Our complaints industry

Posted 11.28.11

SHAWVILLE, QUEBEC | We've had a pleasant autumn, after a great summer -- so why all the complaining across our city? Councilors are exchanging accusations, the media is heaving barbs as if that's the only way to sell newspapers, and regular citizens are up in arms about every subject -- from stoplights and dog parks to the lack of doctors and crowded classrooms. Editorial-writers and talk-show hosts, we self-appointed complainers, are getting drowned out. What's going on?

No question there is a broad campaign to sink Mayor Bureau, so that by the election in two years, his adversaries hope, he'll be dead in the water. It's difficult to see who is behind this nasty campaign.

There are legitimate differences between councilors and between the needs of different city sectors. Nobody, it seems, feels their sector's needs are being met, no matter how much is done.

These are normal differences within a large and varied city. We are just getting used to being a big city, after seeing ourselves for so long as a quiet, pleasant town. Those images of the past may be mis-remembered. The old days? Hmmm -- most people want to pick and choose what they'd go back to in the good old days. The whole shebang wasn't always so wonderful.

First, today's complaints are a real mix. City council is blamed for our lack of doctors. Might as well blame them for cold winters. There's little, except gestures, that municipal politicians can do about doctors -- and medical services -- or about schools. These are provincial matters, and the province won't even listen to city leaders on them.

Second, we very often-almost always-mix up the civil service with our political representatives. There should be a lot of connection here, but politicians come and go regularly, and civil servants don't. They have powerful unions with ironclad contracts (I write this as a private-sector employer). Usually, when we criticize "government" we mean "delivery of public services". They are quite different, and the civil servants have loaded a lot of insulation between themselves and public scrutiny. We honestly cannot insist our elected reps "clean up" the civil service -- while we also insist they personally answer every e=mail, abusive or not, and register every complaint of speeding cars, bilingualism bonuses, or barking dogs.

If our big city is so terrible, or terribly run, why aren't more people moving to Ottawa and paying the taxes there? If there's so little over-view and transparency here, why aren't more citizens engaged? Residents' associations, political movements, interest groups -- lots of avenues for citizens to straighten out city hall. Shop locally -- that helps our sector more than anything!

Politicians make a lot of mistakes -- there are so many variables at play in the complexities they deal with -- but to say they are always mistaken is pure self-indulgence. Or is all this carping a sign of a hard winter coming, like wasps' nests high up in the bushes?

Copyright © 2011 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles/11.11