Dear mayoral candidates: A strong economy benefits everyone

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It’s not entirely surprising that the first three candidates to declare they are running for mayor of Ottawa in 2022 are all experienced politicians. Increasingly, politics has become a career path in which the drawbacks outweigh the incentives and the risks are greater than the rewards.

So despite the frequent calls for a business candidate to join the race, there aren’t many good reasons for someone to give up an appealing job in the private sector and enter the minefield of electoral politics in the age of social media.

But just because there might not be a candidate from the private sector doesn’t mean the needs of the business community can’t be prominent during the campaign and for the next term of city council. Jim Watson has spent most of his life in the public sector. But over the past decade, and in his previous stint as mayor in pre-amalgamation Ottawa, he’s been a good friend of the business community. Watson has consulted regularly with business leaders, established Invest Ottawa and ensured that economic development was a much greater consideration in city policy, and worked closely with the tourism sector to bring major events to the city.

And Watson did this without compromising in other important areas. There’s a false perception that political leaders must choose between the economy and other priorities; likewise, that policies that bolster the private sector are rewarding only the rich. We saw that contrivance play out regularly during the pandemic, with the trope that by allowing restaurants to reopen, the provincial government was choosing the economy over public health, as though there were no health consequences to job losses.

A strong economy is good for everyone. It creates and sustains jobs and it generates tax revenue to pay for social programs and infrastructure. Likewise, a strong community is healthy for business. You can’t find good customers and good employees in a depressed environment. So let’s hope the next mayor sees economic growth and social justice as each contributing to the other, rather than a zero-sum game in which we must choose between them.

Let’s hope the next mayor sees economic growth and social justice as each contributing to the other, rather than a zero-sum game

What kind of policies would be included in such a platform? A strategy to address the future of downtown Ottawa would be a start. What does the urban core look like in a post-COVID world in which more people work from home? What does it mean for public transit, for city planning, for the businesses that are located downtown? How can we turn downtown Ottawa into a more livable neighbourhood, an appealing destination even if fewer people are required to be there for their jobs? How can a changing downtown become part of a solution for homelessness and more affordable housing? How can we make it safer, with much fewer accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists?

Ottawa also has the potential to be a more diverse and inclusive city. How can we be a leader among communities that are implementing policies that recognize the dignity of every person, eliminate persistent systemic barriers, make everyone feel safe and welcomed, and build new models in everything from policing to social services? How can we make it easier for employers to hire new Canadians? A community that is fairer and more diverse benefits everyone.

The next council should also place a significant priority on creating a greener Ottawa. Too often, we view environmental policy as a provincial, federal, or even global matter. But like most things, saving the planet starts with local behaviour. We need to do more than put a few solar panels on the roofs of government buildings. We need to make climate change central to all our decision-making, and provide incentives for developers to build much more energy-efficient buildings.

The next mayor should see the business community as a valued partner in building a better Ottawa, and view economic, environmental, and social progress as equally vital to building a safer, fairer, and more inclusive community that is beneficial to all its citizens. This isn’t about left or right, but up instead of down.