Access to Politics: Who Gets It? Who Deserves It?

City Hall

Guest Blogger: Dr. Amanda Bittner

Happy City St John’s invites experts and concerned citizens to give their views on key issues to encourage further dialogue. These views are not necessarily those of Happy City itself or of its board.

There has been lots of talk lately in #nlpoli about what we as taxpayers ought to be funding and what we as taxpayers ought to be getting for our money. There appears to be near-universal agreement that snowclearing is a priority in St. John’s, but I think that if we took a poll of voters in the province’s capital, the agreement would end there. Recently, we’ve seen a lot of debate and discussion (and anger) over the possibility that the City would provide childcare to citizens during night time hearings and public engagement events. What began as an idea to widen access to decision-making in St. John’s has led to a debate about who pays for it and who ought to receive this “benefit.”

What is it that the City of St. John’s is responsible for?

What should government be responsible for? These are classic questions in politics and there is rarely ever any agreement. Who makes decisions and who influences those decisions? Is it city management and staff? Is it developers and business owners? Is it those who pay property tax? What do we do about all the people who don’t fit into those categories? How do we know if the right people are in government? How do we know whether they’re listening to the right people once we elect them? This is a long list of questions, and we can’t answer them all. But opening up the channels for discussion is certainly the first step.

We can’t decide about these core values in our democracy unless we have a chance to discuss. We need to ask ourselves, then, if we are allowing everybody a chance to discuss. In particular, we need to ask ourselves whether we are leaving voices out by the process in which we hold these discussions.

This debate over childcare at public meetings gives us a great opportunity to talk about access to politics and decision-making.

Breaking Down Barriers to Participation

Put simply, there are lots of barriers that prevent participation in politics: we all know it’s hard to get to a public meeting when the sidewalks aren’t cleared and when you can’t park on the street: how will we physically get to the meeting? In this example, we can see the snow (and the lack of clearing) that stands in the way of our attendance. But there are also lots of barriers to participation that we can’t see because they are invisible. One of those invisible barriers is linked to the nature of family life today.

Simply put, parents of young children may have difficulty getting out in the evening to a public meeting. They need to feed their kids supper, put them to bed, and then they need to stay home to make sure they’re safe in their beds. For the same reason this group of people goes out partying less in the evening, they participate in politics less. Do we think that parents of young children have no insights or ideas to offer our city officials? Can we afford to just leave them out of the process completely? Or do we value the voices who traditionally don’t have access, and do we want to do something as a society to ensure that we don’t miss out on their complaints, concerns, ideas, and potential solutions?

Recent research suggests that if we support families-through things like childcare, flexible working hours, early childhood education, and parental leave-we will have higher levels of participation rates in politics across varying demographic groups. A book I recently published with Melanee Thomas, a colleague at the University of Calgary (you can find it online here ) points to all kinds of ways that our political institutions impede the participation of parents (and in particular, mothers, who still take the bulk of responsibility for taking care of children). From nighttime sittings in legislatures, to the archaic rules in legislatures that prevent new moms who are also sitting politicians from feeding their infants in the House because it’s considered “refreshment” and refreshment is forbidden in the House, to the difficulties of commuting from constituency offices which may be in remote locations to offices in the provincial or national capital, there are plenty of things that make the job of politics more challenging for parents, and therefore make it less likely that they will choose to do the job.

We have this idea that municipal politics may be more family-friendly because it involves less long-distance travel, but despite this “common sense” story about local politics, there is still a major shortage of women (especially mothers) in local politics, and researchers are trying to find out why. Nighttime meetings are certainly not family friendly, and may be one of many types of barriers to participation.

Problems That Need Solutions

These findings all relate to the job of politics, rather than the job of being a citizen. We might say to politicians who juggle family and job responsibilities, “so what, you chose this, you knew what you were getting into,” but do we really want to say the same thing to our citizens? So what, you decided to have kids, too bad for you, we don’t care about what you have to say about how the city runs?” Or, do we want to say, “sure, let’s prioritize a tiny sum of money in the overall budget to ensure that we increase accessibility to the hands of power? Let’s get those voices heard, let’s work step by step to remove barriers, to make sure that politics isn’t something being run by only a few people?”

I know one thing for sure: the more voices we hear, the more new ideas we have in politics, and the better our policy outcomes. We can’t just keep doing things the way we’ve always done them. We may disagree about a lot of things, but I think people in the City of St. John’s agree about one thing in particular: we have some major problems that need new solutions.

Dr. Amanda Bittner is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Memorial University. She specializes in elections, voting, and public opinion, and her main research interests include the role of knowledge and information on voters’ decisions, as well as the institutional and structural incentives affecting voting behaviour. You can find her on twitter @amandabittner, or on the web at

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