8/21/04

by the people, for the people

 

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Last night there was a town meeting about Oakville's ‘Master Plan' for culture, parks, recreation and libraries. I attended to get a sense of the local political landscape: how people discussed these issues, who was represented, and more importantly, how people envisioned the common good.

People were friendly and welcoming, and seem genuinely concerned about the issues. Overall, it seemed to be a fairly articulate group, with a fairly high level of skill and. confidence in speaking publicly. Whether this was a reflection of Oakville's stereotypical demographic (as educated and well-off) or whether this was a reflection of who felt comfortable and/or interested in participating in City Council meetings was hard to say. This also raises larger questions around who participates in public processes, who feels they have a right to speak, and who listens.

After the meeting, someone gave me a lift to the Go station, a young woman who was there to lobby for people with disabilities, a concern she felt was been pushed to the side during the meeting. “We're so spoiled here,” she said. “Why do people make such a big deal about such little things?” There was an inordinate amount of attention and energy paid to minor issues, and a belief in the use of legislation to deal with them (reflecting the participants' faith in being on the right side of the law): overgrown grass on boulevards, inappropriate behaviour in parks and on trails, etc. However, those minor issues did at times lead to a discussion of larger issues, such as the difficulty low-income people may experience in accessing public services, or the apparent consensus that culture receives far less support than sports.

Perhaps this comes down to two dominant views of public service. On one hand, seeing public services as a common good , and entailing a level of collective responsibility. And on the other hand, public services as an individual entitlement, something that is simply given to us, without any responsibility on our part (and do those unseen hands ever get any acknowledgement?). These are the contradictions of citizenship in a consumer society: on one hand as citizens, we show concern for the needs of others, and on the other hand, we can easily conflate the citizen with the consumer (because, in a consumer society, it's hard to think in other terms), and public meetings become a place to voice individual consumer demands. I think of the open source community's use of the terms ‘free speech' and ‘free beer', and the importance in not mistaking the latter for the former.