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EDITORIAL: Debate, discussion important for any successful democracy

It’s been said democracy is messy, hard and never easy. The paraphrasing of Robert F. Kennedy is one that rings true when coming to conclusions on decisions that will impact the lives of people.

It’s been said democracy is messy, hard and never easy.

The paraphrasing of Robert F. Kennedy is one that rings true when coming to conclusions on decisions that will impact the lives of people.

In any community, there is a variety of debate and opinion on the path forward. If you put two people in a room and provide a list of topics, within moments you’re likely to have a disagreement.

But to get to a place of understanding – not necessarily full agreement – debate and discussion are essential.

A proposed change and regularly scheduled review of Banff council’s procedural bylaw outlines how the future of debate could take place in council chambers for the mountain town.

Likely to put most to sleep who read it, the bylaw guides council members on the rules of council and committee meetings. From instructions on how delegations are handled, to who and how the agenda is put together and when council members can speak, it’s one of the most pivotal documents for elected officials.

While there are positives, the limiting of debate, not permitting amendments to motions by the person who made it, Town staff wanting input prior to council motions and a preference for motions being received before any meeting are steps backward in the democratic process.

If passed, it would limit council members to one five-minute debate slot and attempt to scale back on the option of elected officials to make motions on the fly, which come from debate.

Council members are voted to represent the people of their community. They bring ideas to council and committee meetings, hear from residents and often have a specific constituency they represent and want their voices to be heard in the decision-making process.

To get to those decisions, debate is vitally important and to curtail and limit that component is moving a democratic government in the wrong direction.

For a council member to be stifled, is the opposite of effective and intelligent governance.

The buzzwords of the proposal highlighted ‘efficiency’ and ‘effectiveness’, but the tools for council members to do so already exist.

All members of council are permitted to call points of order – drawing attention to a violation of council rules – if a fellow council member is deemed out of line. A council or committee chair is well within their right to ensure only new information is presented during debate to prevent individuals from dragging on. 

Rather than adding new shiny objects to muzzle debate and add to the bureaucratization of governance, the tools in the toolbox are there and can be freely used.

The rules may exist, but it’s incumbent on all council members to work together – with the understanding they don’t have to agree – to police one another when getting off track, rambling, filibustering or crossing a line that would be disrespectful to others.

It’s equally important for councillors to be cognizant of repeating points or talking to hear their own voice, but the role of a chair is to ensure the flow of the meeting continues and all members of council are permitted to call points of order.

As one councillor highlighted, the role of a municipal council is not to race to the finish line, but to provide governance, debate and develop policy that outlines a community’s goals.

Winston Churchill once quipped the worst form of government was democracy, with the exception of every other one.

It’s not perfect and rarely comes to a conclusion that makes people happy, but is designed to hear a diversity of voices prior to coming to a decision.

The role of a municipal council is immensely paramount for a successful democracy to thrive.

Though at the lower tier of the federal, provincial and municipal spectrum, it ultimately plays the most pivotal role for the day-to-day lives of residents.

The erosion of the democratic voice doesn’t happen overnight. It’s one of death by a thousand cuts and any attempt to stifle elected voices is one cut too many.