It is perhaps a sign of advancing age that I am finding it increasingly difficult to understand what Thunder Bay’s municipal election campaign is actually about. I found the 2014 municipal election to simply be a wasted election as despite issues like municipal fiscal sustainability, the Kam River Bridge, and the sale of public assets, the entire election was simply fixated on the events centre. This time around, the long-term fiscal sustainability of municipal finances is still an issue as is the Kam River Bridge to which can be added the city’s social fabric as well as Thunder Bay’s economic development and yet to date it appears to have become – and here I suppose I am dating myself again - a Seinfeld Election. That is, despite what are acknowledged by many to be a host of issues, it appears to be an election about nothing in particular.
Aside from campaign signs dotting the landscape at strategic street corners, I have met only one candidate on my doorstep and only two have left literature. I have yet to become aware of any scheduled public debates. This is during the course of a campaign with a record number of candidates – 11 for the position of Mayor alone with another 26 vying for the At-Large councilor positions – which no doubt complicates the traditional debate framework. Indeed, how can we have a meaningful discussion in which 11 candidates for Mayor can outline how they see the state of the city and offer analysis and solution? Incumbents for the At-Large positions must be silently laughing all the way to the proverbial bank given the difficulty of numerous candidates swimming like so many salmon upstream to stake out a position and gain visibility.
With traditional election campaigns difficult to conduct, this appears to have become Thunder Bay’s truly first complete social media election campaign which complements the debut of internet voting nicely Many of the candidates – but not all - appear to have developed extensive web presences and have Facebook profiles full of photos and videos showing smiling candidates in assorted municipal action poses. There are catchy slogans and mission statements that describe themselves as accountable community activists, serious leadership, concerned with the social fabric, and even showing transformative leadership.
There are candidates claiming to be working for you, others putting Thunder Bay first or working together for a Thunder Bay that works, some posing with old family friends and seniors, and many updated profile photos showing youthful smiling vigour. If they have received endorsements, they are highlighted along with any favorable media coverage. Indeed, if one were to judge Thunder Bay by the Facebook profiles of its municipal candidates one could only conclude that our community is definitely one big happy place full of wonderful smiling people whose major source of gainful employment is posing for pictures.
There are even some alliances being formed between candidates as they campaign together. There is one slate of five councilor At- Large candidates that aims to put people and the planet first under a time for change slogan. Then there is another alliance between one incumbent and one new entry in the At-Large race that is marketing itself as political twins working for you. I suppose this is a political variant of a two for the price of one marketing ploy. Or perhaps, vote for one, get one free.
In the end, all of this seems to me to be mainly style over substance. Needless to say, election campaigns have always been dominated by style over substance with serious policy discussion seen as a dangerous luxury – especially for incumbents. In the end, polite conversation at least in the social circles I move in appear to have narrowed down the issues in this election to three: a need for major change in representation given that many on council are long in the tooth, taxation rates and cost-effective municipal services, and social issues with an emphasis on crime and public safety. If this is not be another wasted election, we need candidates to address how they would reduce crime and improve the social fabric and how they would pay for it given what has been a steadily rising municipal tax burden that has shifted largely to the residential ratepayer. We cannot afford to waste another election.