Montreal election

Denis Coderre, last century’s man

The mayor’s authoritarian, opaque political approach is out of step with the times
Photo: Ville de Montréal

Denis Coderre moves with a heavy gait these days. His brow furrowed, his eyes sunken, it seems like the life has fled from the mayor’s tired frame.

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This campaign was supposed to be his cakewalk to re-election, and instead it feels as though he’s sleepwalked into a street fight and has yet to fully wake up. It’s not without a faint echo of Stephen Harper in his final campaign: Coderre wears the sagging expression of an old general left behind in battle, emitting the lonely aura of a man out of phase and trudging against time.

Echoes of a bygone era

Denis Coderre has a frequent one-liner when asked about mayoral challenger Valérie Plante’s proposed Pink metro line between Montréal-Nord and Lachine. The mayor, himself from Montréal-Nord, trains his guns derisively on Plante’s lack of ties to the establishment parties in Ottawa and Quebec City — who will you speak to to get it built, the mayor quips, your friends in Québec solidaire and the NDP?

In Coderre’s old-school, old-boy idea of politics, authority and influence don’t come from below

It’s a telling line of attack, from a man who can barely remember a time when his life and fortunes weren’t intimately entwined with those of Canada’s “natural governing party.” You need look no further for a glimpse inside the political mind of Denis Coderre: Votez du bon bord, Denis warns, choose a Liberal if you want a seat at the table.

In Coderre’s old-school, old-boy idea of politics, authority and influence don’t come from below — from the mandate afforded by voters, or the mayor’s capacity to rally Montrealers to his or her side — but from backroom deals and back scratching among tightknit political cliques. In Coderre’s world, democracy is an insiders’ game and you need to know which doors to knock on if you want to play.

Swimming against the current

There is something vaguely discomforting about the sight of our mayor so artlessly mocking his adversary’s outsider status, and swimming so clumsily, so obliviously, against the zeitgeist of the times. The attack is emblematic of a wider pattern.

At a time when voters are demanding more and more transparency from their governments, Montreal’s mayor still refuses to make even his daily agenda public. Since 2014, security guards at City Hall have been under orders to no longer register the comings and goings of visitors to his office. And in an age where the real “smart” cities around the world are placing their faith in the free flow of information, the flow of information out of the mayor’s office has all but dried up.

Mayor Coderre has ruled his caucus with an iron fist, forbidding any divergence of views

Civil servants have been silenced, the mayor’s own councillors on the executive committee are barred from speaking freely to the press, and journalists — 30 at last count, from 13 different publications — are battling obstruction, intimidation, outright threats, and in the case of La Presse’s Patrick Lagacé, police surveillance in the course of their important work to keep the public informed of the administration’s actions.

When strongmen reigned

In the era of smartphones, social media and urban tech, forward-looking cities around the world are opening up once-opaque administrations, and trusting in the collective intelligence of communities to find innovative solutions to the problems they live daily.

Yet in Montreal, we have a mayor whose brute authoritarianism harkens back to the strongman era of the 1960s and 70s, when Jean Drapeau reigned imperial over his urban kingdom. It seems so long ago that Coderre the candidate vowed to empower city councillors by putting an end to party discipline. Instead, Mayor Coderre has ruled his caucus with an iron fist, forbidding any divergence of views, wielding posts — and the salaries that come with them — as payment for loyalty, and reducing city councillors to the role of potted plants.

Even behind closed doors, the members of Coderre’s executive committee who dare voice a dissenting opinion are browbeaten into silence by the mayor.

And citizens who voice their opposition at council meetings simply have their mic cut.

The disconnect

Denis Coderre is far from the first politician to have an immoderate affection for power. What’s most bewildering about the mayor’s hamfisted methods is not so much his crude attempts at control, but his peculiar apparent belief that, in 2017, Montrealers wouldn’t mind.

It’s this historical incongruence that I find the most fitting theme to define Coderre’s reign. In the wake of Radio-Canada’s explosive investigation into the mayor’s strongarm tactics, we saw an incredulous Patrice Roy of the Téléjournal practically pleading with the mayor to understand what all the commotion was about. Visibly, it was to little avail. Coderre pointed the finger back at journalists and answered that, while he may have “stepped on people’s toes,” it was important in order to get things done.

It was the quaintly authoritarian response of an old-school political boss. And it was only the latest in a salvo of tone-deaf defences by Coderre that shone a floodlight on exactly what voters are finding increasingly hard to swallow about the man.

Time and again, when the anachronism of Coderre’s imperious manners is questioned, the mayor trivializes his comportment — a personal phone call to the police chief about one journalist here, a not-so-veiled threat to another there — as part of the “normal” rough-and-tumble of politics.

As if to say that his critics are all just thin-skinned sissies who can’t take the heat of the sport.

It’s almost like he doesn’t know that the rest of us stopped playing a long time ago.

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