Deconstructing the status quo

By John Leung

Politics is a game of ideas, having them and putting them into action. But for every version of this game, there are rules. Some of those unwritten rules may be broken as times advance, but some of these rules are there for a reason. It should not be surprising that someone who proposes earthshaking change in a game that already functions well is ignored. In municipal politics in Calgary, proposing sweeping change or big ideas to a widely apathetic audience is, like an old Chinese proverb says, playing the lute to an ox.

For a candidate running for mayor in Canada, to propose wide-sweeping changes to the status quo that works for the majority is to commit electoral suicide. This is one of the internal road blocks of the game: In a Canadian municipal council, the mayor is merely one of many aldermen or councillors, and has only limited control over administrative affairs. But in the metropolitan areas of the United States, such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, “strong mayors” control all administrative and budgetary matters. While their Canadian counterparts are the only ones entitled to introduce policy, American strong mayors can rely on partisan support in their councils, something non-partisan Canadian mayors seriously lack. Together, they form a barrier that blocks many of the naïve hopefuls.

Apathy is another reason why campaigns based on radical change are ignored when the status quo is working. For many, as long as the trains run on time, the garbage is taken to the landfill on time, and all of the parks are neat and tidy, then there is really nothing to change. Municipal government, remember, is junior to the federal government. Section 92(8) of the Constitution Act, 1867, clearly states that provinces hold sway over cities and municipalities in their jurisdictions, and nowhere in the same Act does it guarantee the existence of municipal governments. Therefore, it is a level that is not constitutionally recognized. It is an unwritten convention that municipal governments exist to service local areas, and when there is nothing to fix, then most citizens are more than content to let the status quo continue.

In a world that seemingly always strives for the mediocre, it should once again come to no surprise that the status quo is so treasured. Change is a scary thing, and when the status quo is working, the fear of change heightens: if life was going on well, then what would change happen? For one person to propose widespread changes in a safe environment is to waste their breath: they are more than likely to be ignored while their audience clings onto the safety of their world. And in a game that requires strategies that stress equilibrium, it is not an easy task to find those who exactly match one’s ideologies.

There are those bound to the status quo, and those who are willing to exact change if it is needed or not. And when those who are bound to the status quo outnumber those who wish to exact change, the latter is relegated to the fringes.

In conclusion, for those candidates who want to let the bull through the china shop that is Calgary’s City Hall, save your breath. Until something really, really screws up, the people will just be content with having their garbage gone and their drain pipes working.