The Politics of Participation
Getting Engaged in October's Municipal Elections
Ryan McNutt - April 18, 2012
Jack Novack (right) shows his municipal participation website to John MacDonell, minister of municipal relations, and Jimmy MacAlpine, president of the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities. (Province of Nova Scotia photo)
Are you a citizen or a subject?
Those are loaded words: “subject,” in particular, recalls authoritarian monarchs, not what we perceive as “democracy.” But Jack Novack, who teaches with Dal’s College of Continuing Education, uses them strategically as part of his quest to get Nova Scotians more involved in local politics.
“Subjects sees themselves as recipients of what government provides for them,” says Mr. Novack. “They evaluate government on the basis of what they receive either positive or negative. On the other hand, citizens see themselves as being actively engaged in the public debate and in the formulation of public policy.”
The numbers suggest that subjects dominate municipal politics in our province. In the 2008 municipal elections, only 42 per cent of Nova Scotians voted. The result: 75 per cent of incumbent councilors were re-elected, along with 69 per cent of incumbent mayors. As well, 36 per cent of mayors and 23 per cent of councilors assumed office without an election at all.
That’s why Mr. Novack’s group, supported by the Province of Nova Scotia and the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities, is leading a number of projects designed to help Nova Scotians learn how to make a difference in this October’s elections.
“People can offer to become a councilor, work on an election campaign, take an active role in promoting an issue that affects them, look into citizen appointments,” he explains. “There are lots of opportunities, but we have to get away from this notion that politicians, in particular, are these professional individuals who spend their whole careers working towards it.”
One project is a website, ns-municipal-elections.ca, with detailed information both for potential candidates about running a campaign, and voters looking for insight into how to select and support candidates or issues. In addition, his team is kicking off a series of information workshops across the province (the first is Friday in Port Hawkesbury) culminating in a “campaign school” in Truro at the end of June.
“We try to dispel the attitude that many people have that ‘I can’t do that.’ They disqualify themselves, when the reality is that many people could do very, very well in politics. What you need is to truly want to help and work on behalf of your community, and you need time: that’s the one thing that comes out from everyone I’ve looking at or talked to about this.
“The hope is to try and get 30, 40, 50 good people out at each of these discussions to learn how to get more involved.”