Time for term limits for politicians?

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday October 01 2014 in Opinion
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We are almost there. In just a few more weeks, the campaign to elect a new mayor and city council in Toronto will be over. We should be looking forward to a more business-like council, doing the business that they are supposed to be doing, rather than the circus we have had over the past four years. We can only hope.


The way it stands now, most councillors and mayors can seek re-election for as long as they want. In fact, that is the state of affairs for legislative bodies at all levels, with the exception of the Senate, which is unelected and the appointees must retire at 75.


The concern here is not age. The concern is about their abilities to do the job they are elected to do. But more importantly, after, say, three terms in office, where is the passion to make the changes and do the things that set the course for continued development in their respective areas of responsibilities? Is the foresight still sharp? Are we on the right track?


There is nothing scientific about this observation but I sometimes think that about 60 per cent – and I may be generous here – of the people who run for office, do so to try to make a change in their communities. As for the other 40 per cent, they are probably looking to make a name for themselves – improve their résumés with the hope of getting some important job in the private sector or an appointment to a government position.


The problem is that many of them, while they all cannot be cabinet ministers or the equivalent at city hall, appear to be benchwarmers. Sure, they will do the ribbon-cutting and special appearances because they have to do that – keep up appearances to leave the impression that they are still in touch with their communities.


I don’t want to leave the impression that many elected officials don’t do any work. It just appears that way. Much of the work they do is not reported in the news. It is for that reason, at least in part, that they get elected because their constituents have seen their work and are satisfied with what they do.


But, like most jobs, the excitement can waver. After a while it becomes pro forma and the edge and ideas that they may bring to the table when they were first elected may lose their appeal.


It is fair to say that most of the “good ones” will renew their appeal and eagerness for the job through regular consultations with their constituents. They are the ones who make a point of regular meetings with the people they represent, to report back but to also listen to their concerns. But after three four-year terms, is it time to give someone else a chance?


A public opinion poll earlier this year suggest that about a 60 per cent majority of Torontonians would prefer to see term limits for councillors and mayors. Part of that might have been prompted by the behaviour of our current mayor and a couple of other coucillors. Nevertheless, the poll also suggested that their “shelf-life” should not exceed three terms.


The president of the United States can only serve two terms. That limitation came after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected four times. He died before completing his fourth. Most presidents worldwide are limited to two five-year terms. Prime ministers generally have no such limitations. They tend to stay as long as they think they can sustain popularity.


Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon made an attempt earlier this year to get Toronto City Council to consider imposing a three-term limit. Unfortunately, her motion was defeated. Part of her reasoning was that it provided an opportunity for a more diverse representation on council, an idea that I like. For example, non-White males and women, seeing that a council seat where they live will become vacant, will take the time to build up support to make a run. As it is now, challenging an incumbent who has had a fairly long history representing a ward is a formidable task and can be disheartening. It is not unlike the situation where challengers for the mayoralty get left out of debates because they are not up there with the front-runners.


I suspect that under a new administration at City Hall, that discussion will come up again. It certainly would be one way to get people like Giorgio Mammoliti off council since there seems to be no other way.


patrick.hunter11@gmail.com / Twitter: @pghntr

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