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U of C political science professor talks urban politics ahead of October election

By Tina Shaygan, September 26 2017 —

Calgary’s municipal election is only a few weeks away and campaigning is in full swing, leading to an overflow of information on everything election-related. The Gauntlet sat down with University of Calgary political science professor and urban politics expert Jack Lucas to discuss how municipal elections work, what to look for and how students can get involved.


The Gauntlet: What do you think are the most important issues of this election?

Jack Lucas: There are a lot of really big, important issues that the next city council is going to have to make decisions about. It’s everything from basic revenue decisions on taxes — where they’re going to get their property tax revenue from, given the huge vacancy rates in downtown real estate — to the arena decisions. How much should the city assist in building the arena, how should the revenue-expenditure structure be set up? And the Olympic bid — we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars of possible city investment in that.

Really, the big thing is the economy. You have tens of thousands of people who have faced job losses. What the city should be doing in the face of those serious economic constraints and what the role of a municipal government is in the midst of all this are big issues.


Gauntlet: What do you think the role of municipal government can be in helping the economy, given their jurisdiction?

Lucas: There’s a revenue side and an expenditure side. One side of the story is that the city gets its revenue from property taxes. When a quarter of the downtown commercial real estate goes vacant, there is a massive hole in the city’s property tax revenues that has to be made up from somewhere else. This year, what the city did was use roughly $50 million from its reserve fund to cap that property tax increase at five per cent. That’s not something they can do forever and they’ll have to make a decision on what they’re going to do going forward.

One thing the city is involved in is economic development — attracting business, diversifying business that’s already in Calgary and bringing companies to Calgary. That’s something that cities have always been involved in and continue to be involved in. And for people who are out of work and are really hurting, the City is involved in different kinds of social policy and that includes things like discounted transit fares, discounted fares for recreation and other services. You can see, the discounted transit fares have been used much more than expected. The city is also involved in various ways in things like homelessness and poverty. It’s not the primary player in those fields, but it’s involved.


Gauntlet: Generally, how do you think Calgarians vote? What is their electoral behaviour like?

Lucas: The answer is, unfortunately, that we don’t actually know all that much. But I can tell you a little from the broader research on Canadian municipal voting, which is that in cities, you don’t have political parties for the most part and voters can’t use that as a shortcut to making a voting decision. What often happens then is that it’s very common that people don’t vote. Turnout rates are very low in municipal elections and it’s very common that people vote for the incumbent. Voters don’t have all that much information. They don’t have the information party affiliation gives them, they don’t have all that much information about what the councillors have done. It’s hard to find out. There is less media coverage of municipal politics. It’s really hard to tell what kind of issues councillors support. What do they vote for? What do they vote against? What do they advocate for on council? Even for us who study this stuff, it’s hard to figure out.


Gauntlet: Do you think there are advantages or disadvantages to not having political parties at the municipal level?

Lucas: Advantages are, as I mentioned, political parties provide voters with a really useful bit of information. You can see it in Vancouver where there are local political parties. The research shows that voters use that information to make their vote choice. They understand what the parties broadly stand for and they factor that into their decisions. You can see it in effect in things like incumbency rates, which are a little lower in Vancouver. It also affects turnout. Turnout is higher, at least in the American research.

On the other hand, people don’t like partisan bickering. They don’t like making everything into a partisan ideological issue. There is pretty good political science research that shows that, in fact, it is true that parties do produce this endless bickering — even over things that are not ideological in nature. Elected representatives are more free to make decisions based on their own best judgement or what they think their constituents want. And that’s a real argument against political parties. You can think of good arguments on both sides.


Gauntlet: What are some of the issues students should be looking out for?

Lucas: That’s a question I should be asking you! Transit and secondary suites are certainly important issues. Here is something that everyone — and students — should remember about municipal politics, which is that decisions are made by a majority vote of city council. Because of this, it’s essential for students, and everybody, to remember that ward races are really important. It’s not just all about the mayor or a ward. If one ward changes, if a councillor is replaced with someone with different persuasion on issues like transit or secondary suites or anything like that, then the balance of power on council can shift. I think that it’s really important to get a sense of where the ward-level candidates stand.


Gauntlet: Do you have any advice for students who want to get involved with the municipal election?

Lucas: One of the best things about municipal politics is that you can get involved and very quickly be very involved. You can one day be volunteering on a campaign and the next day you’re running the fundraising or are head of the volunteers. One thing that I’ve found as a researcher — and that is what’s great about municipal politics — is when I want to go talk to people about municipal politics, they’re always very willing to talk. They’re willing to share their experiences and they’re willing to I think embrace keen, energetic people who want to get involved. There’s lots of opportunities to volunteer, to go door-knocking, to get to know the city and really see what people care about when they open up their door and talk to you about issues. Students are very good at the online engagement and I know candidates in other cities who have found their best volunteers by getting tweeted at. There will be real opportunities to get involved. It could be anything. Just dive in.

Lucas helps release a weekly municipal election newsletter sent out every Monday until the election. You can sign up for the newsletter here.

Interview edited for clarity and brevity.

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