Barber, Christopher Hume, Andy Sancton, and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. Their task was to talk about Dr. Barber’s new book, and his idea for a super, world-mayoral parliament, to “rule the world.” I was curious to hear Barber speak, but was more interested in Mayor Nenshi. I’ve heard so many great things about Mayor Nenshi and so I came to the panel primarily to hear what he had to say about the role of cities in Canada.
I don’t remember everything that Nenshi said, and luckily, Andy Sancton and others (e.g. Zack Taylor) hammered away at some of the ridiculous things that he said.
I do remember a couple of things:
1) The mayor talked about how partisanship can frequently undermine the ability of city council to make good decisions. He believes in a world where citizens and councillors should avoid partisanship, political theory, ideologies, and just find a way “to agree.” He assumes that decisions about land use planning, economic development, and infrastructure are simply technical issues that can be solved purely by rational planning and thought. I agree that there are certain issues that can be addressed in this way, but even decisions about garbage removal can have normative or ideological implications. How often should garbage be picked up, for instance? In Guelph, green bins are picked up each week, and garbage and recycling bins alternative every week (e.g. garbage one week; recycling next). In other jurisdictions, all three are picked up every week, while in some places, there is no recycling or green bins. These decisions aren’t just “technical” ones but frequently also turn on fundamental views about human behaviour in urban settings. Indeed, I would argue that almost all political, public policy, and public administration issues turn on or are organized around different groups of ideas, or ideologies. To pretend otherwise is to automatically privilege whichever set of ideas are dominant within the leadership and decision-making structures at the time.
As well, partisanship can actually serve a useful function, even in municipal elections. As I’ve talked about before, partisanship provides important information shortcuts for voters, who then have a better idea about for whom to vote at election time. Partisanship can make reaching an agreement harder, but it also can lead to stronger (or at least clearer) lines of accountability, and the creation of experienced and known alternatives for democratic alternation.
2) Relatedly, Mayor Nenshi talked about how post-partisanship (which I think he means the absence of ideological positions and rhetoric?) is better because it can generate better and more efficient solutions. As an example, he talked about how a developer of a large skyscraper came to him and just like that (snap!), Nenshi was able to clear the way for the developer to build the skyscraper. This story clearly illustrates that municipal issues don’t turn solely on technical standards, but are informed about coherent ideas on the role of economic and private forces in urban settings.
3) Nenshi also talked about how cities produce more revenue than they receive from the federal and provincial governments. As such, he argued that cities needed to get that revenue back (it wasn’t clear how much; not all, but certainly a substantial sum). As Andy Sancton and others pointed out, however, the feds and provinces provide all sorts of benefits to cities and other parts of the province, including redistributive ones for rural areas that don’t produce enough income yet are valuable for other, non-economic reasons. More importantly, if we follow Nenshi’s arguments, then shouldn’t Fort McMurray receive all of the benefits from the oil sands?
4) Finally, I may have turned against Nenshi early on in his talk because of a series of comments that he made about political scientists. In Jonathan Haidt’s vernacular, Nenshi’s initial comments may have pushed the elephant away from him right from the beginning! Nenshi began his talk by telling the audience that he originally was a business professor and that he and his colleagues used to make fun of political scientists. Fine, no harm there.
Then he told the story about how political scientists frequently criticize him yet should have no right to do so because they wrote their dissertations on “gender and politics in the Victorian era” (his example). Maybe someone should tell him that a PhD doesn’t just mean we have a research specialization, but that we also have a certain set of theoretical and methodological (and analytical) skills that allow us to understand and make sense of a variety of phenomenon, including those outside of our PhD dissertation.
Finally, he called into question whether political scientists produce any research at all that is relevant to cities. He told a (hypothetical?) anecdote about how if we ask 10 people on the street whether they are left or right on the political spectrum, nine would say they don’t know, and one would be a political scientist running around trying to find anyone who would listen.
In all fairness, Nenshi was just doing his thing, which is to say he was giving his talk as a politician, rather than an academic or public intellectual, even though the setting was Congress. As further evidence that this was probably the case, he talked about how he frequently “bangs the gavel” at city council and throws out ideas to his councillors for free debate, without EVER building support behind the scenes. Even though I have no empirical evidence to refute his claim, I still find it hard to believe that he never engages in any coalition building, ever.
So I guess it’s my fault for not setting my expectations accordingly for this talk. Still, it was pretty disappointing.