DECODING MIKE SAVAGE'S PLATFORM
With a municipal election coming up and a long-serving mayor not re-offering, there is opportunity for change in HRM governance. So far, it seems like Mike Savage is leading the pack by a country mile and this election could be better termed a coronation. Since that's the case, I think it's worth putting the platform and statements of our soon-to-be mayor under scrutiny. What should we expect? What should we not expect?
Mike Savage is running a well-organized professional campaign. He knows that he's not facing any serious challenges, and the campaign strategy is set accordingly. He already has enough people's support; all he has to do is hold it until election day, say as little as possible, be inoffensive, be uncontroversial and fly under the radar.
The campaign platform is a document that reflects that. Savage is a career politician, and a liberal in both the small-l and capital-L sense. These aren't inherently bad things, but they're important things to note if we want to understand our soon-to-be mayor. He's not a visionary activist seeking major changes, nor is he an ideologue. He wants to be mayor because he can't be an MP anymore. He wants votes first and change, well, maybe... if it means you'll vote for him.
The election platform in any campaign is a strategic document to try and align the candidate's message with the desire of voters. The thing about Mike Savage's platform is that it lacks a lot of substance. It's filled with fine words, but they don't commit him to much. Where there are commitments made, they tend towards tinkering around the edges rather than substantial changes. It may be necessary tinkering - but it's not a particularly innovative or bold platform. It's what it needs to be to win votes: safe.
In this article I go through the four pages of Mike Savage's platform (posted online at (www.mikesavage.ca) and distill the few kernels of policy from the mountains of rhetoric, buzzwords, and politician-isms. I hope readers will find this useful not only to understand why the next four years will underwhelm us, but how PR language can be employed to make the status quo seem like an innovative and inclusive proposal.
So without further ado, let's unspin Mike Savage's platform:
This section is the introduction to the platform. It's an opening with feel-good rhetoric about The Mike and his campaign. It's common practice not to include substantial policy here, so what to look for is not the fact that it's just buzzwords, but which buzzwords. To which communities is his language targeted? To which communities is it not? Who is he trying to make feel warm and fuzzy enough to get a chequebook out?
“We need civic leadership that matches the leadership in other sectors like our not-for-profit organizations, cultural groups, volunteers and business leaders, academic leaders and entrepreneurs.”
Savage opens by laying out who his base is. Business gets two separate shout-outs to reinforce who's #1 in his books. Workers are not mentioned, nor are students, seniors, African Nova Scotian communities, immigrant communities, or people living in poverty. Does that mean Savage doesn't care about them? No. In fact, I'm sure he'd have something interesting to say if you asked him. They're just not in the targeted voting demographic. Who they're trying to get to the polls and who they care about are not necessarily the same thing.
“partnerships can survive differences of opinion; difficult times and even the occasional competing interests. Partners understand that compromise is essential, that one side or the other can’t always win, but that together we are all much stronger and better than any one of us alone.”
Statements like this are essential for liberal politicians. The “we're not ideological” disclaimer sets things up from day one so that they can steer away from their campaign platform and do something completely different. Whatever policy is contained in his platform will be non-binding, because Mike will be able to say “circumstances have changed, and I need to be pragmatic” or something similar. Swap in the words 'compromise,' or 'flexible.' While none of those things are inherently bad qualities, my point is that you shouldn't expect Mike to stick to his words. He's giving you fair notice.
A LIVABLE, ENTREPREUNERIAL, INCLUSIVE HALIFAX
This section is divided into three paragraphs going into detail about “Mike's vision.” Those are: Livable, Entrepreneurial, and Inclusive. Lets explore them.
The most livable city in Canada will have fair taxes and safe streets. It will have neighbourhoods and communities where kids can play and grow up safely and confidently. It will have focused development for the future that respects heritage and environment and showcases our potential. We’ll build on the strength of our community by ensuring we have a strong heart beat in the downtown core, and we’ll invest in the strength of communities all across HRM. We will be a healthy and sustainable community by protecting our water, building more bike and walking trails, understanding where our food comes from and encouraging more urban gardens. Our transportation strategy will look at short term fixes, but will look ahead toward a longer term ‘people focused’ vision of mobility."
This section is quite dense in buzzwords. I don't mind using buzzwords to encourage people to learn more about policy, but there actually has to be depth to it. I support fair taxes and safe streets- who doesn't? But what does that mean? Does it mean a progressive income tax and new community centres, or tax cuts and more cops? It's vague.
Things of actual substance: protecting our water, building more bike and walking trails... and encouraging more urban gardens. Of those three items, the first is still a little vague - what are we protecting our water from? What does that mean in terms of policy? It needs improvement on Savage's part, but it's something that citizens can hold him accountable for.
The most entrepreneurial community in Canada will not be afraid to tell the world that we are open for business. It will have a thriving creative economy, driven by outstanding artists and young people with fresh ideas. It will support businesses and entrepreneurs with straight answers and clear expectations. Business must not be getting a ‘maybe’ from Halifax when they are getting a ‘yes’ from somewhere else. We can have a city where innovation is encouraged and rewarded."
Keywords: 'open for business' and 'yes not maybe.' This section is entirely rhetoric, and it's targeted at business. It's softened a little with mentions of young people and artists. To somebody like me, this suggests that Savage won't say no to developers when they want more free public money, or to bend the rules that everyone else has to play by. It tells me that the next harebrained scheme like the convention centre will receive Savage's blessing. But I can't back that up. He hasn't said that. He hasn't said anything.
The most inclusive city will be a place where more citizens are engaged in decision-making—where information is shared, not protected. A place where people share in the prosperity we build. It will be a city where people with disabilities are supported in achieving their full potential and where seniors are secure and well cared for with ready access to the services they rely on. It will be a city where we welcome newcomers and we engage our young people in shaping the future that is theirs.
We can live in a community where everybody has their voice heard and people know the process has integrity."
ECONOMIC GROWTH FOR OUR FUTURE
Three sections: Partnerships and Entrepreneurial Culture, Focused Investment, and Talent and Creating Opportunities for all.
"Partnerships and Entrepreneurial culture
“I would like to work with the Greater Halifax Partnership to enhance the role of the Mayor’s Economic Advisory Committee to ensure regular, meaningful and ongoing interaction directly with the Mayor. This forum currently comprises strong representatives from multiple sectors and should continue to be reflective of not only business, but the not for profit sector, arts and culture, academia, government, labour and emerging social entrepreneurs and innovators. It should be a regular sounding board and the Mayor should be a consistent participant.”
That's a commitment you can hold him to.
“We must also seize opportunities to work in tandem with our educational institutions. Our universities and college are great storehouses of subject matter expertise. These internationally-acclaimed institutions attract thousands of talented students from HRM, across the Province and around the world. While some great partnerships currently exist, our universities and college offer great potential in driving future economic growth in HRM. They should be vital community and economic partners with the municipality. In fact, I believe that we need to reinvigorate and enhance formal Memoranda of Understanding agreements (MOUs) with our universities and community college to ensure we are capitalizing on innovation, matching skills with jobs and providing opportunities for educated people to contribute to the economy. A renewed partnership with Universities and the Community College, based on mutual interest in various areas, whether strategically, sectorally or otherwise, should be a priority for HRM Council. For example, HRM should have a robust partnership with the Planning and Architecture school in order to ensure integrated, sustainable leading design for our community. This integrated ‘theory and practice’ approach to good government should be applied in all areas”
It's a soft commitment. What he thinks needs to change with the university MOUs is unclear - a student and a university administrator will have very different ideas of what a 'reinvigorated' MOU looks like. Mike's commitments here are soft because he's promising to have meetings with people at colleges. He'll talk with NSCC about the shipbuilding contract. He'll talk with the faculty of planning and architecture. It's a commitment to talk to people, not a commitment to do anything. But it identifies some element of his style, so it's not entirely vapid.
“We must strengthen our role as a partner with our Provincial and Federal counterparts. The partnership must be built on mutual respect, common goals and a desire to move forward together. In 2014, many federal investments in municipalities will expire. These include the Building Canada Plan, Municipal Rural Infrastructure Fund, Green infrastructure Fund, and more. The strength of our partnership with provincial and national governments will influence how effective our voice will be in those negotiations. We also want to ensure that we are a strong partner with our provincial government as we help them to deliver a strong economic action plan for all Nova Scotians. Improved relations at the provincial level will also help us as we pursue legislative amendments, like the one proposed on density bonusing, to help us effectively grow our community.”
Interestingly, the only concrete thing I can find here is that he supports density bonusing. The rest is a mix of common sense (of course your relationships will affect negotiations!) and name-dropping some agreements that'll come up for renegotiation under the next mayoral term.
“Our geographic position is envied around the world. We are a significant gateway to North America. Our Port and Airport are major assets. They are significant contributors to our economy. The Port of Halifax boasts direct and spinoff (indirect and induced) impacts of $1.58 billion in gross output, $671 million in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It offers 11,190 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs. Our Airport is internationally recognized, represents 2.5% of GDP or $1.27 billion provincially and employs 5500 people onsite. If elected Mayor, I want to be a champion of future opportunity for both our Port and Airport and will be an active advocate to help realize their growth plans.”
Rhetoric and statistics.
“The Municipality has an important leadership role in assisting the continued growth of key sectors like Aerospace and Defence, Finance, Life Sciences, IT, Ocean Sciences and others.
We must establish a clear international brand for our community and work with tourism, Destination Halifax, Events Nova Scotia, Greater Halifax Partnership, Nova Scotia Business Inc., businesses and other partners to showcase the best of HRM.”
Rhetoric. What these two items say is: “Hey guys, I notice you! Vote for me!”
HRM NEEDS AN ENTREPREUNERIAL CULTURE
He starts by name-dropping Two If By Sea, a local coffee roaster that won a contest. It's a good rhetorical technique, much like cheering for Sidney Crosby. Now that we feel good about local businesses, lets talk policy:
“I want to see City Hall become a catalyst for good ideas and new ways of doing things. To that end, we should:
Celebrate and recognize innovators within city staff and encourage staff to participate in forums where best practices are being shared.
Be a place to cultivate great ideas and collaborate with local innovators to develop action plans to address challenges and opportunities facing our community.
Offer municipal resources, such as buildings or land, to support collaborative initiatives that benefit the whole community.
Work with the Provincial Government and community to ensure social enterprises are recognized and supported.
Strive for customer service excellence and ease of navigation of services. Let’s look to other municipalities’ best practices and also use technology to support efforts like an Open Data initiative, video conferencing from all parts of HRM, increased WIFI access across the municipality and other digital innovations.”
Rhetoric, rhetoric, rhetoric, rhetoric, substance. In the paragraph after the bullets there are three items which mark a commitment he can realistically be held to.
“Some ways to move plans to action:
Council should review current plans and establish overall priority goals and actions to achieve those goals early in the new mandate.
Establish a requirement for every report that goes to Council to clearly demonstrate a link to a defined priority within our Plans.
Establish clear performance measurement tools on these broad plans to show citizens our progress.”
Savage opens the section by saying that we do more than enough planning and not enough implementation. His suggestions then start with “review current plans.” It might make the city bureaucracy move faster or not - I'm not sure. This is important, as it's the difference between perpetuating the endless bureaucracy he's railing against and laying bricks.
INVESTMENT IN THE DOWNTOWN CORE
Savage starts by endorsing the 2011-2016 five-year economic strategy. He makes a comment about the mayor needing to play a leadership role, expresses his excitement at the new library, and cheers for the convention centre. He mentions the need to integrate environmental and transportation systems into city planning, which I consider a commitment.
“Supports in this area might include:
Continue to champion and support HRM By Design and the Regional Plan.
Build on the good work of the Strategic Urban Partnership and investigate Winnipeg’s CentreVenture as well as other models to determine whether establishing a Capital Commission will solidify partnerships and focus for investment in the urban core.
It costs more to buy, build and pay taxes on a business in the downtown core. Let’s examine the lifecycle benefits of development to the community when applying permitting fees and other charges in areas where we want to see targeted growth.
Bring the Bloomfield Master Plan to fruition and use the Plan as a template for collaboration and an example of the “art of the possible”. This project has broad based community support. HRM must have the capacity to see this type of initiative through in a timely manner and to create accompanying tax and property leasing policies that contribute to the success of like initiatives.
The Cogswell Interchange represents one of the most exciting opportunities to imagine the future of our downtown core. We should engage our community to develop the Cogswell land in a way that would serve as an international model of excellence in the design of city space. I will provide more thoughts over the coming weeks on this vital opportunity to create an urban space that defines Halifax and our values.”
All four of these bullets have substance. Remember the first one when he gets elected - if he's a champion of HRM by Design, then developers don't get to dance around it whenever they please.
HRM must focus on assets across our vast municipality
“Some ways to focus on economic growth in all parts of HRM:
We need to value and protect the tranquility and unspoiled nature of rural HRM, and promote tourism and resource development as important economic activities.”
Brilliant doublespeak. The environmental movement in HRM has been calling for a greenbelt quite loudly, and Savage uses language that plays to the emotions of the environmentalists without making any commitments. He didn't say greenbelt. In the same sentence he says 'resource development' which gives a me a sense of what his actual priorities are (hint: the opposite of greenbelting). But I can't back that up. He didn't say that. He didn't say anything.
"Growth centres listed in the Regional Plan should focus on development including business development with associated targeted investment.
Enhance the opportunity for suburban and rural citizens of HRM to participate in Council and Committee meetings with video conferencing facilities and technology supports outside of downtown.
Let’s learn from experience in other places. Ottawa, for example, has established specific rural business initiatives to provide small, peer-reviewed grants to support projects to stimulate the local economy, to provide signage to direct the public to rural businesses and raise awareness of their products and services, and to promote the activities of not-for-profit and agricultural groups with an online rural events and attractions calendar. Kingston, Ontario has established both a Rural Affairs Coordinator and a Rural Advisory Committee to ensure a rural perspective is considered in issues that are of major concern to rural citizens and businesses."
Substance. These consist of planning and studying, but their utility or outside-the-box thinking is not my concern. They're commitments.
“Creating an HRM community events section and a historic profile of our community, as well as other interactive forums in our HRM portal. Celebrating great people doing great things and sharing our past, present and future allow us to show our pride of place and invite the world to visit.”
He's going to update the Halifax website everybody! LEADERSHIP! Sarcasm aside, it's still a commitment.
“We can support our local businesses by:
Developing a purchasing policy to provide some preference for local businesses, without incurring significantly higher costs or endangering the competitive position of local enterprise.”
This is doublespeak. It's a buy local policy with an escape clause. Even if the city were to draft and accept it, he'll have the freedom to ignore it as he pleases. It is a commitment. It may even see some implementation and benefit to local businesses. But this is where you can expect to see Mike's 'compromising' side more often. Language such as this can be used to justify the status quo. “We want to buy local, but...”
HALIFAX NEEDS TO CELEBRATE ARTS AND CULTURE
“Some ways to realize the potential of our arts and culture sector are:
Work with the sector to become the cultural capital of Canada.
Establish a Municipal Arts Council in partnership with the Arts and Culture community.
Re-join the Creative City Network of Canada to take advantage of the opportunities to share and learn from the experiences across the country. “
Substance. These are commitments he can be held to.
“Ways that HRM can attract and keep newcomers include:
Establishing a broader community wide ‘people attraction’ strategy and key corresponding initiatives with businesses, other governments, not-for-profits, postsecondary institutions, Canadian Military Families and immigrant settlement organizations, to attract and retain newcomers.
Working with federal and provincial government partners to ensure successful implementation and further expansion of the province’s Immigration Strategy.”
Soft commitments. More planning, more studies, more meetings.
HRM NEEDS TO WORK TO KEEP OUR GRADUATES
Continuing to support efforts like the recent campaign from GHP and FUSION on ‘hiring young’, the Connector program, mentorship and leadership development and establishing other pilot projects that will send the signal that we aim to be a destination of choice for emerging talent from across Canada and around the world.
HRM should aim to set an example by being a leader in providing new graduates career starting employment opportunities.
We should also aim to create greater connectivity between municipal government and post-secondary institutions at the student leadership level to offer new and meaningful ways for the student population to feel connected to the broader community.
The first is a soft commitment, the second needs much more detail to be taken seriously, and the third is a soft commitment.
HRM MUST REMOVE BARRIERS
“HRM should commit to an employment target for employees with disabilities. This target would be determined in consultation with local stakeholders, partners, and HRM senior staff and would result in an HRM Plan to Employ Persons with Disabilities.”
A commitment you can hold him to.
"HRM MUST HELP EVERYONE REACH THEIR POTENTIAL
“As Mayor, I would work with organizations like the United Way and others to form the Mayor’s Task Force on Poverty and Social Exclusion. I would ask community leaders from business, not for profits, labour and all sectors as well as citizens living in poverty or passionate about this issue to join me in creating and implementing a strategy to fight poverty.”
A soft commitment. Poverty gets a mention in the platform, and the plan is to have meetings.
There is one thing of note in the section's conclusion:
“I would be remiss if I did not mention our tax structure, which is perhaps the most powerful tool for both revenue generation and growth potential.... One of the first challenges for a new council must be to re-examine the tax structure and to look for ways to design a better system”
It'll be of the first major things on his agenda, and he hasn't put forward any ideas on the matter. That should be noted.
“As Mayor, my first step would be to bring together the new Council to establish a collective vision of our community’s goals, and an understanding of the work required to achieve them ”
That's called “showing up for work.”
There are two main areas in this pillar of his platform. Open and Responsive Government, and Citizen Centred Government. Lets take a look.
“All meetings of Council and committees will be open to citizens, unless a clear need has been demonstrated to protect the privacy of an individual, or the legal position of the municipality”
Doublespeak. The last mayor was criticized from all parts of the political spectrum for having too many in-camera (not public) meetings. His excuse was always that privacy and/or legal positions had to be protected. Language such as this will not force Savage to act any differently. Being able to hide is comfortable for politicians, and giving up that power weakens their position. The wording of this plank acknowledges that people are fed up with the secrecy at council, but gives him an escape clause in case he finds that secrecy useful and wants to keep it.
"Ensure that recorded votes are publicly and easily available, so citizens can see how their elected representatives have voted
Timely publication of meeting agendas, supporting information, and minutes to ensure citizens and Councillors have opportunity to review information and provide input to the decision
Examine the benefits of establishing a municipal lobbyist registry."
The first two are commitments. The third is a non-commitment. It's language to acknowledge that people want lobbyists on a shorter leash but never obligating him to actually do anything.
"Fair Municipal Campaign Financing
...Review municipal campaign finance reform for all municipally elected officials. The scope of this review should include but not be limited to:
Eliminating fundraising outside of election years
Disclosure of campaign spending. "
It's a commitment you can hold him to.
Based on experience in other jurisdictions, such as the Ontario Municipal Benchmarking Initiative and the Municipal Performance Measurement Program, enhance current performance measures, with a plan to expand to a more comprehensive performance management system.
This information will be part of an Annual Mayor’s Progress report to citizens."
It's a commitment you can hold him to.
"MAKING GOVERNMENT WORK
Some measures that would allow Regional and Community Councils to work more effectively could include:
Providing Community Councils greater authority to act on local matters such as zoning, building/demolition permits, basic service delivery , and local capital projects within the context of the municipal planning strategy
Examining mechanisms to provide appropriate budget to Community Councils to fund their expanded activities
Balancing the work of Councillors and ensuring due diligence by moving Regional Council meetings to every two weeks, with Community Council meetings on alternate weeks.
Establishing a committee of Mayor and Chairs of the Community Councils, along with senior staff, to support and guide deliberations of Regional Council. "
It's a commitment you can hold him to.
In addition to face to face public conversations, technology allows for direct democratic participation by citizens from all parts of the municipality. HRM’s online presence is an essential tool in serving citizens on a range of programs and services. Citizen- centred technology should offer a one-stop shop for customer service on permits, registrations, and other municipal services. The website and social media tools, as well as online forums, can act as an interactive platform for citizen engagement and participation. Other service enhancements such as increased live streaming of Council and committee meetings, and allowing citizens to participate in meetings from anywhere in HRM through a videoconferencing service should be investigated.
HRM should consider the following:
Establishing an HRM Open Data Initiative to allow citizens free and user-friendly access to data that is routinely collected but not routinely published
Supporting this initiative with a series of workshops for citizens to participate in the design and the content of the Open Data Initiative
Establishing a protocol to ensure the timely release of reports commissioned by HRM.”
Commitments you can hold him to.
As a person and as a candidate Mike Savage represents a more competent version of the status quo. His platform puts forward some ideas, but nothing can be considered major. The people who run the show municipally - the HRM bureaucracy, developers and businesses- will find Savage quite friendly. Mike Savage will be a better mayor than Peter Kelly was, but the difference will be in style rather than substance.
The frustrations that anti-poverty and environmental organizations have had with the last mayor will continue under Savage. There is nothing to indicate that Mike Savage will do anything different to recognize and address the unique needs of the African Nova Scotian community. His priority is business, and using buzzwords like “sustainability” and “engagement” amount to little more than a candy coating. It doesn't matter that he's nice.
Instead I recommend voting for Tuxedo Stan, the cat running for mayor. “He's neutered,” say the cat's campaign managers and owners. Excellent: the only politician being honest about having no balls.