The Inside Agenda Blog

Guest Post: Term Limits Won’t Fix Civic Life

Tuesday January 14, 2014

Last week, on The Agenda’s blog, Radcliffe Dockery made a case for term limits in Ontario’s municipal politics. Steven Lee, the creator of the Orange Tory blog, waded into the debate in the comment section of Dockery’s post. He agreed to write a blog post arguing against term limits. 

I respectfully disagree with Mr. Dockery. While term limits may make a certain amount of sense in executive positions (i.e. mayors, presidents) they would do little to repair our civic life. Legislative positions, even on city councils, are well served by members who are experienced. Governance, bureaucracy and politics can be confusing and opaque and there is great value in experienced hands guiding newer politicians, and the public, through issues. 

Much maligned is the career politician, but we have seen time and time again how “outsiders” stumble and fail when inexperience and unfamiliarity with process leads to missteps. Instituting term limits would eliminate the benefits of institutional memory. After his death, journalists and members of Queen’s Park remembered Peter Kormos (Ontario NDP MPP for Welland) fondly as a dean of the legislature, even correcting the clerk on matters of procedure. This type of knowledge is invaluable, as is the experience of forming coalitions, making deals and cutting through red tape. Given how many of our politicians have no previous political experience, I would hate to handicap them further by removing mentors because of a bias against those who have served in politics for a long time.

What is often overlooked is that term limits equally impact the good and the bad. Many, if not most, of our most successful politicians worked for years in public life. It would be a shame to forcibly retire public servants merely because we had arbitrarily determined that eight years, or what have you, of service is sufficient. 

What Dockery fails to mention is that many of these incumbents do not face serious challenges in their re-elections, nor is the public, broadly speaking, sufficiently informed to make decisions. His example of Brampton’s Mayor Susan Fennell is an illustrative case study. Both in 2006 and 2010 she was re-elected easily as she was confronted by relatively unknown opponents. This year, given concerns about spending irregularities and a long time in office, it is possible a seasoned councillor will challenge the mayor. Voters like candidates with experience and incumbents have the most experience for that particular job. In addition, several members of city council in Brampton look poised to retire, meaning this stagnation will inevitably end. 

If term limits were imposed there is a risk that informal political organization would move away from candidates/incumbents and towards amorphous interest groups with rotating self-selected candidates. At least with political organizations surrounding incumbents we can choose to re-elect the candidate rather than replacing him/her with someone of the same pedigree. The power of incumbency would shift off of publicly accountable councillors and mayors and move to informal “political parties.” As an example, take the recent by-elections in Ontario. Greg Sorbara and Dalton McGuinty were succeeded by Steven Del Duca and John Fraser respectively. Both were previously employed by the Liberal party. I am not impugning the integrity of Mr. Del Duca or Mr. Fraser, I am merely pointing out that they won their seats democratically, but come from an inner circle of established politicians. Perhaps more clearly in Toronto, Doug Ford replaced his brother as a councillor in Etobicoke, and Mr. Ford recently mused that if he were to run provincially a family member would run for council. As you can see, that would certainly satisfy term limits, but produce an even more twisted form of incumbency. 

One area where I agree strongly with Mr. Dockery is that something needs to change in local politics, and my home region of Peel is a strong case. However, term limits would do very little to fix things. My preferred reform is the ranked ballot initiative being advanced by RaBIT, which would open things up for challengers and weaken incumbents. 

But really, the election process likely has little to do with why civic participation is so low. Citizens are less informed on local matters; it is harder to find information on local politics; local newspapers are in decline; fewer bloggers cover local politics (compared to provincial/national/international politics); ballots are long lists of names; discovering issues and candidate profiles is much more challenging. A relatively simple solution to incumbency and low voter turnout, though not my preference, may be political parties. It would allow voters to clearly delineate platforms, positions and alliances on city councils, which are currently so unclear. 

The barrier to entry into politics is quite low. With a hundred dollars any person in Ontario can become a candidate for local office in 2014. It is my opinion we do not have enough people who want to stand up and take part. Economic, social and institutional barriers may exist, but a candidate with a strong message that resonates with voters can overcome that. And if they do, they should be allowed to serve as long as the voters want them to.