There were indeed compelling arguments to be made against the idea of putting the matter of residential speed limits to a plebiscite, yet it still felt quite hypocritical for Calgary city council to reject that plebiscite and turn around and immediately approve another.
But if the main argument against a plebiscite on residential speed limits is that elected politicians need to step up, show leadership and make tough decisions, then there’s no reason the water fluoridation issue should be going to a plebiscite, either.
Yet, here we are: city councillors have made an ostensibly bold decision to lower residential speed limits, but they’ve specifically chosen not to make a decision on water fluoridation. All in the same day, no less.
So now, for the seventh time, Calgary voters will be asked to decide in a plebiscite. The question will be: “Are you in favour of reintroducing fluoridation of the municipal water supply?”
The word “reintroducing” hints at the bigger problem here. As implied, the fluoride was at one point being added to the water and that’s because Calgary voters decided in a plebiscite that it would be added to the water (the second plebiscite in a row that water fluoridation was approved). City councillors later decided to remove the fluoride, anyway, and have now decided to ask the question all over again.
Maybe a more fitting question would be: “Should we do the thing you originally told us to do even though we later decided on our own to do the opposite (keeping in mind that we might at some point choose to disregard your opinion this time, too)?”
It was 10 years ago that the decision was made to remove fluoride from the water and a decision was also made at the time to not put the matter to a plebiscite in the subsequent municipal election. Whether that was the right decision is a matter of debate, but that’s how politics works.
In fairness to 2011’s municipal politicians, there were issues they were facing that didn’t exist when the previous plebiscite had been held, including a decision on $6 million worth of upgrades to two water treatment plants — necessary upgrades if fluoridation were to continue.
In the end, council liked the decision of avoiding those costly upgrades as well as the added bonus of saving $750,000 a year. But there was a far more compelling argument for putting all of that to a plebiscite at the time than there is for holding one now.
There are no strict criteria for deciding which issues are worthy of a plebiscite. There’s obviously now precedent on both sides of that question with regard to water fluoridation. One could argue that water fluoridation shouldn’t be a political issue, but, in many ways, a plebiscite politicizes it even more so.
Water fluoridation is certainly one of the great public health achievements of the 20th century. It is also an issue that has produced a rather disproportionate amount of baseless fearmongering and wild conspiracy theories.
Water fluoridation is also not a panacea and there are legitimate points to be made on how much of a difference it would make now and whether there are other more targeted ways of deploying public health resources to improve overall dental health.
History has shown us that nuance can be a rare commodity in fluoridation plebiscite campaigns and that polarization tends to prevail. To be sure, this isn’t an argument against plebiscites per se, but it is an argument against the notion that elected officials can’t possibly make a decision on this particular issue.
What’s ironic in what unfolded at city hall last week is that the notion of improving public health served as a justification for the decision on lowering speed limits, despite the financial cost of the change. Yet on another question of public health benefits versus costs to the taxpayer, city council refused to make a decision. That’s a cop-out, not leadership.