Alberta Municipalities is urging Albertans to complete a pair of surveys that could shape the future of municipal elections in the province.
The surveys opened on Nov. 7 and will gauge how Albertans feel about letting municipal-level politicians run as candidates of established political parties, allowing councillors to hold more meetings behind closed doors and changing whether councillors must disclose business interests prior to an election, among others.
“Completing one or two surveys may seem like a small thing, but it can lead to significant outcomes,” Alberta Municipalities director Andrew Knack said at a press conference last Thursday.
A separate survey commissioned by Alberta Municipalities found that 68 per cent of respondents did not support allowing political parties into municipal elections.
“We’ve seen over and over again that Albertans don’t want this,” Knack said.
St. Albert mayor Cathy Heron fears that party loyalty could interfere with the daily realities of running a city should local politicians associate themselves with political parties.
“One of the things I love about local government is when I walk into a meeting, whatever the issue is, you’re supposed to keep an open mind,” she said. “Obviously you have your gut reaction, but there are so many times, after a dinner or a big council vote, when one councillor will turn to another and say, ‘You changed my mind.’”
Demands such as filling potholes and building roads “are not left and right” issues, she said. “They’re just the basics of life.”
When she spoke with Premier Danielle Smith about the proposal, Heron heard from Smith that the policy would “make it easier to fundraise,” something Heron said is a non-issue for most municipal-level politicians, who typically spend under $1000 on their campaigns.
“I really hope this is not a way for Take Back Alberta to be made more prominent through an election campaign because I don’t know if that will work,” she said.
Heron hopes that all St. Albertans will take the survey.
Dr. Brendan Boyd, a public policy expert at MacEwan University, said that allowing municipal candidates to run as members of political parties could have advantages.
“Political parties bring coordination and predictability to an elected body,” he said.
Some amount of left-right split can emerge even in councils without a stated political allegiance, according to Boyd.
“In some ways, having that be more transparent could be seen as a good thing.”
Allowing political parties may also make it easier for voters to pick a candidate.
However, “at the federal and provincial levels, tight party discipline is a real problem,” he said. “It’s a career-ending move to go against what the party says for the most part.
Political parties in Canada are to a large extent “cults of personality” around their leaders, according to Boyd. Party leaders also spend more time campaigning and getting caught up in polls and popularity matches, which limits the time they can use to govern.
Boyd suspects that a move to introduce political parties into the municipal system would create even greater partisanship.
It would also limit the odds for “maverick” candidates without a political allegiance.
Boyd was happy to see a question about whether job training should be mandatory for councillors, as he believes it should be mandatory for elected politicians at all levels of government.
“It’s a super important job that you get very little training for,” he said.
The surveys close on Dec. 6 and can be accessed by visiting Alberta.ca.