Halifax appears to be moving toward Vancouver-style party politics for municipal elections.
In December, a business group calling itself Citizens for Halifax announced its intention to replace mayor Peter Kelly and every sitting councillor with its own candidates. And last week, a loose coalition of labour activists and progressives explored the possibility of running its own candidates.
The latter group is still in its formative stages, says Tony Tracy, an organizer with the Canadian Labour Congress. “The CLC is engaging very seriously in municipal elections across the country,” he says, “and we’re supporting groups in Moncton and Saint John for their May elections. But here in Halifax, the election isn’t until October, so it hasn’t yet come to that stage.”
About 50 people attended a scoping session at Citadel High School and outlined a series of issues they’d like to see addressed in the elections, including resisting the privatization of government services, backing transit and other eco-friendly policies, the institution of a fair-wage policy, support for affordable housing and by-laws for protecting renters.
“In the weeks ahead we’ll sit down with potential city council and school board candidates and find out where they’re coming from, look at their voting records and decide what kind of financial support we want to give,” says Tracy.
The new labour interest in city politics comes because federal and provincial governments are “offloading” government services to municipalities, he says, and labour wants to represent its constituency through the re-shuffling.
“Thirty percent of all working people in HRM are unionized,” he explains. “And there are many, many more people who would like to be in trade unions, and the unions make common cause with the underemployed and impoverished as well.”
Labour got its toe in the City Hall door with the victory of long-time union activist Jackie Barkhouse in a December by-election for the Woodside-Eastern Passage district.
An educator, Barkhouse was for 15 years an organizer with the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Both CUPE and the CLC contributed financially to Barkhouse’s campaign and union members volunteered their time.
“I don’t hide from it,” Barkhouse says of her union background. “We all come from somewhere and that’s my background. I learned from the labour movement and I’ve been in progressive politics for a long time.
“It’s been 20 years I’ve waited to run for council. I knew I wanted to do it all along, but I was raising a family, taking care of elderly parents---life happened.
“ I got tremendous support because I’ve always had something to say. They supported me because of how I’ve dealt with things.”
But labour, says Barkhouse, “doesn’t have me in their back pocket.
“I financed most of my campaign myself, and I have a broader perspective,” she says.
The movement to turn Barkhouse’s breakthrough victory into a city-wide coalition of left-leaning progressives mirrors a similar move from the right, a situation Tracy readily acknowledges.
“Citizens For Halifax is a very poorly named organization,” says Tracy. “On their website they say they’re like a similar organization, the so-called ‘Non-Partisan Organization’ in Vancouver, which is tied to large property owners, large developers, casinos and big business---other types of organizations that are not in sync with the interests of working people.”
The two right-leaning groups have something else in common: The Non-Partisan Organization successfully backed bringing the 2010 Olympics to Vancouver, while the founding members of Citizens For Halifax were behind the aborted drive to bring the 2014 Commonwealth Games to Halifax.
With strong organizations on both the left and right getting involved in the election, are party politics coming to Halifax?
“There’s no tradition for slates and parties locally,” says Tracy, “but most politicians are pretty evidently with parties anyway. They’re a card-carry member of the party, getting volunteer support from other party members, and so maybe this is just a step to acknowledging what’s already the case.”