Vancouver voters have spoken. Their message: we’re okay with Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and his “green city” team, and we’re ready for more of the same. Every Vision candidate running for council, school board, and park board won a seat. Robertson topped his Non-partisan Association (NPA) opponent Suzanne Anton by 18,853 votes (out of 144,823 ballots cast), and the once-dominant center-right NPA team managed only two seats on the 10-member council, with the last seat going to Vancouver’s first Green Party councilor, Adrianne Carr. The biggest loser was the leftist Coalition for Progressive Electors, which lost two council seats and was shut out on all three elected bodies except for one school board incumbent.
The NPA tried vainly to ignite homeowner backlash to what they saw as Vision excesses — high-handed imposition of separated bike lanes downtown, approval of backyard chickens, and a $5,000 grant to an environmental youth organization for a backyard wheat-growing experiment. NPA rallies featured a chicken mascot holding aloft a sign “Chickens for Gregor,” an attempt to contrast what they called Vision’s “social engineering” with the NPA’s traditional position of solid governance limited to key city services — all wrapped in a “common sense” slogan. Unfortunately for the NPA, the majority of voters saw the city’s greening strategy as an essential service, not an eco-frill. Either that or a lot of chickens turned out to vote.
Vision, for its part, stirred up younger voters and renters to door-knock on behalf of Robertson’s unassailable persona: nice guy, well-intentioned, former organic gardener turned business owner (Happy Planet Juice), former member of the Legislative Assembly, father of four, soccer and tuba player, super handsome. Anton, although a commuter cyclist and green at heart, struggled to shake off her background as an accusatory prosecutor as she appeared to trash all things green. Her attempt to look different by promising to get a streetcar built between the downtown harborfront convention center and Granville Island didn’t leave the station. The idea has been inching ahead since 1999 but is far less urgent than getting serious rapid transit down the Broadway corridor, where overloaded buses routinely pass up lines of waiting passengers bound for UBC. She took no issue with Robertson’s support for a 2-cent per liter fuel tax that will pay for regional transporation improvements, including more buses for Vancouver.
For a while, it looked as if the Occupy Vancouver encampment could undo Robertson and his Occupy-inclined colleagues. As the Nov. 19 election day came closer and the Occupy site got more ragged and dangerous (including a drug overdose death), public opinion got less tolerant and Anton got more strident, also hammering Robertson to take the blame for inviting hockey fans downtown for the June Stanley Cup hockey final riot.
But Robertson’s gentle handling of the inevitable eviction played equally to his strength and weakness. Some said he dithered through a court injunction process, compared to Anton’s determined call for a strict deadline for eviction. But Robertson’s unrattled demeanour and carefully scripted eviction through a court injunction worked. Apparent indecisiveness won the day. No blood was shed, the courts gave the police a powerful arms-length injunction, the occupation moved to a new site, and then it fizzled.
The election was as much a statement about Vancouver’s confused electoral system as about the will of the 34 percent of electors who bothered to vote. It’s not a coincidence that, faced with an alphabetically listed ballot with 94 names on it, voters picked candidates with first initials A, B, and C for the three non-Vision seats on council. In the last council I was on (2005-2008), councillors’ last names started with A, B, C, C, C, D, L, L, L, and S. Voters’ frustration with their impossible task was expressed in the 6,499 votes they cast for Amy “Evil Genius” Fox (her actual ballot name).
(Previous attempts to print different ballots, each with a different name ordering, ran into a problem that reflects the fact that more than half the residents in Vancouver have a mother tongue other than English. Many can’t read English and are sent to the polls with a list of numbers that match recommended candidates’ position on the ballot. When ballots are different in different polling places, that system won’t work, so it was shelved.)
The other downside of Vancouver’s at-large system is that every candidate has to win votes citywide, which makes incumbent name recognition a huge asset and dictates that expensive citywide party campaigns are the only way to get elected. No independent has been elected in Vancouver for decades. This year the three leading parties spent close to $5-million, which means each NPA seat on council cost around $1-million, with three seats on the school board and two on the park board thrown in as a bonus. There’s no limit on the spending, and it comes predominantly from developers (to Vision and NPA) and unions (to Vision and COPE), both with deeply vested interests in the outcome. In one telling moment, prominent developer Peter Wall, backing the so-called center-left Vision’s Gregor Robertson, deftly eviscerated his sometime developer partner and NPA-bankroller Rob McDonald with a dare to bet $1 million that NPA’s Suzanne Anton would win. McDonald admitted defeat by demurring, even as he gambled vast personal sums on the chance to run the city as the NPA mayor’s chief of staff.
Now that Vision is back, the big issues will once again displace the sloganeering. Robertson continues to promise more affordable housing, but cannot do it without provincial money. That money is already generously committed for hundreds of social housing units in new buildings under construction. The province is even saying it’s done with paying for the extra homeless shelters that enabled Robertson to lay claim to reducing “street homelessness”, a centerpiece of his platform. The number of “homeless” went up during Robertson’s first term, but because they weren’t on the streets, their plight was much less of a political issue. A few hours in one of the city’s chaotic homeless shelters will convince anyone that homelessness, mental illness, and addiction are still very much alive in the city.
The one tool the city has to raise money for affordable housing is selling new density, but that runs up against the significant constituency of density deniers, including those who put together a fledgling new party to fight developer-driven density under the guise of “Neighourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver.” They fizzled at the ballot box, but accommodating growth and increasing housing supply, even along transit corridors, is always a battle in Vancouver. Build it, and outside investors will come, keeping affordability for working families well out of reach.
The financial fiasco surrounding the Olympic Village on False Creek is still weighing heavily on the accounts of the Property Endowment Fund. It’s a city-backed development corporation with enough assets to withstand Vision’s missed opportunities to put the Olympic Village in a stronger financial position. Still, it’s somewhere between $50 to $400 million in the hole until the remaining condos sell. Vision’s clampdown on city staff statements to the media is keeping the real number under wraps. That policy is just one reflection of a new management style that has shattered morale at city hall post-2008, causing dozens of senior staff to flee to the comfort of their pensions or the private sector.
Possibly the biggest challenge facing the new council is the steady economic erosion of Vancouver, famously described by a former president of Simon Fraser University as a city with no visible means of support. Head offices — and cruise ships moving to Seattle — continue to dwindle. Businesses are giving up on finding employees who can afford to live in the third most unaffordable real estate market in the world. Last year a paltry 46 new business licences were issued, compared to thousands in neighbouring suburban municipalities.
But, hey, 30 of them were for wonderful new food carts selling lots more local, sustainable food.
Peter Ladner ran for mayor for the NPA against Gregor Robertson in 2008.