It has been interesting to live and work in Calgary through the rather extended debate about whether or not Calgary should bid to host one of the upcoming Winter Olympics. Calgary was a successful host back in 1988 and it was generally assumed that Calgary was well positioned to do so again – that is, that this city was favoured to be selected again.
City Council put it to a vote – a plebiscite – inviting the citizens of the city to weigh in and help determine if Calgary should submit a bit. For weeks those in favour made their case that hosting the Olympics was an easy call: who would not want to host something so high profile with the assumption that doing so would be economically advantageous to the city – a major boost to a city that has been going through some financial hard times?
Well, the plebiscite was held and the “No” side won. More voted against hosting the games than in favour.
I am not convinced that plebiscites are an effective mechanism for good governance and good decision-making. I believe in elders’ boards for churches, and a board of trustees for universities and I believe in City Council, the provincial legislature and on the national level, parliament or the US Congress. These are the bodies that are better located to determine the pros and cons of an issue and determine the best way forward. The UK parliament should have voted on whether or not to leave the EU. The decision to hold a plebiscite was a massive mistake. Only now, two years later, are we even close to seeing the potential consequences of Brexit; the average person in the street was not nearly in a positon to make a judgment on the pros/cons of Brexit – very definitively not in 2016.
But, the Olympics vote was taken, for better or worse. Whether it was right or wrong to hold it, it was done. And the “No” side “won” – though it is not really a “win”, per se.
Why, I wonder, did “No” side take the day? A few weeks after the plebiscite I sat at the back of the room during a class session at Ambrose University to hear a guest presenter – Dr. Sandip Lalli, the president of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. And she was asked in the open forum why, in her opinion, the vote went “No” rather than “Yes.” I was struck by her answer – simple and straightforward: the lack of leadership. She did not speak in favour or against whether Calgary should host the Olympics. That was not the question and she did not weigh in one way or the other. Rather, she was asked: why, in your estimation, did vote go in favour of the “No” side?
Leadership, she said – specifically the lack of two things (1) a clear articulation of the reasons why Calgary should do this – a compelling, cogent vision that can be owned and re-stated again and again and again [it has to be memorable and have “handles” that can be remember and re-stated]; and (2) the securing of a broad cross-section of the population – business, academic, sport/athletic and so on. But also this: it was too easy for those who were against the Games to point out that the numbers “just did not add up.” In other words, the articulation of the vision has to be based on clear, evidence-based arguments in favour of bidding to be a host city. And again and again, opponents could point out what seemed to be inconsistencies and what was perceived to be a fair amount of wishful thinking. But the bottom line for Dr. Lalli was simply that there was a lack of effective leadership. Perhaps Calgary should not host the Games; fine. But if this is an opportunity missed, it is due to the lack of timely leadership.