Written by Anne Mévellec and Luc Turgeon
In a previous post, we discussed some of the key issues that were likely to play a central role during the municipal election campaign in Ottawa: urban planning, fiscal policy, social development and the mayor’s control over council. Over the past year, the leadership of the mayor Jim Watson on those files had increasingly been questioned. Moreover, at the beginning of the campaign, it was announced that the opening of the LRT would be delayed again. On the other side of the river, in Gatineau, the chaotic rollout of the city rapibus system just before the 2013 election was one of the factors that contributed to the defeat of the former mayor Marc Bureau.
As such, one could have expected a more difficult race for the incumbent mayor than in 2014. In some ways it was. Watson faced some uproar over his decision to skip a number of mayoral debates, including debates that focused on the environment and on gender issues. His record was challenged by some journalists, leading to some testy exchanges on the issues mentioned above.
Ultimately, however, it made little difference. Watson was easily re-elected with 71% of the vote, only 5% less than in 2014. His main opponent, Clive Doucet, received only 22% of the vote. The result can be explained by Watson relatively prudent style of governing and his relentless campaigning. Moreover, the campaign of Doucet, who threw his hat in the ring at the last minute, often appeared largely improvised. Ambitious plans were typically short on details and his campaigned lack a unifying message. In addition, none of the other candidates really scored any points during the campaign. No candidate was able to impose an alternative theme to the campaign.
It would nevertheless be a mistake to think that everything old is new again in Ottawa. Almost a third of council will be composed of new councillors. Besides four new councillors that are replacing outgoing members of council, three candidates managed to defeat the incumbent in their ward. In some cases, those new councillors defeated allies of the mayor at council or candidates that were viewed as associated with the mayor. Another important change to note is the increase representation of women on council. While still significantly under-represented, 7 of the council’s 23 councillors are now women, up from only 4. Council is also younger, but is still far from representing the city’s ethno-cultural diversity.
What to look for in the coming years in Ottawa? First, in light of the changes to the composition of council, will the mayor face a more antagonistic council? It might well be the case. Some new councillors explicitly ran in opposition to Watson or by denouncing how council worked over the previous four years. Will this new blood be enough to bring a new dynamics to council? Second, will fiscal politics become a more prominent object of debate at city council? While the previous council had frozen increase in property tax at 2%, Watson announced during the last weeks of the campaign that he was willing to increase property tax up to 3% during a new mandate in order to confront the city’s infrastructure deficit. While this decision will likely please downtown councillors who had argued in favour of such a rise over the past year, it might lead to some pushback from some of the more conservative allies of the mayor. Third, will Mayor Jim Watson be an asset in relations with other governments, whether municipal or provincial? On the one hand, mayoral stability in Ottawa and Gatineau will possibly ensure better collaboration between the two cities, which share some of the same metropolitan issues. On the other hand, will Jim Watson and the City of Ottawa be listened to by the Conservative provincial government considering the mayor’s previous involvement with the Ontario Liberal Party? Finally, will this be the mayor’s last mandate? On the one hand, Watson clearly loves his job and continues to benefit from an extraordinarily efficient electoral machine that has yet to be significantly tested. On the other hand, the mayor might want to leave before voter fatigue eventually catches up with him. In any case, while the last four years were marked by relatively little debate at Council, the next four will likely be less consensual and more animated.