Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Event not exactly a revelation

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From right, mayoral candidates Brian Bowman, Michel Fillion, Paula Havixbeck, Robert-Falcon Ouellette, Gord Steeves, Michael Vogiatzakis, and Judy Wasylycia-Leis at the Chambre de commerce francophone de Saint-Boniface luncheon Wednesday.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

From right, mayoral candidates Brian Bowman, Michel Fillion, Paula Havixbeck, Robert-Falcon Ouellette, Gord Steeves, Michael Vogiatzakis, and Judy Wasylycia-Leis at the Chambre de commerce francophone de Saint-Boniface luncheon Wednesday. Photo Store

The first lesson from the very first mayoral forum?

When all is said and done, you cannot say or do much in an hour-long forum with seven -- count 'em seven -- mayoral candidates.

Wednesday's forum was a bountiful harvest of platitudes, laced with profound vagaries and sprinkled with a few awkward moments.

In other words, it was useful to see all seven candidates together, although the lack of substance and detail from this event will hardly make or break anyone's campaign. In fact, you had to look really hard to deduce some of the trends of the mayoral campaign, which is still very much in its infancy.

Not surprisingly, infrastructure will be the issue that is most hotly debated in this campaign. That is hardly earth-shattering in and of itself; infrastructure is the city's biggest challenge and poll results have demonstrated it is by far and away the No. 1 top-of-mind issue for voters.

Reflecting that reality, all of the candidates -- lawyer Brian Bowman, exotic-dancer agent Michel Fillion, Coun. Paula Havixbeck, academic and activist Robert-Falcon Ouellette, lawyer and former councillor Gord Steeves, funeral-home director Michael Vogiatzakis and former MLA and MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis -- spent time kneeling at the altar of infrastructure.

That is not to say all the candidates had the same perspective on this pressing issue.

Candidates Steeves and Havixbeck, for example, were less concerned about the lack of money to fix crumbling roads and bridges, and more focused on how the city spends its infrastructure dollars. That is a valid perspective, except when they take it too far and actually suggest how we spend our resources is the only issue stopping us from fixing infrastructure.

Steeves was most explicit on this point, claiming at one point the city actually has all the money it needs to fix its core infrastructure. What's missing, he said, is a system to prioritize the projects to get the biggest bang for our bucks.

Havixbeck has taken a similar approach, having already suggested in her campaign the way the money is spent is the key to getting a handle on all of the neglected, crumbling, unfunded infrastructure. She has also strongly hinted she will pledge a property-tax freeze at some point in the campaign, a policy that would have a dire impact on any infrastructure-renewal program.

The problem with these assertions is that they are fundamentally, empirically untrue. Although it's always important to spend our precious infrastructure funds wisely and methodically, the size of our infrastructure deficit is way, way bigger than the available financial resources.

As is the case across the country, infrastructure is a problem that is measured in billions of dollars and is addressed by programs featuring millions of dollars. In fact, from a purely economic perspective, it's quite likely we will never actually stop the inventory of infrastructure in need of repair or replacement from growing each year.

This is the kind of nonsense political candidates spout when they are running to unseat an incumbent, or in this case, to replace an incumbent who may not run for re-election.

All the city's problems can be fixed, the candidates will tell you, with a reallocation of existing resources, a better process and more sincere effort. All we need is a new culture of co-operation and collaboration, a new spirit of commitment, a new and more deeply committed mandate.

It's all mostly hogwash, but the candidates know failing to live up to campaign promises is a crime for which it appears there is no true punishment.

Steeves and Havixbeck are certainly not the only candidates to take liberties with the reality of our infrastructure woes.

It is impossible in these early stages of the campaign to hear Wasylycia-Leis talk without mentioning frozen water pipes as evidence of a city "that is broken." That would imply pipes are frozen because of the actions, or inactions, of people at city hall and that she, as mayor, would be able to fix this problem.

Candidates should always be careful about promising to fix something that is, in its essence, a byproduct of the weather. Frozen pipes are likely to occur anytime the city is plunged into a prolonged period of record cold, as we were this past winter. If she becomes mayor, Wasylycia-Leis may find herself facing the same problem with the same absence of easy fixes as the current administration.

It would be refreshing, even exciting, to hear candidates tell voters all infrastructure cannot be fixed at the same time.

That the effectiveness of local government is not measured by the existence of a single pothole.

That crime cannot be reduced simply by putting more police on the streets.

That the city can always do a better job of responding to acts of God, but cannot prevent them.

In the race to determine the next mayor of Winnipeg, perhaps one of the candidates would consider, as a departure, pledging to do a good job at the possible, without trying to convince people they can do the impossible as well.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 19, 2014 B1

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