Olympic bid failure another sign voters reject elites’ big projects

It was never all that clear whether or not Calgarians would approve of the city’s bid for the Olympics in 2026.

Polling predictions were mixed. A few years of slumping oil prices had taken their toll on a formerly Olympic proud town.

Though opponents of the bid successfully convinced the provincial government to force a plebiscite that would ask city residents for their approval, the wind was not exactly at their back.

Proponents put together a highly organized and well-funded effort to support it, arguing that it was a chance to showcase Calgary on the world stage and bring Canadians together in a burst of national pride.

Most community leaders and many councillors strongly supported the bid, advocating publicly in favour.

Yet, despite their best efforts, Olympic-boosters were never really able to get a whole hearted, full throated endorsement from the mayor. Although Mayor Naheed Nenshi came on board about a week before voting day, he never brought his legendary campaign skills to the fight.

And, so, when the votes came in, the opinions of those city leaders proved not to match those of Calgarians.

Residents voted no. It was likely the right decision — everyone knows that the Olympics, often promoted as a city- and nation-building exercise, are little more than an overpriced circus that almost always leaves its host cities burdened with debt for generations and infrastructure that not only goes unused but falls into disrepair as well.

Yet another example, in a litany of examples, of Canadian voters going against the wishes of elites.

Doug Ford’s election was much in the same vein. Though pundits and Ontario’s elites were aghast at the thought of Ford winning government, he did win — and handily.

Ford’s approach, and his down-to-earth manner of speaking were seen by some as not fitting of a premier.

But he was relentlessly focused not on grandiose policies but on the issues that matter to voters. Some may roll their eyes at buck-a-beer pricing, or at cutting the gas tax, but they’re issues that are tangible to voters.

Similar campaigns have found success across the country — Quebec, New Brunswick, and most likely Alberta before too long, are opting for the things that affect them, not big-thinking policies that feel remote and pinch their wallets.

That is going to continue to define Canadian politics for the next while.

Our leaders — civic, business and political — continue to be obsessed with big-picture ideas, and nation-building policies. Climate change battles. Transforming our electoral systems. Being an international leader on refugees.

All are ideas that have been pushed in recent years by those leaders. All are ideas that are celebrated as important exercises in building Canada, both here at home and as an international brand.

Many of these ideas appeal to me. Like many, I have committed much of my life to making Canada a better place; to projects that help foster social cohesion.

But the evidence suggests big-picture thinking, which the elites continue to put on offer, is not what Canadians want to buy.

Our society has turned inwards. Self-care is no longer just a buzzword — it’s a way of living. Our social circles are smaller. Our thoughts unchallenged by ideological opponents. Our lives organized to avoid unwanted interaction.

This isolation means that many Canadians are feeling more self-interested than ever.

Let me give you an example. Polling overwhelmingly shows that Canadians believe in climate change, and that something must be done.

But polling also shows that the “something” had better not affect them. If it costs them money that they would otherwise use to pay their bills or lengthens their commute and keeps them away from their families, for instance, that support quickly evaporates.

For today’s political leaders it does seem to be a new world; a world where it has been repeatedly shown that the focus needs to be on the little guy and not on big ideas.

For better or for worse, it is an adjustment that any successful political leader will need to come to terms with.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, November 18, 2018)