All hail the inexperienced amateur

The election of Larry O’Brien as mayor of Ottawa proves you can fight City Hall. You may not win, but at least you can try. And it shows the seriousness of the crisis of governance in Canada that we no longer simply distrust those covetous of political power. We have also ceased, through bitter experience, to believe that their creepy fascination with government makes them any better at it than rank amateurs. Mr. O’Brien evidently shares the widespread doubt about his ability to function as mayor at all, let alone well, since he’s promised to go and study up on the job now that he has it. He also faces a philosophically hostile council that will prove especially challenging to a political novice. But what’s really interesting is that voters didn’t elect him despite his lack of experience. They elected him because of it.

I do not wish either ousted incumbent Bob Chiarelli or his failed left-wing challenger Alex Munter ill. Public affairs is quite bad enough without gratuitous malice. But I am happy that their political ambitions have been frustrated because they were bad for us and arguably for the men who hold them as well.

In my view Mr. Munter was disqualified for office by wanting it so badly for so long. It has been suggested that wishing to be president of the United States makes you unfit for the job. Certainly running for Ottawa city council at 23, and for mayor before 40, is weird and off-putting. It is long past time he got a life, preferably involving private-sector responsibilities. But it is intriguing that with all that experience he ran such an unfocused, promise-everyone-everything campaign.

I was also unimpressed by Bob Chiarelli’s seeming fascination with the mechanics of political power rather than its possible beneficial uses. But more than that, I was so frustrated by the Chiarelli years that I would have voted for a plastic moose to get him out because with Bob Chiarelli there were always a host of plausible reasons why nothing could ever be done right. Imagine running light rail north-south rather than east-west, in the face of all logic, then not having a station at the airport. Bizarre. Or the megacity: What theory of political economy favoured this thing? But there was no stopping it and, once it happened, no reversing it.

Mr. Chiarelli should obviously not be blamed for all of Ottawa’s problems. Give due credit to the National Capital Commission, city councillors, pressure groups, voters, dysfunctional funding at the provincial level and genuine difficulties in governing cities. But the fact is, our city is a monument to mediocrity. Taxes drift up, services decline, weeds grow on the medians, and you just know whatever gets built on prime downtown sites will be horribly uninspired. Thus familiarity with the way we always do things in Ottawa became an unqualified liability.

Have you ever been to Washington D.C. and seen the spectacular monuments and museums stretching along almost two miles of green space from Congress to the Lincoln Memorial? Why is the area around Parliament Hill so shabby? Who could look at the Parliament buildings, the Château Laurier and even the Mint and put a glass and steel box on the Daly site? As for improving the rest of downtown, let’s not. We like cement.

Don’t say “yes, but the United States is rich.” Canada has a trillion-dollar economy. Our capital could be nice. The conviction that it can’t, so we should be quiet and let the pros bungle things in a suitably depressing and dull fashion, is exactly the spirit we just voted against.

We have always rightly feared to entrust high office to those who too obviously love it. It is far better to be governed by well-rounded individuals so averse to bad government that, though they do not seek power, they will accept it reluctantly, exercise it with humility and retire to their farms at the earliest opportunity.

We have also long understood that governing is complicated in unique and horrible ways that make it very difficult to learn on the job. But evidently we no longer care, given the spectacular ineptitude on every file from recycling to tax policy to global warming to transit at every level of government.

Maybe Larry O’Brien can’t do the job. But at least his promises were attractive, he’ll be genuinely sorry if he can’t keep them, and there won’t be any more talking to us like children about the inevitability of mediocrity.

We’re beset by professional politicians who are laughably bad at governing and we don’t like it. Nor should we. Our property-tax system is a mess and our galloping assessments are scary. Our city is lacklustre and our development plans are third-rate. You say there’s nothing we can do?

Wrong. There is and we did. Take that, City Hall.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson