December 6, 2019

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Opinion

Does Portage and Main require a vote?

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>A plebiscite on reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians will give all Winnipeggers a say on the issue, but that isn’t necessarily a fair way to handle the question.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

A plebiscite on reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians will give all Winnipeggers a say on the issue, but that isn’t necessarily a fair way to handle the question.

Tearing down the brutalist pedestrian barriers at Portage and Main was a signature promise made by then-candidate Brian Bowman in the last mayoral election campaign. Since then, Mayor Bowman has stuck by that promise through thick and thin, and the mayor has made steady if slow progress toward achieving his goal, despite several major obstacles.

A new obstacle was recently thrown up by Couns. Jeff Browaty and Janice Lukes — both avowed Bowman critics — who proposed a plebiscite on the question of Portage and Main to be held with the next civic election. Browaty and Lukes argued that a plebiscite would provide Winnipeggers with an opportunity to learn fully about both the costs and benefits of opening up the intersection.

It’s also likely that at least part of the intention here was to put the mayor on the hot seat: Bowman seemed unlikely to support a plebiscite on an issue that is seemingly so close to his heart, which would have opened him up to the accusation that he is afraid of allowing the people to have a direct say.

Instead, the mayor turned the tables and unexpectedly announced he would support the motion. Further, despite standing by his own position to open the intersection, Bowman said he would treat the motion as binding and would decline to pursue the issue if a majority of Winnipeggers voted against it.

Browaty’s motion was passed by council last week, so Winnipeggers will be marking "Yes" or "No" on Portage and Main in the coming election. It will be the first time since 1983 that we have filled out such a ballot question. During the 1983 election, one of the two questions put to Winnipeggers was whether they supported global nuclear disarmament (the proposal passed, but seems not to have persuaded world leaders).

One has to put on a diving suit to get through the politics and manoeuvring here. Browaty supports a plebiscite, but mayoral candidate Jenny Motkaluk, who is also opposed to reopening Portage and Main, has given a thumbs-down to the plebiscite.

Bowman has been in favour of opening up Portage and Main for the entirety of his political career, but despite his near-obsessiveness with checking off promises made in his last campaign, the mayor is willing to risk his signature policy promise on a high-stakes bet.

But is this an appropriate use of a plebiscite?

On one hand, a plebiscite is unnecessary. The reason we elect public officials is so they can make decisions on our behalf.

Candidates for public office make rafts of promises and, once elected, they have a mandate to implement them.

Bowman has an undeniably strong mandate to implement his promise to open up Portage and Main, and this would only be strengthened if he is re-elected in October.

There is a danger that too many ballot questions are undesirable and are, in fact, incompatible with systems of representative democracy in which politicians are elected to make decisions on our behalf, and then held accountable if they stray too far from what voters want.

California’s system of direct democracy, in which several propositions are debated and included as ballot questions in state elections, is often cited as an example of a system that goes too far. In part, this is because such ballot initiatives, once passed, cannot be amended by politicians, but rather must be amended or reversed by another proposition.

Obviously, we are not yet in that situation here in Winnipeg. So what’s wrong with directly soliciting the people’s views on a small number of policy areas?

University of Winnipeg political scientist Aaron Moore raised an important critique of the use of a plebiscite in this case. Why, Moore asked, should Winnipeg residents who are not directly affected by the decision to open up Portage and Main nevertheless get a say? Moore compared Portage and Main to other development decisions, such as those on the Waverley underpass and the Archibald/Marion underpass, and wondered why plebiscites were not held on those development decisions.

There is much to be said for this argument. Left to the mayor and council, our elected officials could take the views of residents, users and commuters who pass through Portage and Main into consideration in making their decision.

But in a plebiscite, every vote is counted equally. Someone like me, who lives and works in the south end of the city, will have as much a say as someone who must commute through Portage and Main every day, and who will therefore be greatly affected by whatever decision is made. Just because everyone gets an equal say doesn’t mean the plebiscite process is necessarily fair.

Royce Koop is an associate professor and head of the political studies department at the University of Manitoba.

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History

Updated on Friday, July 27, 2018 at 10:08 AM CDT: Adds missing words

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