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Metro Vancouver Municipal Politics

Here are some less abstract articles about Vancouver municipal political issues and parties.

Transit for Surrey (part 2): The False Choice of the Surrey Transit Debate: Inaction versus Corruption

The Skytrain for Surrey movement has done a superb job of framing the debate over the city’s rapid transit future. That is because they can constantly switch what, precisely, is being compared to what. For instance, the claim is made that constructing a Surrey Skytrain extension would cost only 10% more than constructing an LRT system. That is because of a study by Translink that found it would cost 10% more to construct one Skytrain line than it would to construct three LRT lines to serve the city. Whereas the study shows that LRT costs about 60% less per mile kilometre than Skytrain, the Skytrain for Surrey movement can, disingenuously, argue that the costs are actually the same.

But, as framing goes, there is a much bigger problem with the “LRT versus Skytrain” debate. And that is because “LRT” is descriptive of literally hundreds of different systems using a wide variety of different technologies, from the Eglinton subway being bored under Yonge Street in Toronto, to the Sugarhouse neighbourhood streetcar in South Salt Lake City. “Light rail” refers to the vast majority of mass transit on tracks, powered by everything from diesel fuel to an electrified rail, running on everything from a dedicated subway tunnel to a shared lane on a busy commercial street, with cars ranging in length from a city bus to half a block of continuous train cars, with frequencies varying from every three minutes to every thirty.

In contrast, “Skytrain” refers to one, highly specific technology with which Lower Mainland riders are highly familiar. In this way the “LRT versus Skytrain” debate might be compared, in private vehicle terms, to “‘a used car’ versus ‘this 2012 BMW M3.’” Think this BMW is too expensive? Check out this used 2014 Mercedes; it costs way more! Think this BMW is too small for a family? Check out this this SmartCar; it’s half the size! Think this BMW is too old? Check out this 1976 Volkswagon bug! Etcetera.

We see this in spades with discussions of LRT. When the slowness of LRT needs to be emphasized, Toronto’s King Street Car rears its head, moving through congested traffic on a busy commercial strip with no special signals or dedicated lane. But when it comes time to discuss how much roadway private cars will lose, the King Car is quickly forgotten and, in its place, Toronto’s Spadina Car appears in its place, with its dedicated lanes, special signals and wide medians on either side of the line. And, of course, those opposing Surrey LRT do not stop looking for some LRT system somewhere that is, in some way, inferior to Skytrain when they reach the Eastern Time Zone. Glitches, design failures and overstressed systems the world over are offered as examples. Surely no driver would want the kind of invasive temporary rail gating that they tolerate in Istanbul!

Those defending LRT for Surrey end up not defending any specific LRT system but, rather, the worst feature every conceivable individual LRT system.

But surely, Surrey is considering a highly specific LRT system that can be compared to Skytrain. Not really. The Translink study of at-grade LRT is pretty vague about precisely what kind of vehicle and what kind of guideway might be built. And neither Translink, the province, the municipal government nor the feds is, in any way, beholden to follow the few vague things the study does suggest about the right kind of LRT. And the Surrey municipal government’s commissioned study is absurdly amateurish and vague, rivaled only by the putative Broadway Subway study that KPMG appears to have asked one of its summer interns to produce for the City of Vancouver.

Indeed, the failure of both Surrey City Hall and Translink to put forward more precise, detailed, incrementally feasible plans has contributed directly to Skytrain for Surrey’s success in hiding a pro-car, anti-transit, climate change denying agenda behind what appears to be a demand for better transit.

So, given the enthusiasm of both Translink brass and the Surrey First council for affordable rapid transit that eschews the tunneling and elevated guideways required in more densely-populated centres with narrower thoroughfares, why the vagueness?

My theory is that the reason lives in the only kind of LRT that I do not support for Surrey: one financed using a public-private partnership or “P3,” as the cool kids say. Both the BC Liberal-appointed Translink and BC Liberal-allied Surrey First party area eager to sign off on another dodgy public transit financing scheme. And BC Liberal and Surrey First friends and insiders cannot engage in the kind of profiteering P3s enable if too many details and specifics are ironed-out before public money is committed to the project.

Once upon a time, when Ronald Reagan led the free world and the NDP was selling socialism on your doorstep, P3s were an exciting, innovative new way of trying to build public infrastructure. Thatcherism was not yet a word and the Chicago School economists were the Young Turks of economic theory. And it had been a hundred years since the last round of corruption, graft and failure associated with P3s during the national railway booms of the 1870s and 80s.

Back then, one could credibly claim that “big government” and “union bosses” were out of touch with how to make a buck and innovate and that, therefore, government departments, especially unionized ones, were somehow inherently inefficient compared to the private sector. Maybe, the proponents of Canada’s second round of P3s argued, government should just pay private companies to do things it was used to doing for itself, like building highways or managing facilities. Just by virtue of not being the government, these companies would be so intrinsically efficient, by their very nature, they would be able to pay for everything a government could and still take a bunch of that money and return it to their shareholders in the form of profits.

It has been nearly forty years since we had those naïve thoughts, when we innocently decided to re-stage the financial boondoggles that brought down the governments of John A. MacDonald and Ulysses S. Grant but with fancier tech.

Now, we know better: P3s can sometimes create savings but not by being more efficient, exactly.

  1. Depressing Wages

As we saw with the Canada Line P3, transnational infrastructure companies can employ low wage workers at a rate far below what any self-respecting government could get away with giving its direct employees. While unionized and government construction jobs might pay a decent, family-supporting wage, P3 infrastructure firms typically replace those workers with non-union employees and, increasingly, temporary foreign workers (TFWs) who can be paid significantly less than the minimum Canadian wage. And TFWs have the added benefit of being rightless; if a TFW complains about inadequate or unsafe working conditions, they can be repatriated by their employer before they can ever make it before a Canadian court or labour relations board. P3s can save a lot of money that might otherwise find its way into the pockets of Canadians or into the coffers of the local businesses Canadian workers support with their consumer spending.

  1. Avoiding Canadian Law

Beginning with the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement, Conservative governments in Canada have, over the past generation signed agreement after agreement conferring special rights upon foreign corporations. Today, corporations from most countries in the world can sue Canada’s federal, provincial and municipal governments to be compensated for any financial losses resulting from environmental, labour, safety and health legislation that increases their costs of doing business. This means that corporations that do P3 projects can either skirt laws designed to protect the health and environment of Canadians or be compensated by governments for the increased cost of compliance. And because that’s a whole other branch of government usually, this compensation is never included in the cost of a P3.

  1. Profitable Exit Strategies

As we saw with the building and alleged maintenance of Ontario’s 407 toll highway, P3s can save money by kicking costs down the road. The firm contracted by Mike Harris’s Tories to build and maintain this new expressway began with a reasonable maintenance schedule but, as the years of its contract counted down, maintenance was delayed or done cheaply with the knowledge that the run-down highway and its significant structural remediation would be the responsibility of the government that ended up owning the road. And news that the maintenance costs of the road had suddenly skyrocketed upon its return to government hands just seemed to validate the market fundamentalists preaching the gospel of P3s.

But the reality is that P3s are actually far more expensive than publicly-financed, publicly-build infrastructure. And that once a project becomes the subject of a P3, its costs typically balloon out of control. This is for a few reasons:

  1. Project Vagueness and Inflationary Demands

Governments that want to give their friends and campaign contributors piles of money through P3s follow the course of the proponents of the Canada Line: make a deal with the private company before the details of the project have become too concrete or fixed. Ideally, a P3 deal should be a combination of vague and unpopular elements. Where a project is vague, the process of inking it in more clearly will reveal hidden costs that will require an increase in the sum paid to the private contractor. It should also include unpopular measures like cutting down the Cambie Street Boulevard or Green Timbers Park trees that will enrage high-income, politically-connected people, requiring some vastly more expensive alternative that will, again drive up the amount of money that must be paid to the private firm. During the Canada Line process an initial sum of $300 million for the private partner ballooned to $435 million, nearly a 50% increase, while the overall project cost gradually crept from $1.35 billion to $2.5 billion.

And it is not beneath private partners to actively manipulate public debate to inflate project costs once the original business deal is approved. Such spending on public and government relations firms is, for them, a good investment.

  1. Closed and Secret Procurement

Whereas government procurement from subcontractors must take place in the full light of public scrutiny, P3 agreements typically include provisions that procurement must be secret, non-competitive and administered by the private partner. That way, not just the investors in the private partner but various local and international construction, real estate and manufacturing firms can be vastly overpaid, often based on alleged rush orders, for goods they would never be able to charge as much for through an open, government tender system. And any private partner who wants a return engagement knows which firms are aligned with the governing party’s campaign contributors.

  1. High Interest Rates

The private sector companies with the best credit in North America still typically have way lower credit ratings than the most disreputable state and provincial governments. States and provinces never go bankrupt; they have a captive group of taxpayers who can be forced to make payments in ways that no board or shareholders can. For this reason, private partners who borrow money pay higher interest rates than if the government had just borrowed the money themselves; or, in the case of money extracted from investors, much higher returns are promised than a government would need to promise on bonds issued for the same purpose. In this way, P3s don’t just subsidize investors and private contractors; they typically constitute a direct subsidy to the financial industry.

  1. Guaranteed Profits

The Canada Line is not unique in its provisions to guarantee the private partner an annual profit for every year it operates the infrastructure it has built. Any time Canada Line ridership dips below a figure that would guarantee private profits, Translink is required to provide direct cash transfers from taxpayers and bus riders to the private partner. In this way, your average P3 falls into the Thatcherite slogan “nationalize the risk; privatize the profit!”

  1. Free Ad-Ons

When governments choose to add spurs, stations, lanes, floors and other extensions or expansions to P3 infrastructure, these typically increase the profitability of the infrastructure without costing the private partner a cent. This will be the situation with the Ravco, the corporation that owns the Canada Line, a $2.5 billion public asset that it purchased for $435 million whose planned 57th Avenue and Capstan Way stations it will receive as free, taxpayer-financed additions to its already-lucrative, asset which delivers guaranteed profits every year at taxpayer expense.

It is in this context that we must understand the recent BC government announcement that it would provide funding for a Surrey LRT, in cooperation with the City of Surrey, on the condition that it find a private partner. Provincial and local politicians are being deliberately vague about the scale, technology and route of the LRT not out of incompetence but as part of the game of P3s, which requires manipulating and confusing the public and obfuscating the actual planning and purchasing decisions. A clear, honest, specific LRT plan might serve Surrey taxpayers and Translink fare-payers but such specificity and detail will not serve the hitherto-unannounced private partner.

Our city and our region are ill-served by the false debate that is now underway: between an unaffordable plan paid-for with magic beans and a premeditated agenda of inefficiency and corruption. We can and must do better.

Transit for Surrey (part 1): Hey Surrey! Let’s Not Be the West’s Scarborough

This article has been edited to reflect the Toronto Transit Commission’s spring decision to attempt work to rehabilitate the SRT line until the Scarborough Subway or Eglinton Crosstown is completed. Thanks to Daryl Dela Cruz for pointing out the dated information in the original version. 

When I explain to my friends in the rest of Canada where my new home is I tend to say, “I live in Surrey, the Scarborough of Metro Vancouver.” Initially, I began using that shorthand because the English Canadian lexicon is so strongly based in Toronto, the centre of our private and public news media, publishing and music industries. For those who are skeptical of this claim, consider the fact that, if you live outside Greater Toronto, national news anchors don’t expect their viewers to know what your local area codes are. Nobody talks about the differences between the 250 and the 604 or the 780 and the 403 but we all know where the 416 area code stops and “the 905,” the holy grail of Anglo Canadian electoral politics, begins.

Scarborough resembles Surrey in more ways than being about the same driving time from the metropolitan region’s downtown and about the same population (600,000 give or take). Its urban geography is also strikingly similar: newer than the streetcar suburbs of the interwar period but substantially developed before current aesthetics of urban design became the vogue. In both Scarborough and Surrey, the aged strip mall is the most characteristic feature of the urban landscape.

Small strip malls, less than a block long, malls that might once have featured dying retail chains like Mac’s and Home Hardware, but are now host to distinctive, local businesses, often with bilingual signs, in the languages of local diasporic communities: more than anything else, these malls mark Scarborough and Surrey as a certain kind of urban space.

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(Multilingual strip mall signage in Scarborough)

While the wide high streets that abut these malls are often forbidding and difficult to cross, a curious new kind of pedestrian community is growing up here, leavened by the double sidewalks (one inside the strip mall beyond the angle parking, one along the main street maintained by the city), arterial bus lines and the post-war three-storey walk-ups to which the metropolitan area’s affordable housing stock has gradually migrated. And as core municipalities become increasingly unfriendly and unaffordable for families looking after children or elderly relatives, car-less teenagers and retirees spill out onto the crumbling concrete sidewalks from the only semi-detached homes many working families can afford.

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(Distinctive double-sidewalks in Scarborough)

Just as I was in my visits to Scarborough during my five years in Toronto, I am struck by the different noise culture I find in my new neighbourhood. Crying babies, garage band music, barking dogs: these are things we expect to hear walking by a residential area. As the centres of Vancouver and Toronto descend into a self-parody of endless gastropubs, yoga studios and coffee shops, the sounds of actual life, as opposed to the posed pretense of one, are inevitably shunted to the margins, to the last stop on the night bus route, to the last neighbourhood with sidewalks on the residential streets.

In Canada, one of that elite club of what academics term “white settler states,” comprising New Zealand, Australia, the US, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, the demand for affordable housing and the capacity to support dependents is felt most acutely among racialized communities. As Scarborough, Surrey and places like them become the only affordable choice for our least white citizens, both the myths and realities of racial ghettoization come to structure political discourse both within and about these communities.

In some ways, Surrey and Scarborough benefit from sensationalized coverage of racialized youth crime; property values are depressed, reducing taxes and making purchase and rental more affordable than in other places equidistant from the metropolitan cores. Yet with this affordability come all the expected ills: de facto and de jure profiling and carding, containment policing versus community policing, “tough on crime” politics that attacks the very programs and services needed to divert young and marginalized people, a “white flight” discourse that is nativist and xenophobic, promoting gated communities and private car-centred transportation and, lest it be forgotten, a bunch of actual crime.

Last year, even after the Ford dynasty’s popularity had collapsed in Etobicoke, Toronto’s westernmost suburban area, the community from which they hailed, in yet another cloud of crack smoke, Scarborough was the last municipal region to stand behind Rob and Doug and their promises to keep disabled kids, housing projects, “hug a thug” programs and bicycles out of people’s communities.

There are many reasons that Scarborough remained loyal to the Fords to the bitter end. The authenticity and honesty of an openly racist politics, in some ways, appealed to minority communities marginalized by the dissembling, smug, supercilious, patrician, patronizing racism of Toronto elites. And the “I’m drunk and on drugs too. Why don’t you stop hassling us!?” vote can never be underestimated.

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(Sample polling from the 2014 Toronto mayoral race)

But the reason I am beginning this series today is to draw attention to the most important issue in keeping the self-destructive politics of Ford Nation relevant in Scarborough: the demand to cancel an ambitious but practical plan for a light rail transit grid and its replacement with a vastly more expensive subway system like the one enjoyed in the centre of Toronto.

“Downtown Toronto gets a subway. Don’t we deserve one? Are we second-class citizens or something?” This politics galvanized an unwieldy coalition of car-lovers opposed to ceding one millimetre of pavement to LRT guideways and marginalized, low-income transit-dependent commuters feeling short-changed by downtown elites. And this kind of politics provided a great cover for transit opponents, arch-conservative climate change deniers who hoped that all transit, and its riders would quit Scarborough and go back where they came from. Instead of showing their true colours as nativist, long-term residents, deeply uncomfortable with the less wealthy newcomers in their neighbourhoods, they could appear to take up the cause of those very communities by demanding an absurdly ambitious, deliberately unaffordable, grandiose rapid transit plan on their behalf.

And how could the families looking after retirees, kids and disabled relatives disagree? How could low-income commuters disagree with the proposition that a 40kph subway was better than a 35kph LRT, with its bigger, air-conditioned cars? Who could disagree with the idea that a transit system supported by more of one’s neighbours was better than one reviled by older, whiter, more car-centred residents?

Today, we know the outcome of this kind of politics: Scarborough has the same rapid transit today that it had in 1985. There is no Bloor-Danforth subway extension; there is no Sheppard subway extension; the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT is behind schedule and will not be finished until 2022, thanks to endless political delays; and the Skytrain-like SRT line has now exceeded its lifespan. Today, the SRT is undergoing remediation work to try to extend its life to 2022; it is subject to frequent breakdowns and may be replaced with buses at any time if engineers are unable to hold it together. Today, Scarborough’s 625,000 residents have two reliable rapid transit stops, and another five that may close at any time.  As I will explain in later blog posts, this is a direct consequence of the “Scarborough Subway” politics sold by Rob Ford and his ilk, of a generation of dishonest political debate that culminated in his 2010 election claim in the that Ford could fund $36 billion worth of new subways with $50 million in cuts from Toronto’s operating budget.

As a former resident of Toronto and current resident of Surrey, I can see, perhaps with greater clarity than others, what the anti-LRT “Skytrain for Surrey” movement really is: a disingenuous anti-transit scheme for defending the vanishing car-centred, conservative Surrey of the mid-twentieth century. That kind of politics has produced a decade of squandered opportunities, rejected funding and dishonest political debate, transforming Scarborough into a transportation disaster. In the coming months and years, Surrey has a chance to learn some lessons from Scarborough, learn from its mistakes and strike a course that will build a feasible, affordable, modern transportation grid in this new kind of pedestrian community. I hope that we will.

How to Lose a Referendum in BC: Time for YES to Transit to Change Course

How can I tell I am in a referendum campaign in BC? Well, people who are encouraging me to vote “no” cover the waterfront with their positions on the issue before the public. In my forty-two years, I have been an active participant in nearly every referendum campaign my city and province have seen. I fought on the “no” side during the Charlottetown Accord referendum in 1992 and then, in 1996, I organized the “Yes to proportional representation” campaign in Vancouver’s municipal voting systems referendum. I served on the steering committee of the “yes” campaigns for proportional representation in the 2005 and 2009 provincial referenda on the voting system and here I am today, a foot soldier in the “Yes to better transit” campaign by the GetOnBoard BC coalition in the upcoming vote.

And things do not look good. British Columbians love voting “no” to things. Indeed, the only time I have been aligned with a referendum campaign that gained majority support, 58% voted for proportional representation in 2005, it was because we disguised ourselves as a “no” campaign.

The fact is that when most British Columbians look at a ballot, the option we are really looking for is “FUCK YOU!!!!” If that option isn’t available, they try to find the next best thing. If the word “no,” is on the ballot, we generally don’t need to look any further, as evinced by the crushing 70% victory for the forces campaigning against the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, despite being out-spent by our opponents by about twenty-five to one.

For all the talk about BC politics having changed since the days of WAC Bennett’s “socialist hordes at the gates!” and Education Minister Tony Brummett’s fist-pounding defense of the last Social Credit budget in 1991, “the people of the world have spoken and they will never, never accept communism!” we really are just the same people, the best market for negative populism in Canada. BC voters will choose whatever political formation most clearly articulates an anti-elite narrative that identifies a villain, his or her allies and their hidden agenda. As we saw in 2013, what we are not up for is “a better British Columbia, one practical step at a time” or in the case of the gong show I am backing this year, “creating a cleaner, safer, smarter transportation system.”

Because BC politics is fundamentally negative in that it is mainly about figuring out who is really in charge so that they can be punished for fucking everything up, British Columbians need to find unity in the political process in other ways. One way we do that is by having a provincial political scene in which 80-90% of voters have aligned themselves with one of only two major provincial parties for the past seventy-eight years. This locates us on big, diverse teams where we can feel like we are working shoulder-to-shoulder with half the province to stop those evil New Democrats/Socreds/BC Liberals/CCFers/Coalitioners from carrying out their hidden agenda to wreck everything.

An even more effective way to unite British Columbians and make them feel a sense of cohesion is a “no” campaign because, in BC, it doesn’t even matter what the ballot says: the result of defeating some hated measure (which is no doubt cloaking some even more dastardly hidden agenda) is that every voter will magically get their preferred alternative to whatever is on offer. That is how, during the Charlottetown Accord debate, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs worked side-by-side with John Cummins’ BC Fisheries Survival Coalition. That is why advocates for mixed-member proportional representation worked shoulder-to-shoulder with supporters of first-past-the-post in 2009 to defeat STV.

The “no” side in a BC referendum does not just succeed in making the perfect the enemy of the good. It succeeds in making everyone’s individual, imaginary perfect the enemy of a single, specific good. That is why people who want the BC government to build twice as much transit for free are working so harmoniously with those who oppose any further government funding of mass transit. That is why people who want transit to be funded only through progressive income and inheritance taxes are working so happily for a campaign run by the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation. In a “no” campaign, there is an implicit social agreement to enable each individual campaigner’s act of utopian self-deception, as I witnessed in 1992 when Preston Manning activists helped future gadfly and perennial candidate Imtiaz Popat produce a video explaining that a “no” vote was a vote for the restoration of hereditary indigenous rule for all of British Columbia.

When I speak with my fellow New Democrats who are campaigning for the “no” side, I have to listen to them explain how we should not have to pay any new taxes for this transit, how it should all come from general revenue, how it should include a reduction in or abolition of fares, how consumption taxes are regressive and how we should abolish the PST and replace it with higher corporate, income and resource taxes. Of course, they argue, Christy Clark will be made to see that transit should be free, consumption taxes are evil and we all must pay our fair share. To which I can offer only one lame response, “Based on what you know of the BC government and its ideology, do you honestly believe they will build the new transit you want anyway, after you vote ‘no’?”

But if asking people to confront their socially-enabled self-deception ever got anyone anywhere in BC politics, everything would already be different. This, obviously, is no way to get things done. As I have written elsewhere, one of the reasons we view political campaigns as a self-sufficient act, irrespective of their public policy outcome, is because we have grown so deeply pessimistic about the idea that the result of any vote will make our lives better in any way. People are enthusiastic about the “no” campaign not because they believe it will make their lives better but because it will provide real experiences of social cohesion and victory, rare commodities under present-day neoliberal hegemony.

Instead, I am writing this post to beg my side to retool, to stop and think about how negatively we British Columbians react to a paternalistic, cross-partisan elite consensus that presents some political outcome as good and positive for everyone.

The reality is that the “no” forces really do have a hidden agenda, that their puppet-masters are dangerous, shadowy forces of extreme-right think tanks who will be satisfied with nothing less than the total annihilation of our social safety net and the sacrifice of public health and education to their invisible-handed god. The fact is that climate change deniers, oil companies and Ayn Rand fanatics are sitting back in their plush leather chairs laughing about how easy we are to manipulate for their purposes and what witless dolts the clowns who pass for our local civic elite appear to be.

It’s time to stop all this nonsensical positivity. Identify the villain; expose their friends; explain their hidden agenda. Time is running out.

COPE’s Developer Donations: A Response

Mainstream media are now covering the Coalition of Progressive Electors’ campaign manager’s decision to ask key party candidates to actively solicit donations from real estate developers during the recent Vancouver civic election and the party executive’s decision to file a fraudulent election return with Elections BC to cover this up. Among those are some who actively worked to discredit my efforts and those of fellow director Kim Hearty to bring prior major ethical lapses foreshadowing these to light.

These included the ongoing membership of directors and future council candidates Tim Louis and Wilson Munoz in MAWO, a violent sectarian cult whose database is maintained by Louis, the commission sale of rent-a-crowd votes by the Mainlander organizers to Louis, efforts to intimidate me through interference with my partner’s career and workplace, ongoing misinformation of members and the general public concerning internal party practices and procedures, control of committee and director votes through direct cash payments by Louis to board members, committee members and parliamentarians prior to key votes and an ongoing alliance with real estate developer Michael Goodman, whose personal fortune comes from Fort MacMurray real estate development tied to tar sands expansion and providing mortgage brokering services to offshore speculators in Vancouver real estate.

Today, many people, especially candidates and party activists who have been aware of these issues all along are feigning surprise and outrage at this latest turn of events. This is all par for the course. To COPE activists, there are two kind of people in the world: (1) good people who are powerless and rail against the evil people who run things and (2) bad people who can be held responsible for all the bad things that happen. Because, for COPE members, people who can be held responsible for things are part of a separate ontological category than themselves, it is unsurprising that no COPE candidate, finance committee member, election committee member or board member (with the notable and exceptions of Anita Romaniuk and the party’s registered financial agent) has taken any responsibility for campaigning as the only party that does not accept donations from real estate development firms, actively soliciting and receiving donations from said firms and attempting to file a fraudulent financial report with Elections BC. That is because COPE members see themselves as the people who hold others responsible, not people who take responsibility. To a COPE activist, people who are responsible for things are an ontologically separate category of being.

Everyone active in COPE was either in possession of all the information they needed to know that their party’s campaign was nothing more or less than a fraud perpetrated on the people of Vancouver, or could have easily obtained such information had they practiced due diligence a potential candidate should.

That’s why everyone is pointing fingers and demanding each other’s resignations without, for a moment, wondering if they have anything to apologize for or resign over. While Gayle Gavin and Keith Higgins have gone to some effort to offer an apology to members, this apology actually belongs to the people of Vancouver. I hope that Anita, Gayle and Keith let the real victims of COPE’s fraud–the tens of thousands of voters who supported them–know how sorry they are.

Anyway, now that all this is blowing up, questions might be asked as to why I still endorsed three of the party’s twenty candidates. Here is my answer: because there was no risk of the party governing, because the party’s candidates, had they been elected, would have continued to understand the Vision-NPA majority as a set of ontologically separate beings who had nothing to do with him. While they would work to sabotage the creation of any kind of principled, democratic, accountable progressive party, they would have been immune to offers of power by the majority because to have actual state power is to be responsible and accountable for things — and that’s for that other species of creature, the black-hatted villains with power.

Below, I enclose the original resignation letter I sent to my supporters in early March of this year. The apologies I offer in it I now extend to Vancouver voters as a whole.

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Today, Carlito Pablo published excerpts of the letter below in the Georgia Straight. Because of the Straight’s pro-COPE/pro-Green slant, almost no part of this letter criticizing COPE appeared. Thanks to the distorted impression the article left, I now feel it is incumbent upon me to publish the whole document for those who, like Ann Livingston, found the piece largely devoid of my reasons for leaving COPE.

Tuesday, March 24th, 2014

Dear Friends and Supporters,

As Hunter S. Thompson would say, “after an agonizing reappraisal of the whole scene,” I have decided not to stand as a candidate for Vancouver City Council in 2014 for any party or as an independent candidate. You are among a great group of people who have worked hard, investing time, money and emotional energy in offering a progressive, populist alternative to Vision Vancouver this fall.

Please accept my thanks for all your commitment and hard work and my apologies for making poor decisions that have resulted in coming to naught. For those who hang out with me because you’re interested in long, over-analytical explanations, read on. For those just glad to be off the hook, please accept my thanks and know that I’ll be in touch in a more sociable way soon.

Unfortunately, I do not think that progressive Vancouverites are ready for a sufficiently broad left-populist alternative yet, despite how desperate the situation is. In my work to put together a big tent coalition that could run on a platform of constructive change and principled opposition, I have discovered the depth of the collective trauma caused by the fission and collapse of the COPE government between 2002 and 2005.

I have come home to a left that is profoundly divided and deeply distrustful, obsessed with petty score-settling and paranoid “I told you so!” politics. Ironically, the myriad warring factions that today comprise what passes for a civic left in Vancouver are united in their belief that we lost a tremendous, once-in-a-generation opportunity in 2002 to remake our city as a compassionate, diverse place in which it was possible to live with dignity from cradle to grave, a place that had room for kids, for families and for older people, regardless of their wealth or income.

When I came back to Vancouver in 2012, after an eight-year absence, it seemed clear to me who was at fault and what was to be done. It seemed obvious to me that the people who crossed from COPE and the Green Party to form Vision were the culprits, their betrayal leveraged by developer donations and the small cadre of federal Liberals and Shaughnessy and West Point Grey whose strategic alliances have kept them in continuous control of our city for three quarters of a century. It seemed to me that Vision was comprised of the cheapest sort of sell-outs, people willing to the bidding of big business for a fraction of the perks, donations and invisible exchanges NPA representatives would demand.

It seemed like America after Lincoln’s assassination, when the human rights gains of the Civil War were squandered by a corrupt, incoherent and unfocused presidency. Like US president Andrew Johnson’s relationship with the planter aristocracy of Dixie, the class insecurities of the former communists, socialists and Greens populating Vision’s front bench just greased the wheels for sweetheart deals, concession and corruption. NPA councillors would not be awed into multi-million dollar concessions by a game of squash at the Arbutus Club, a business lunch at the Vancouver Club, getting to commission their own rigged study from KPMG or $1000 seat at a Cancer Society fundraiser. This is a world in which they comfortably move, not like those underdressed Vision imposters. They would just not get as drunk on that fine Kentucky bourbon as today’s Andrew Johnsons seem to be.

It seemed that the state of the city could be explained by the low character of a handful of opportunists on the left. This was a credible narrative for me—Vancouver seemed to be the logical conclusion, the most extreme manifestation of Tony Blair’s Third Way.

But now I am not so sure.

Having tried to work in COPE the past eighteen months has made me see something darker and more frightening in our city’s self-styled progressives. When I signed up 89 people to show up and vote to emancipate COPE from its self-destructive relationship with Vision last April, I had failed to understand who and what COPE was; I had failed to understand the nature and character of my allies. I now realize that the people I installed as the new decision-makers in COPE are equally to blame for monstrous government our city has had to endure since the formal COPE-Vision split a decade ago.

COPE’s toxic, meeting-intensive culture of interminable, acrimonious, incoherent nonsense that is politely called “debate” would drive any sane person out of active participation within two years. This is not an accident. This is the plan. Years ago, back when he was one of my biggest supporters, Adriane Carr’s husband Paul George gave me some advice about to control an organization: make the internal environment so toxic that only crazy, ineffective people can stick around. I think that’s been the theory of my former allies in COPE for some time. When new people come in, get as much work out of them as you can and burn them out so that they never attend more than two annual general meetings, so they never crack the code of the party and challenge your leadership.

The two warring factions of COPE have operated together to make this a reality. David Chudnovsky’s faction played this game one way, becoming increasingly reliant on the fresh meat of young activists who could be thrown into the meat grinder that COPE was, in order to keep a small, secretive cabal in charge of the party and its direction. Tim Louis’s faction played the other way. To quote a long-time COPE activist and Louis supporter who ended all activity in the party after her former allies turned on her a few short months after attaining a board majority, “Tim finds very damaged people and he heals them—just enough.” It has been by learning and synthesizing the opposing faction’s strategy with his own over the past two years that Tim is now COPE’s undisputed, unchallenged autocrat.

Many things have kept the Louis faction effective over the years. They provide a sense of importance and social relevance to individuals who might find those things nowhere else. In this way they are committed to looking past disability in the most admirable way, thinking through the ways our society wastes the considerable talents of the traumatized, addicted, disabled, etc. and then mobilizing those talents in the service of the greater good. I once had just a fraction of their ability to see real talent in deeply dysfunctional, marginal individuals and find a way to include them in doing really important things, not just at the margins but at the centre of the enterprise. Over time, I have lost that talent; I don’t miss it but wish I had put it to better use when I had it.

Sadly, because many of these individuals have such limited social options and face such discrimination because of poverty, invisible disabilities and other marginalizing factors, they are left to endure a corrosive, predatory, abusive internal culture that they must weather due to the failures of our movements, and of society at large, to provide real alternative spaces for them to socialize and participate in struggles for social justice. I can leave COPE for greener pastures; for some whom I leave behind, there are no greener pastures—this is as good as it gets. Their experience is that the abuse they endure in COPE is the price they must pay to function as social and political beings in our city.

But there is something darker still. Every significant Louis supporter I have met has talked about the disaster of 2002-05 and how we must learn from those mistakes so that COPE – or some future left-oriented party hoping to govern – never squander another opportunity like that again. Theories about how to avoid this invariably showcase two factors:

(a)    COPE either didn’t have or didn’t follow good, radical, socialist policies for the city. This time we’re making radical, deep, well thought-out policy that serves social movements and thinks through the deep, structural changes our city needs.

(b)   COPE let careerists, moderates and lightweights looking for a payoff run as the party’s candidates because they were more charismatic or connected. Not this time. This time we’re running salt of the earth long time social movement activists.

But the problem is that the COPE they are building isn’t doing the things it imagines itself to be doing.

First, COPE has almost no policy and almost nobody is interested in it. When policies are put forward they are back-of-the-napkin ideas that arise on the floor of policy meetings, backed by minimal research or they are the personal hobby horse of a member, disconnected from the demands or interests of local social movements working on the issue. Curiously, what few policies there are are strangely conservative and often echo positions held by the current city council, especially when it comes to buck-passing to senior levels of government on transit, childcare and campaign finance reform. It is as though COPE doesn’t think it needs to make policy because it imagines that it is pure, incarnate policy—by being a thing, you don’t have to do the thing.

COPE in 2002, on the other hand, had a clear, coherent, robust body of policy, hashed-out by members over many years, cooperating closely with social movements and organized labour. The problem in 2002 was not lack of policy but the institutional disconnect between a party’s elected caucus and a party’s corporate organization. This problem was structural in character. No amount of rule-making by the corporation of a party can legally bind its caucus because elected officials are not legally recallable to a party; the only power a party has to discipline its caucus is to choose not to renominate them; COPE’s threatened use of this very power in 2005 is what led to the present state of affairs. The belief that using stronger language in party policy and stronger language to make the caucus accountable to the membership is wrongheaded in two ways: (a) the party is actually doing a worse job on those fronts that it was a decade ago, (b) this plan was tried and directly led to the present state of affairs.

Second, and much more importantly, there appears to be no understanding of how to recognize character or corruptibility. Tim Stevenson, for instance, was one of the most upstanding, ethical, principled members of the 90s NDP caucus, who ran against the party’s welfare cuts in 1996 and won the party’s nomination anyway. The view seems to be that if people were not bought-off by Vision and their developer friends last time or are presently associated with those who were not, they are tested, trustworthy, reliable people who will be able to stand up to threats, bribes and intimidation. In my view, the absolute opposite is true.

During my brief time in COPE, I came to discover that the current leadership group is structured on a politics of small-scale financial patronage of people with marginal employment prospects or otherwise straitened financial circumstances. Votes and committee composition might turn on sums of less than $200, doled out by the ruling patriarch, but these tiny amounts of money actually hold much of the putative leadership group together. While the scale of bribery within COPE is so small as to be statistically insignificant when compared against the reciprocal exchanges of donations development permits at City Hall, it is, if anything, more formal, more central to and more prevalent in the party’s day-to-day operations.

And yet, those financially tied to the party chairman will actually tolerate breaches of principle, vendettas and intimidation tactics that would raise the eyebrows of the most ruthless Vision operative. If the excuse-making, denials and cover-ups that followed the mobilization of MAWO (Fire This Time) and the sleazy reprisals against my family are anything to go by, Vision didn’t just poach COPE’s talent; it may actually have made off with some of the party’s more principled members. The overwhelming majority of principled people of the left in Vancouver today are not to be found in the leadership group of either party, having abandoned both in disgust while I was living in Ontario and the US.

Let us consider, then, that those who comprise COPE today have not sold out because they are principled but because nobody is buying. Let us consider the possibility that the creators of Vision bought off only those worth recruiting and that those individuals likely exacted a higher price in progressive policy concessions and political support than those who remain in COPE would have, that the invisible-handed God caused developers to purchase only genuine assets, not unreliable, damaged goods.

The fact is that if someone can be bought off for a $10/head commission on party memberships, a few hours of minimum wage data entry work or dribs and drabs of minimally-remunerated cold calling; if they are willing to look the other way in the face of lies, threats, intimidation and retaliatory attacks on members’ families and charitable enterprises, and write these things off as just the price of doing business for such a pittance, their chances of turning down a consulting contract from Westbank are minimal. If they are wowed and brag to their friends about getting to eat some inferior vegan appetizers at Tim’s house a couple of times per year, imagine how lunch at the Terminal City club would seem to this crew – or better yet, a weekend at Hollyhock or some other favoured Tides retreat location. COPE is not massing the army of the incorruptible; it is doing the very opposite: finding and mobilizing the most desperately corruptible in the city.

If we actually want people of conscience in our city government to arrest the extirpation of the elderly, of poor people, of families—really, of all but the richest and most privileged of us, we need to build a whole new political movement in this city, one that is safe and inclusive. We must begin from a basis of love and, equally importantly, honesty. We must acknowledge how far we have gone wrong, how far we have strayed from the path if we ever hope to build a political movement able to advocate for a better city. We must reject the politics of long shots and shortcuts and engage in the hard, rewarding work of once again creating a space where our city’s social movements and ordinary citizens can make their voices heard in the elected bodies of our city government.

If you’re interested in talking about that project, let me know. Either way, thank you so much for giving of your time and energy over the past year and a half. It has meant a great deal to me and I will be in touch in the coming months to thank you more personally. We had a lot of fun doing politics in the past year and a half; let’s not lose that.

I am sorry things worked out so badly. Ultimately, the responsibility is mine. I should have done a better job of listening to people who were around during the time I was gone. I should have checked my own ambition and not ignored the ample signs that I was leading you somewhere scary and bad. I really wanted things to be different this time. I’ll never give up and I’m sorry I’ve let you down.

In solidarity,

Stuart Parker

President, Los Altos Institute

Thursday, March 14th, 2014

PS        After some thought, I have agreed to make this a public document with the following addition:

I have received increasing criticism for speaking out against corrupt and unethical behaviour in COPE. Apparently, there is an implied duty on the part of party supporters to participate in covering up abuse and corruption whenever they see it in the party, even when it is directed against them. You don’t really believe in social justice—the theory goes—if you are not willing to counsel silence or publicly deny the testimony of those who do speak out.

Coming out of the black community, this programmatic silence is well-known to me. It is how we created early “role models” in communities too profoundly traumatized by the legacies of slavery to produce many healthy people. During my last month in COPE, I leaned on the writings of bell hooks about how the creation of false heroes through practices of deception and  excuse-making has, itself, become destructive, producing mental ill-health and placing the least healthy among us in our vanguard.

Hooks talks of her refusal to keep confidences she has never agreed to keep. Witnessing or hearing of bad acts does not conscript us into the project of secret-keeping and silencing. In fact, the belief that it does, first and foremost, created Vision Vancouver and its politics of hypocrisy, corruption and cover-ups, the belief that we not only need not but must not hold ourselves to the standards to which we hold our adversaries. Our politics must be underpinned by courage, decency and honesty. To build the kind of solidarity capable of challenging the forces of global capital, we must build our movements on practices of truth-telling and open debate. And I still believe we can.

Crafting a Left Voting Strategy for November 15th, Part 4b: Tim Louis and Adriane Carr Ruined My Day; Help Them Ruin Kerry Jang’s

Reviewing What We Know

Casting strategic votes in Vancouver is going to be tough this election. We cannot tell much from the polls but this is what we can tell. To review what I have said in previous posts and what has been reported in the media,

  1. The NPA is close enough to Vision Vancouver in popular support that its top candidates are almost certain to place ahead of Vision’s bottom candidates.
  2. Adriane Carr continues to enjoy enough popular support to place in the top ten spots again and it is possible, though not likely, that her running mates, Pete Fry and Cleta Brown could place as high and ninth or tenth place.
  3. RJ Aquino, the sole candidate for One City enjoys substantial financial support from trade unions and key members of the civic left, including some working on election day turnout operations for their union and for Vision Vancouver. Nevertheless, he does not register in any poll measuring voter intention.
  4. The Coalition of Progressive Electors, sitting at about 10% of the vote, has prioritized injuring Vision Vancouver over any serious attempt to elect any candidate. For this reason, even its most credible candidates, with experience in government and strong media profiles, do not register in polling or, if they do, are at the very bottom of the pack, with less than half the votes they need to reach tenth place.
  5. Surrey First, One Surrey and Safe Surrey are neck-and-neck in the polls but, given the larger and more established election day turnout machine and Surrey’s appalling 24% turnout rate, this likely means Surrey First is leading.
  6. A Chinese name delivers a 5-10% bonus in votes, coming primarily from white voters who subscribe to Rob Ford’s theory of East Asian people as embodiments of thrift and hard work.
  7. A name near the beginning of the alphabet delivers a 5-10% bonus in votes, coming primarily from voters choosing a mixed slate but running out of votes before reaching the bottom of the ballot.
  8. A South Asian name delivers 10-20% penalty, coming from primarily from white voters who have nativist sensibilities and an inchoate sense that people with above-average rates of political party participation and brown skin are a source of “corruption.”
  9. There is no possibility of delivering a progressive majority on either Vancouver or Surrey city councils.

With these nine points in mind, I am making my recommendations.

Vancouver Endorsements

Meena Wong (COPE): Meena Wong is a far better mayoral candidate than COPE deserves. And she has put on a tremendous campaign without money or elite support. She is almost certain to score better than any third-party mayoral candidate in living memory. Her platform, emphasizing compassion, duty and affordability is the best platform. It has been my pleasure to work with her in the NDP, COPE and the proportional representation movement. She is not just a great candidate but a great person of unimpeachable character.

Risk: Casting a symbolic vote for Meena in this election could result in the election of Kirk Lapointe and the defeat of Gregor Robertson.

Reward: Casting a symbolic vote for Meena in this election could result in the election of Kirk Lapointe and the defeat of Gregor Robertson. Let me elaborate: whether or not Vision is returned to office, it is clear that our current mayor is one of the forces that is most influential in dragging the party to the right and placing it in the hands of developers. Vision will be a better, more progressive caucus without him, less likely to be at the beck and call of developers. A vote for Meena is strategic because it doesn’t just symbolically show that there are hard-core progressive voters in two; it runs the risk of making Vision a better party.

Adriane Carr (Green): Adriane is currently the only progressive opposition voice on council. To lose her would be a major blow to our city. As I predicted in 2011, she was the perfect person for the job of one-woman opposition, doing the work of four councillors and making it look easy and fun while she skewers Vision time after time.

Risk: In an election that is so close, it is highly likely that, at most, one progressive opposition councillor will be elected. If you want RJ Aquino, Tim Louis or Lisa Barret to win, casting a vote for Adriane makes that harder because they won’t be able to gain on her in the rush for ninth or tenth spot. A vote for Adriane could defeat Tim, RJ or Lisa if electing them is your priority. The other risk is, of course, that Adriane is a ruthless, autocratic dictatorial leader; some of the passion that animates her animus towards Vision is a slash and burn politics that will not tolerate apostate Green Andrea Reimer, her protégé, wielding power in this city. While Adriane is the best choice to oppose and stymie Vision, she will stand as an obstacle to the formation of any open, democratic progressive alternative in this town.

Reward: The reward of electing Adriane is that there is a committed, implacable opponent of Vision Vancouver calling for transparency, sustainability, equity and accountability on council. We will have a watchdog, a gadfly, a passionate advocate. Ultimately, I believe that the danger of empowering Adriane to prevent the formation of a big tent progressive party is massively outweighed by the service she will perform as a progressive councillor. In my view, taking stock of the actual situation before us, Adriane Carr is the best and most important vote you can cast.

Tim Louis (COPE): Tim is the only COPE candidate who is registering in the polls. Eight places back, it is highly unlikely he can win but Tim is a brilliant man, and a fighter. I would never count him out. Like Adriane, he has treated me horribly, engaging in slash and burn political overkill to drive me out of COPE, if not as bad, certainly in the same league as the kind of politics Adriane used in her dealings with me in the late 90s. Both Tim and Adriane have ruined my day many times. I believe that, if both are elected, they will, together, be able to ruin the day of Kerry “affordable housing is something that somebody can afford” Jang, and infuriate our city council’s development industry shills. If the determination and ruthlessness Tim and Adriane have shown in their dealings with me are anything to go by, I think that, as a two-person opposition team, they might well cause some Vision councillors to quit even before their terms end.

Risk: As with Adriane, the things that will make Tim a great councillor will make him an obstacle to the creation of any big-tent left party capable of governing. After all, he was a key protagonist in driving moderates out of COPE in the first place, sending good people like Tim Stevenson and Sharon Gregson into the arms of the developers.

Reward: If we don’t elect people like Tim and Adriane, how many low- and middle-income people will be left in this city to vote for a better party in 2018? Possibly not enough. Ultimately, the reward of returning Tim to council vastly exceeds the risk because, without a strong, implacable, determined opposition, Vision and the NPA will annihilate this city’s affordability.

Lisa Barrett (COPE): I wish that COPE had run a different campaign and featured the two-term mayor of Bowen Island, former Green candidate, dedicated organizer and all ‘round fine human being Lisa Barrett was, like Meena, slumming it on their slate. My hope is that despite the absence of this, appearing as close as she does to the beginning of the alphabet, that 10-20% bonus might just push her up into a level of support where she could compete for tenth spot.

Risk: The only risk of voting for Lisa is that your vote will probably be wasted.

Reward: With Lisa on council, there is a chance that we could have a representative there who is willing to begin the long, arduous work of building a big tent progressive party.

RJ Aquino (One City): RJ Aquino is a solid candidate, a good activist and a person with many respected members of the civic left standing behind him who could neither abide the corporate toadying of Vision nor the dysfunctional madhouse politics of COPE. Sadly, his support base is so enmeshed in an inward-looking trade union culture that consistently overestimates how effectively it is reaching non-unionized people, I worry that polls are right and RJ doesn’t have a hope in hell. Nevertheless, with his name at the top of the alphabet, a solid vote concentration strategy, great allies in the Public Education Project and CUPE, he has a shadow of a chance of winning.

Risk: I worry that RJ’s backers spent so much time fighting Tim and crafting greasy deals with Vision that their immediate instincts are not openness, inclusion and transparency. Certainly my attempts to even communicate with One City seem to bear that out. I worry that, like Tim and Adriane, RJ may also turn out to be more of a hindrance than a help in creating a big tent progressive opposition. Some of his backers’ promises and plans have reduced my fears but not entirely.

Reward: It would be great to have the candidate with the best, smartest team and the best, smartest policies on council, advocating affordability strategies that don’t require magic, corporate largesse or mind controlling Christy Clark, not to mention a candidate who has a policy to make sure my pint is really a pint.

What? Nobody Else?

There are a lot of good candidates that I do not recommend people vote for because of the way multi-member plurality voting works. Because I am encouraging people to cast votes for candidates based on their heft in a minority situation and not pretending we’re choosing a government, which is what I advise voters to do for Parks and School Board, I am reluctant to recommend votes that could displace one of these four individuals who are desperately needed on council. Strong cases can be made to vote for Pete Fry (a Strathcona community leader and a second Green), Tim Stevenson (the conscience of Vision and a global leader and pioneer for queer equality, who could pull a Gregor-less Vision left), Niki Sharma (a needed single-parent and South Asian voice with a stellar track record for equity on Parks Board) and Cleta Brown (a great black leader in our city and another potential second Green). But any of those candidates could potentially displace Adriane, Tim, RJ or Lisa for the one or two non-NPA, non-Vision spots on council.

Our civic opposition has to face into major headwinds for the next four years. They must be dogged, determined and implacable, willing to put everything on the line to stop the agenda of dispossession that both the NPA and Vision support. A single councillor must have a voice as powerful as that of half a dozen ordinary members of council; they must be incorruptible; and they must be willing and able to stand alone, relishing the fight they must bring to the council majority every single day. We cannot allow sentimental attachment and genuine affection for the most progressive Vision candidates to cloud our judgement, nor dare we elect Greens who are not battle-tested and ready not just for the onslaught but for the charm offensive that seduced Andrea Reimer and placed her on their front bench.

I have known all of the four council candidates I recommend. Three of them dislike me, perhaps even loathe me. But they are the right people for the job before us.

Surrey Endorsements

As in Vancouver, the hope of a progressive council majority in Surrey is out of reach. Instead, city council voters need to vote strategically to maximize the progressive voices on council.

Barinder Rasode (One Surrey): Even if Barinder is really the law and order conservative she presents herself as, something very important will be achieved with her election. For many years, South Asian people in Surrey have been vastly underrepresented relative to their demographic strength. While in single-district first-past-the-post elections at the federal and provincial levels, racially biased voters have held their noses and voted for candidates of South Asian extraction out of party loyalty, the multi-member plurality system at the municipal level has allowed a racist minority to keep sterling candidates out of office, based on geographic origin of their family lineage. For this reason, a Rasode victory would turn on its head decades of embarrassing underrepresentation for an important group of people who have contributed much to Surrey.

More importantly, Barinder Rasode has been the best sort of Blue Dog centrist pragmatist, signaling through candidate selection, endorsements and organizer recruitment that her new party, One Surrey is ready to be a big tent that offers a better deal and more prominent place to progressives than Surrey First does with its aging, champagne socialist token, Judy Villeneuve. If left and progressive Surrey residents choose to make Barinder mayor, we may see the kind of civic renaissance, at the level of senior civil service appointments and issue leadership that Calgary has enjoyed under Naheed Nenshi. While it is possible that she will not rise to the occasion as mayor, she is a far more compelling choice than Linda Hepner or the disaster that Doug McCallum presents.

Risks: It is possible that, in a close race, Rasode may draw enough votes away from Hepner to elect McCallum. If the council race were not so close to being a draw, this might not be a concern because, as Toronto proved under Norm Kelly, sometimes progressive changes happen faster when there is a conservative troglodyte for mayor, whose mere existence drives council to be more civilized and equity-focused in its policies.

Rewards: Not only would thousands of young, South Asian people in Surrey have a mayor who reflected their portion of the community, Surrey would have the most progressive mayor it could reasonably elect and a beachhead for a better deal for progressives and leftists within a big tent.

Michael Bose (One Surrey): Michael doesn’t just make this list because he is the nephew of the last NDP mayor, Bob Bose. But it doesn’t hurt. In his own right, Michael has a solid NDP pedigree, sitting on the Agricultural Land Commission and demonstrating a progressive record on the Surrey Memorial Hospital Foundation. And near the top of the alphabet, with a recognized family name, he is the One Surrey candidate most likely to win.

Risks: With so few progressive candidates running for major parties, there is little danger that a vote for Michael will displace other progressives in contention for a council seat.

Rewards: It is highly likely that the One Surrey caucus will be small. As such, which candidates end up on council will make a huge difference with respect to the character of One Surrey as a party. If the party does not win a majority but does elect Michael, he will play a crucial role in setting its direction and establishing its character as a new political formation.

Gary Hoffman (Independent): As my friend and Surrey resident and long-time NDP activist Chris Green observes, very few candidates have had the courage to break out of the white flight moral panic discourse that has enveloped this campaign. For courage alone, Gary is to be commended. Not only that, he has campaigned on key equity issues: affordability and accessibility. Gary’s campaign and that of Nicole Joliet have been the only progressive campaigns in Surrey this cycle. They should be rewarded with votes, even if Gary has, according to polling and lawn sign presence, little chance of victory.

Risks: The only risk of voting for Gary is that it will be wasted.

Reward: On the remote chance, Gary wins, he could act as a major beachhead on council. And, if he loses, a decent vote count could still help to embolden those thinking of mounting a genuinely progressive in 2018.

Judy Villeneuve (Surrey First): Judy has been an important voice for the progressive minority in the Surrey First coalition. Originally elected on the SCE slate with Bose, she has survived a series of political shifts in Surrey, in large measure by not reliably sticking to progressive principles publicly. While she is, no doubt, a voice of moderation in the current regime, she is not a councillor likely to courageously take a position in favour of marginalized or low-income communities, as evinced by her silence in the current effort to throw recovery house occupants into the streets in the hopes that they migrate to Vancouver, where the local health authority has more plentiful resources for homeless people.

Risks: It is possible that, in this highly crime-focused election and, with all parties so close, Villeneuve might dislodge a more progressive independent or One Surrey councillor. While such a chance is not highly likely, it is certainly within the realm of possibility.

Reward: It is entirely possible, that, as in 2011-14, Villeneuve will be the closest thing to a progressive on council and, even if there is more than one progressive or left councillor elected, she will be the only one in the probable governing caucus, that of Surrey First.

No One Else!?

Yep, as in Vancouver, I am recommending a very small slate. In my view, the most likely election outcome is that Surrey First will win a majority of council seats and Safe Surrey and One Surrey will have, at most three council seats to divide amongst themselves. With that understanding, it is simply too dangerous to throw votes at vaguely progressive centre-right. One Surrey candidates like Narima dela Cruz or Kal Dosanjh, based on the danger that they will displace Michael or stand in the way of Gary’s longshot candidacy.

Well, that about wraps it up. Happy voting tomorrow. And stay tuned for my post-election analysis on www.LosAltos.Ca

Crafting a Left Voting Strategy for November 15th, Part 4a: Plurality Voting and My Picks for Schools and Parks

Proportionality, Plurality and the Mathematics of Chaos

In 1995, Mike Harcourt’s government commissioned a study from SFU’s Institute for Governance Studies, headed by future NDP MP Kennedy Stewart. Stewart’s report recommended that, in municipalities throughout the province, the “at-large,” “block vote” or multi-member plurality voting system that I described in the first post in this series be replaced by the voting system we use in federal and provincial elections, first-past-the-post. For a reason that still eludes me, we call this system “the ward system” when we apply it to cities, even though it is one of many possible ward systems. Why not just call it what we call it at the other two political levels? Who knows?

In any case, Stewart recommended this system as a clear improvement on the current system for a number of reasons, one of which might surprise some people in the voting reform movement: it was a minor step towards proportional representation. Contrary to some popular beliefs, proportional representation is not one particular voting system; it is a principle. The more proportionally representative a system is, the fewer wasted votes it contains and the more the share of the vote received by a party corresponds to the share of the seats it wins.

One of the reasons that first-past-the-post is more proportional than, for instance, multi-member plurality voting or instant runoff voting (IRV/AV) is that it generates more chaos and randomness, more “noise” from a statistical perspective. That’s because, in order to make one’s vote count, a voter has to guess roughly how every candidate running in their area is doing and cast a vote based on that guess. While multi-member plurality voting or “block vote” doesn’t generate as much randomness and chaos, it does, by virtue of being a plurality voting system, generate some, because it requires guessing.

Instant runoff voting (IRV) is a system in which voters in a single district rank candidates in order of preference and see their vote transfer to their next-favourite candidate if their favourite didn’t get enough votes. We can’t do that in a plurality system, in which voters mark Xs instead of numbers on their ballots. Sometimes voters guess wrong about who is in first or second place and accidentally pick people with no hope of getting elected. It is often these bad guesses that account for the representation of minority viewpoints in plurality voting systems, that make them unintentionally produce slightly more proportional results overall, when compared against majoritarian systems that use ranked ballots. (That’s not to say that all systems that use ranked ballots fail to produce proportional results; STV is one of the most proportional systems out there.)

So let me be clear from the outset: making your vote count in Vancouver or Surrey tomorrow involves guessing how other people will vote and casting a ballot based on those guesses. At least some of the guesses you make will be wrong and some of your votes will be wasted. That’s a shame but there we are.

But I’m Against Strategic Voting!

All people who vote seek to affect the world around them by voting. Because the voting systems we have often waste our votes and have us end up with none of the candidates we like winning, some people have started suggesting that we can do a better job of affecting the world around us by casting votes based on their symbolic value, casting votes that “send a message” even though they elect nobody. Sometimes—and this election is one of those times—I give people such advice. But let us be honest about two things:

  • Just as you don’t control how a victorious candidate you pick will act once you have elected them, you don’t control how the people to whom you wanted to send a message will interpret your vote. Often the people from whom you withhold expected votes will get mad at you and say “to hell with those guys! I’m not even going to try to make them happy anymore!”
  • You are still voting strategically. It’s just that your strategy is to try and change public discourse based on the pile of wasted votes to which you have chosen to contribute.

To this, some people respond with “but I’m voting with my heart!” In federal elections, this will then be followed by a claim like “every Green vote makes the world greener.” In that case, you’re still a strategic voter; you’re just voting based on a flawed theory of cause and effect, magic or junk science.

So, let’s go forward with the idea that we’re all voting strategically and we’re just trying to come up with a good voting strategy. So let’s start easy.

School and Parks Boards

The Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation has faced a lot of criticism in the past three years by community centre groups and the Vancouver Aquarium. I happen to agree with a small amount of that criticism but disagree with most. But what impresses me most about the board in Vancouver has been its courage and self-confidence in standing up to our tenants. That’s right. We own the community centres and the land on which they and the Aquarium sit. This is public land that we run by electing commissioners to the Board to make decisions on our behalf.

To a greater extent than any previous board, our current Parks Board has chosen to make this a reality for Vancouverites, by placing and enforcing new conditions on the Aquarium’s lease. Now, I happen not to agree with those conditions. “Let the whales fuck,” is my view. But what I do agree with is the board’s willingness to set policy and defend that policy in court.

Similarly, I strongly support the board’s termination of centre-specific community centre membership and the introduction of a single card for all community centre programs and activities across the city. “Membership has its privileges” has no place as an ethic in our public facilities and I am glad to see the breakup of the system of balkanized private clubs where centres in wealthy neighbourhoods can offer the most services at the lowest cost, while centres in poorer areas struggle to provide the basics. The process of nationalization that our Parks Board has begun is dragging our community facilities at least into the twentieth century and making our shared ownership a reality. The governance of our community facilities should be determined in an election in which all of us can vote, not in closed meetings of private, fee-paying clubs.

Vancouver Parks Board: Endorsing Five Vision Candidates and Two Opposition Candidates

For the reasons above, I strongly endorse Vision incumbent Trevor Loke, the only sitting Vision commissioner seeking re-election. I also support Coree Tull, with whom I worked on the Nathan Cullen campaign and who I know will make an excellent commissioner, committed to carrying on this work. But, given Vision’s continued rightward drift at the Council level, it is going to be important to insure that its opposition is a progressive one, not a conservative one at the Parks Board. Although her party opposed nationalization of the centres, I nevertheless endorse Anita Romaniuk, the sanest, most level head left in COPE, one of only three candidate with previous government experience, and the party’s only realistic shot at a Parks Board seat. I also endorse, Stuart MacKinnon who acquitted himself admirably as the Green Party’s Parks commissioner two terms ago. To round out those four strong candidate, I recommend votes for former COPE Parks candidate, now on the Vision ticket, Brent Granby, along with his running mates Naveen Girn and Sammie Jo Rambaua.

Vancouver School Board: Endorsing the Teachers’ Association Picks

Educators, opinion leaders and parents associations have been just shy of unanimous in supporting the School Board candidates listed on the front page of this morning’s Metro. The incumbent Vision board and the candidates for the Public Education Project, Jane Bouey and Gwen Giesbrecht, both of who were on the 2011 COPE slate with Anita and Brent. Of the excellent team Patti Bacchus has assembled, I want to particularly encourage a vote for Cherie Payne, not just because of her sterling record on the board but as part of a much-needed group of emerging leaders in Vancouver’s black community. A vote for Cherie isn’t just a vote for a strong team with good values; it is a vote for strong, black female leadership in this city. It is also important for Allan Wong, first elected with COPE a decade and a half ago, to be able to continue with his strong equity agenda that he honed in the city’s oldest progressive party.

More than on any other board, I advise against a COPE vote here. Not only are such votes a waste, they send the wrong message to a party that has treated its school trustees and schools activists so shabbily since 2013.

Surrey School Board: Surrey Progressives and Nicole Joliet

Nicole Joliet cannot win but she is, in all likelihood, the most progressive candidate running for anything in Surrey or Vancouver. For that reason alone, she merits a symbolic vote. But it is also important to show solidarity with a trans candidate in a city whose school board politics have, historically, been organized around homophobic book bannings and the repression of gay-straight alliances. As the step-parent of a queer kid myself, it is really important to me that we send a message not just to politicians and voters in Surrey but to the city’s large and vibrant queer youth population that they have our support.

It is unfortunate, then, that the Charlene Dobie and the Surrey Progressives are running a full slate. It means that, to vote for Nicole, you will have to drop one Surrey Progressive. Just don’t make that one Charlene, the party’s leader and best shot at keeping a progressive presence.

And I have run out of time! Vancouver and Surrey Council endorsements later tonight.

Crafting a Left Voting Strategy for November 15th, Part 3: The Americanization of BC Municipal Politics

Having lived in the US and studied its political history professionally, I must confess that there is something truly beautiful about a US election. With basically unlimited money to spend, the best, most competent people are hired to run and orchestrate campaigns. From living in Providence, RI during the 2010 midterms and Kansas City, MO in the lead-up to the 2012 presidential election, I can recognize the US Democratic Party’s urban politics pretty well. And they are here in BC, in the form of Vision Vancouver, running for re-election on the identical slogan, rhetoric and image as the Obama re-election bid. We will go “Forward” (reminiscent of the 1996 Citizen Kang episode of the Simpsons, “twirling, always twirling towards freedom!”) with a good-looking, well-dressed, unflappably calm GenX future-focused leader and his odd mixture of friends and allies in the entertainment, technology and financial sectors, backed by organized labour, racialized populations, urbanites and youth.

But it was not looking at the Vision campaign that made me realize the extent of the Americanization of Vancouver politics. It was the bizarre NPA endorsement of pipelines. As I said to Peter Armstrong in a recent e-mail, “here is the pattern I observe:

  1. Vision claims you hold an unpopular position
  2. You state that the thing Vision is concerned about isn’t under the city’s jurisdiction
  3. Vision claims that the issue is “important” and of concern to everyone
  4. You state that the thing Vision is concerned about isn’t under the city’s jurisdiction
  5. Vision states that you’re hiding the unpopular position they claim you hold
  6. You announce that Vision has been right all along and you do hold that unpopular position”

Why on earth was it important for Kirk Lapointe to start defending oil tankers, the LNG industry and various other unpopular fossil fuel initiatives? Because it’s not just that Vision has become the Democrats; the NPA has become the Republicans. This is a party that couldn’t resist leaping into the briar patch. More on that in a moment.

If Canadians don’t recognize Vision it’s because, from the apostasy of Lester Pearson as an embarrassing bought shill for the Cold War US Democratic Party to Jean Chretien’s denunciation of the Drug War and Iraq War, Canadian politics was very much culturally and institutionally distinct from the politics Down South. But since the rise of the modern Conservative Party, our politics is, less and less, that of a vassal of the American Empire and more and more, that of its extension, an unrecognized territory already enmeshed in the US party system, a white Puerto Rico.

US society, for endogenous reasons that need not concern us here, has come to be defined by an intra-elite split primarily driven by epistemological rather than conventionally ideological disagreement.

While I make a historical cultural case elsewhere for this split, its most significant driver is global climate politics. Because of the scientific consensus concerning both human-caused climate change and measures necessary to address it, America’s elite has fractured. A portion have aligned themselves with the majority of the global capitalist class in favouring a shift away from a fossil fuel-based energy economy through measures like cap and trade and carbon taxes that can concurrently reduce emissions and intensify the widening gap between rich and poor. A roughly equal number remain both sentimentally and economically welded to the energy source that enabled America’s rise to global hegemony in the first place, petroleum. In recent US elections, we have seen these two elites go toe-to-toe, backed by large, unwieldy coalitions.

The elite constituency that has ended up dominating Democratic Party politics has forged a coalition comprising non-white voters, younger whites, college-educated and socially liberal whites, trade unionists and environmental activists. Republicans have forged a coalition comprising wealthy whites, older whites, uneducated whites, socially conservative whites and church activists. Painting by the numbers, it is a foregone conclusion that Democrats have come to dominate cities; urban voters, being more educated, less white, more socially liberal and more environmentally concerned vote Democrat.

Prior to the rise of Vision (and its embryo Diet COPE), Vancouver voters were not organized like this. Wealthy Vancouverites grouped up in the NPA; less educated voters tilted left; the Chinese community, especially those more recently arrived, tilted towards the NPA. Vision’s new coalition of green roof real estate barons and their vassals is made possible, first and foremost, by the rate at which people watch and embrace the politics of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, in which low-income people are expected to side with the Democratic machine, even as they tut and shake their heads at the endless series of surprising sell-outs.

This has severely hobbled the NPA in its quest to regain dominance in the city since 2002. With its principals, particularly Armstrong, so strongly linked to Canada’s Republican farm team, the Harper government, it has struggled to regain the cultural traction it needs to return to its role as the city’s natural governing party. Now that development interests and unions fit together in Vision Vancouver the way they do in the Chicago or San Francisco Democrats, Armstrong’s party is reliant a politics of stealth and outside money from resources companies and a small number of local millionaires with personal grievances with the mayor. And the NPA’s inability to resist praising LNG, Kinder Morgan and Chevron illustrates just how hard it is to maintain this stealth footing. Similarly, its efforts to avoid spooking wealthy social liberals cost it dearly in the departure of its most senior elected official Ken Denike over his homo-and transphobia.

Due to the converging factors of (1) the extension of the new, post-Harper, national party system into the city, (2) the convergence of Canadian and US news media on both the right and left, and (3) the fundamental struggle between a local economy based on selling lifestyle aesthetics and a city based on shipping oil to Asia, Vancouver politics has become a fight between Democrats and Republicans.

The ambivalence Vancouver leftists and progressives feel towards Vision is a long-felt experience for US leftists and progressives since the end of the Cold War and the rise of Third Wayism and the Clintons. That is why Vision’s relationship to unions is gradually shifting from one of partnership to dominance exemplified in the shakedown of CUPE members, threatened with the privatization of their jobs if they didn’t donate protection money to Vision. (And somehow right-wing bloggers spin this as the union exploiting Vision!)

In Surrey, what we are seeing is, again, more comprehensible once we apprehend the Americanization of politics. This is a campaign in a suburb in a blue state or a city centre in a purple one, in which Blue Dog Democrats face off against urban Republicans, united in a discourse of tax cuts, program cuts and “get tough” law enforcement policies funded, no doubt, by the tax cuts. While every party in the election, aside from the Surrey Progressives running for School Board, articulates essentially identical “white flight” suburban policies that focus on familial virtue, thrift and fear of crime, the parties must communicate with their base using dog whistles.

As in much of the suburban US, the Blue Dogs built an electoral juggernaut over the past decade, in the form of Surrey First, a centre-right party with a token progressive (Judy Villeneuve) on its front bench, all the while pushing white flight politics, alternately stoking and the cooling the fear of crime necessary to maintain an economy driven by real estate and building trades.

Today, there is an opening for the local Republicans in the form of the Safe Surrey Coalition. This slate has sought to distinguish itself by having the most viciously authoritarian poor-bashing policies, taking advantage of the splitting of the Surrey First Blue Dogs into a pair of superficially identical parties. But neither Linda Hepner’s nor Barinder Rasode’s Blue Dogs are countering this by echoing pretty much whatever Safe Surrey’s Doug McCallum says. The election has devolved, for the most part, into three parties with nigh-identical “law and order” platforms communicating with their bases through dog whistles and identity politics.

Because, in a place where voter turnout was 24% last time, it is ultimately the election day performance by local political machines that determines outcome, and my money is still on Linda Hepner’s Surrey First surviving its split with Rasode and the creation of One Surrey. If Surrey First is defeated it will be because either McCallum or Rasode has built a turnout machine more formidable than is evident to a non-insider like me.

What will defeat Vision, if they are defeated—and I doubt it—will be that not enough Vancouverites are habituated to this new reality but instead insist on sentimentally clutching our collapsing Cold War party system, refusing to fold COPE or launching new tries at a genuine left, as with One City and Public Education Project.

But Vision has planned for this too. That’s why the polls between Cambie and Rupert, between Burrard Inlet and 45th Avenue remain closed until tomorrow. Vision candidates have returned, in recent days, to Commercial Drive and Mount Pleasant to campaign because the point of only permitting advance voting on the West Side and South Slope wasn’t to prevent the old COPE heartland from voting. It was to delay it voting until the “don’t split the vote,” “stop the NPA rhetoric” could be elevated to a fever pitch and progressives and leftists stampeded back into the Vision tent at the last moment for just one day.

But still, I choose to sentimentally clutch. I choose to defy prevailing material, cultural and historical forces. I cannot abide a city where the only choice is which elite will benefit from the pauperization and expulsion of all but the wealthiest among us. Ultimately, although the city can exert no political power over the National Energy Board or the Metro Port Authority, it is the site of a culture war, a trophy to be won in this Manichean intra-elite struggle that is pulling us into the crucible of the American Empire.

Okay… last post later today, with endorsements in time for Saturday.

Crafting a Left Voting Strategy for November 15th, Part 2: School Board Slates and the Fruits of Declining Turnout

As neoliberalism takes hold of our civic imaginations, we increasingly think of ourselves as consumers of government services, taxpayers rather than citizens. And as governments shift their revenue streams from income-based taxation to fee-for-service arrangements, this reality impacts how we understand our relationship to government, especially specialized service-delivery branches of it.

I have used the term “ratepayer politics,” to describe conservative mobilization structures in our cities, how the people who feel entitled and motivated to vote and organize politically around city council issues are property owners who pay direct taxes to the city, and consumers of services offered at local libraries and community centres. Those who feel the strongest direct relationship to the city as “clients” are those who end up organizing around civic politics and setting the agenda. “Stakeholder” community consultation processes, hard-wired into municipal decision-making, render this explicit, privileging the opinions of groups and individuals based on their physical proximity to and financial stake in the outcome of a development decision.

This is further intensified by the narrowing of local governments’ exclusive policy purviews by placing such things as transportation and emergency services under the control of unelected regional bodies appointed by the province.

As voter registration and turnout fall at all political levels, one of the new kinds of political formations we are seeing is a phenomenon so common in UK politics that it has a name “hospital parties” and “hospital candidates.” Because voters are increasingly less mobilized as citizens participating in a shared, values-based democratic process and view their relationship to the state as paying consumers of its services, new, consumer activist political organizing is becoming more viable. When facing hospital closures and cuts under the Major and Blair governments in the UK, local citizens began organizing around single-issue hospital candidates or forming hospital parties to send MPs to Westminster or, more commonly, councillors to local councils, to advocate for them as consumers, bulk-purchasing health care through a local state-maintained facility. In this light, we can better understand Delta South’s Vicky Huntington as a hospital MLA.

This reality intersects with another historical and BC-specific reality as we think examine how school board politics is changing. In Vancouver, the Coalition of Progressive Electors is viewed, for those who watch City Council as a perpetual opposition party that ran one flash in the pan government in 2002. But from the perspective of school board elections, COPE won four governing mandates (1982, 1983, 1990, 2002) and served as junior coalition partner from 2008 to 2013. And in other elections, the party came close to victory.

In Surrey, there is a more recent and more dramatic story of disparity between power on School Board and power on council. While 2011 proved a shut-out for the Surrey Civic Coalition (the successor party to SCE) on council, the party was able to gain a foothold on School Board, electing Charlene Dobie. This time, rather than trying to make a mayor-centred, two-slate party happen, Dobie has founded the Surrey Progressives, a left-tilting association that is only contesting school board seats. Capitalizing on the fact that in municipalities around southwestern BC, school board elections tilt left of council elections, local progressives are focusing on the school board race—and not just Surrey progressives. Principled leftist and queer activist Nicole Joliet, my favourite candidate in Surrey, is focusing her efforts at building a left base and changing the conversation on her school board candidacy.

And we see something similar in Vancouver. Former school trustee Jane Bouey and former COPE candidate Gwen Giesbrecht, my favourite candidates in Vancouver, are banking on doing better by creating an education-focused party, the Public Education Project, that only contests school board seats in Vancouver.

It is too early to tell if the convergence of the factors I have noted above will lead to a fundamental shift in how municipal party systems work in Southwestern BC but there are some grounds for hope. The solidarity that parents showed with locked-out teachers during the school labour dispute this year, their clear alignment to the left of the general public on education issues and the rise in progressive parent activism bode well. In areas of Vancouver, like Killarney, Collingwood and Champlain Heights, that have the most children, school board lawn and window signs outnumber council and mayoral signs. In a low turnout environment, families who have bought into the idea of themselves as consumers rather than citizens may join more left-leaning parents in heading to the polls motivated primarily by school board, rather than council issues. And with more parents’ associations hosting candidates’ forums and speaking out on social media, we may see a much more progressive result in school board elections than we do for councils.

We see this echoed on the right of the political spectrum, as well, with the rise of Vancouver First. While the party remains a fringe organization on council and parks board, its agenda of paranoid, populist homophobia and transphobia has made it a force. It is former school board chair Ken Denike and not party founder Jesse Johl who is understood to be the party’s leader and who dominates its lawn sign presence. For reasons to do with the Americanization of Vancouver politics, which I will visit in my next post, it may be that old coalitions will fly apart as self-conscious parents come to comprise an increasing portion of a dwindling voter base.

When so many voters are de-motivated and cynical, and in the aftermath of the province-wide labour dispute, it may be that 2014 will be that parents, teachers and their allies will produce a major realignment in how civic elections work this fall. If Surrey Progressives and Public Education succeed in electing candidates for a schools-only brand, our whole system of party building and governance may change.

In my view that would be a welcome relief for Vision Vancouver’s school trustees. Like the Vision Parks board, Patty Bachus leads a progressive team that is worthy of re-election, especially now that it includes long-time COPE trustee Allan Wong. With close ties between the Vision board majority and PEP’s candidates and party members, the fate of Jane Bouey, Charlene Dobie and Gwen Giesbrecht on Saturday will determine much about how leftists and progressives begin rebuilding in 2015. If there can be hospital parties, why not school parties?

With effectively no public polling for school board elections, we can only guess and vote with hope. How fortunate that we have so many more school board candidates able to inspire it.

Crafting a Left Voting Strategy for November 15th, Part 1: Grieving Our Losses and Admitting Where We Are

To even begin to talk about a productive voting strategy for the upcoming elections in Vancouver and Surrey, it is first important to clear the decks of faulty logic and misperceptions standing in our way. This is especially important in BC’s two largest cities because those opposed to equity and sustainability agendas have played and continue to play on our natural desire to recoil from the depressing and sometimes frightening reality that confronts us when we take a hard look at the actual situation on the ground. So let us get a few things out of the way.

No Big Tent Progressive Party to Challenge for Government

For much of the past two and a half years, I have worked to build a big tent progressive party to challenge for government in Vancouver this fall. Many have worked harder and longer than I. And many activists in Surrey have been doing the same. Vancouver’s COPE-NDP and COPE-Green coalition slates of the 80s and 90s do not exist today nor does anything like them. The same can be said of Bob Bose’s and Penny Priddy’s Surrey Civic Electors (SCE) of the same era. No electable party is contesting the city council elections in either jurisdiction that enjoys concurrent levels of active membership, popular support, policy breadth and equity-based policy that would make it such a party.

It is very sad that this is the case but this situation will not be ameliorated until we grieve this loss and begin rebuilding. Continuing to pretend that any party meets these criteria is a costly act of denial that holds back the formation of a truly progressive politics.

Three Kinds of Parties

For people on the left, there are essentially three kinds of parties running in this election that are making a pitch to us: (1) neo-liberal centre-right parties that include leftists and former leftists in their party structures and lay a claim on left votes while pursuing policies of privatization, gentrification, deregulation, upward income redistribution and law and order criminalization, (2) small, vaguely leftist affinity groups masquerading as broad-based parties and (3) small parties and independents with a progressive perspective who are seeking an opposition/advocacy role on councils. (Note that this article does not discuss the School Board elections, which will be covered in a future post.)

Coalition of Progressive Electors (Vancouver) [Type 2]

Prior to 2005, COPE was both a large, inclusive party and the broker of even larger, more inclusive coalitions comprising other progressive tendencies that could not be accommodated in COPE’s capacious yet unwieldy political structure. From 1980 to 1986, the party partnered with the Civic Independents; from 1986 to 1993, it partnered with the Civic New Democrats and in 1999 it partnered with the Green Party and two independents. More importantly, it had a large, diverse, active membership, strong links to organized labour and enjoyed support from many local MPs and MLAs.

Whatever narrative of blame one wishes to espouse and where one points fingers, the fact is that this is not the COPE of today. No MP or MLA supports the party; and, from a high of 100% in 2002, COPE’s share of Vancouver trade unions’ political donations has fallen to about 2%. In the past year alone, the party has lost hundreds of members, half of its major donors, half its board and its only elected official to internecine warfare as small personality cults and affinity groups competed against each other for control of the party.

In recent weeks, the party has sought to make some cosmetic changes to appear to open its doors again by choosing a pragmatic NDP-affiliated moderate as its mayoral candidate and hiring an experienced NDP organizer from outside the city to manage its E-day operation. But these changes seem more like acts of desperation and cosmetic tweaks than any sincere commitment to broaden its appeal.

COPE is a shell of its former self and, worse yet, for the sake of appearances, has annihilated its chances of electing anyone by nominating an enormously large, unwieldy slate of candidates, severely hampering the ability of voters to concentrate their vote on the few strong candidates the party still has like former Bowen Island mayor Lisa Barrett and former Vancouver city councillor Tim Louis. While these two might have had a shot at election, the six additional COPE candidates are almost certain to drag them down by diluting the votes of those who want a more leftist politics but are not up for backing the whole COPE slate.

Finally, COPE’s longest-surviving and second-most powerful faction, the alliance between Tim Louis’s iCOPE and Ali Yerevani’s MAWO, is not immune to the creeping conservatism of Vancouver opposition politics. While the party’s superb mayoral candidate Meena Wong and the Left Front led by Tristan Markle offer solidly leftist policies, the Louis-Yerevani faction practice conservative ratepayer politics, opposing, for instance, the nationalization of community centres under the Vision Vancouver Parks Board and pandering routinely to conservative neighbourhood ratepayer and business groups.

COPE is a party that is rotting from the inside, putting on its last desperate performance as a major party in this city.

Independent Democratic Electors Alliance (Vancouver) [Type 3]

One of the splinter parties of COPE, this is the hobby horse of long-time gadfly Parks Board and sex worker activist Jamie Lee Hamilton and has a proven track record of being unable to concentrate enough votes around its one candidate to elect her. That’s a shame. Even when off-message from her agenda of inclusivity and lowering barriers, IDEA’s candidate and only member is highly entertaining, as in her recent digression into the need for governmental action to force the Cactus Club to offer its fish and chips at a discount through its take-out windows. Sadly, Hamilton is irrelevant. Fortunately, even if she loses, she will continue to attend every Parks Board meeting and function as she has for many years, as the Board’s non-voting, unsalaried eighth member.

One City (Vancouver) [Type 3]

This is COPE’s best-funded splinter party. The core of One City is an intersection between the socially-based affinity groups, long-term alliances and ethno-lineal networks surrounding the party’s co-founders, RJ Aquino and David Chudnovsky. Having put some effort into trying to work with these individuals, first to co-govern COPE, then to engage with their post-COPE organizing efforts, it is clear to me that this is an organization that remains traumatized from its members’ experiences of first running and then losing control of COPE. This party makes it clear that while it stands for a Vancouver that is for everybody, membership in the organization and even telephonic or in-person access to its principals is guarded like the Harper Tories.

Perusing the party’s donor list, there is other evidence of this narrowness. Over 70% of all money donated comes from the Canadian Union of Public Employees and nearly all of the large individual donations come from the Chudnovsky lineage.

Now, I want to make clear: there is nothing wrong with this kind of politics. At times, I did this kind of politics in the 80s and 90s. After losing a multi-year crazy-off with scary people while your allies in government humiliate and make liars of you is a miserable experience and there are good reasons to limit one’s contact with new, un-vetted people. That’s why I think it is smart for One City to run only one candidate. The party isn’t presenting itself as a new coalition seeking government; it’s presenting itself as the embryo of that. In sharp contrast to COPE, it is offering a single candidate and concentrating its muscle behind one credible individual. Also, in contradistinction to COPE, One City is not going down the Vision rabbit hole and telling voters what it would do if it controlled Translink and the provincial municipal affairs ministry; it is running on policies it can actually implement.

Finally, One City has proved me wrong. I was concerned that with such a funding overlap with Vision and with founders whose public image had become inextricable from the ill-fated COPE alliance, I worried that the party would refuse to criticize Vision. I have been very pleased to see the party grow into its role as an actual opposition party after a weak start on the campaign trail.

One Surrey (Surrey) [Type 1]

To people in the know, One Surrey is subtly signaling to former Surrey Civic Electors voters who may not have followed the dwindling base of North Surrey New Democrats into the Surrey Civic Coalition and Surrey Matters that it is interested in their votes.

Party leader Barinder Rasode has included the nephew of former SCE mayor Bob Bose on the party’s slate and has received the endorsement of the senior Bose. A few New Democrats are working quietly for the Rasode campaign which has some progressive elements in its policy platform.

But, fundamentally, One Surrey is engaged in an uglier version of the Ontario NDP’s recent flirtation with centre-right pocketbook populism, opposing tax increases, attacking “government waste” as the main culprit for fiscal problems and beating the drum of the need for municipalities to focus on “core services.” Worse still, the party’s main issue is the same issue that animates the far-right populism of Doug McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition: crime.

By contributing to a moral panic that targets and blames poor people, demands a “get tough” approach to social problems and stigmatizes people with substance issues, even those actively seeking help, One Surrey has not been a force that has uplifted civic discourse or seeded the soil for equity-focused politics. Surrey voters would do better to cherry-pick centre-left candidates from independent candidates and the Surrey First and One Surrey slates than to throw-in with this new party. More advice about that in part five.

Vancouver Greens (Vancouver) [Type 3]

If the Vancouver Greens don’t increase their standing this election, it won’t be for lack of the best strategy in the city. Adriane Carr has built on her election in 2011 and strong performance as a councillor in the years since by recruiting a small, disciplined slate of well-spoken, intelligent candidates. She has brought back Stuart MacKinnon, the popular parks commissioner with three years of experience under his belt and strengthened her front bench with candidates who have strong connections with and/or names that resonate in the Liberal and NDP establishments in the city.

In many ways, Carr is leveraging her success at doing the very thing that Tim Louis aspires to do, should he return to elected office: playing the role of a one-person progressive opposition, acting as both gadfly and organizer for groups that feel unrepresented on council, while staying true to her party’s core principles. This is easier for Carr because conservative ratepayer politics and residents association pandering is very much part of Green politics, as compared to the exotic import it represents on the far left. Carr has also been better-positioned to challenge Vision Vancouver as it has evolved from being a pink (i.e. light red) party to a light green one. Carr can challenge Gregor Robertson and Andrea Reimer based on their claims to be small-g greens more effectively than COPE could challenge Geoff Meggs, Raymond Louie or Tim Stevenson for being lousy socialists as socialism has generally been dropped from Vision’s evolving narrative.

But let us be clear: while much better-positioned to make gains, running an larger slate and having a charismatic and battle-tested leader, the Vancouver Greens are not a broad-based progressive coalition. They are an insular, autocratic group that has been beating back efforts at democratization and inclusiveness longer and more successfully than the Chudnovsky-Aquino show running One City when they controlled COPE. And, unlike One City, they are not promising activists a more open membership and inclusive discussion if they are rewarded by voters. Instead, Carr will likely view this as a vindication of her practices of hand-picking and announcing candidates before her small party membership can exercise oversight.

The Greens present themselves neither as a big-tent progressive party nor as the embryo of one. What they are and should be supported in is being the best opposition the city can summon up in the absence of such a party.

Vision Vancouver (Vancouver) [Type 1]

Given that Vision Vancouver’s membership rolls are basically Vancouver’s NDP and federal Liberals, it is pretty clear where Vision’s right-wing impetus is coming from: its funders. For-profit corporations want results for their donations: quantifiable, demonstrable return on investment. Whereas trade union members will vote to hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for a promise to be kicked in the face 31% less hard, and will do it again as long as the kick is 10-15% less hard, real estate developers and their companies don’t see it that way.

If they are to build “social housing,” it had better not just produce an immediate state subsidy; it had better so completely redefine “social” as to permit coffin-style bachelor suites to be rented for $2000 per month in the name of fighting poverty and generating equity. If their rezoned buildings must fit with the aesthetic of gentrifying neighbourhoods so as not to kill the golden goose of nostalgic, heritage buildings that attract new condo buyers, they had better enjoy vast rezoning windfalls, increasing the value of their property tenfold or more. If they must tolerate city spending on anyone other than themselves, property tax rates had better be the lowest on the continent.

What Vision Vancouver proves is that no matter what your resume says, no matter what colour jersey you wear on E-day in provincial and federal elections, smart, profit-driven developers can and will make a deal with you if you are willing to help them make money today.

That is one of the reasons that we see such a sharp contrast between the performance of Vision Vancouver city councillors and the party’s Parks Board and School Board. While I will speak to the school board elections in a future post, let me briefly address the Vision Parks Board. Here are candidates chosen from the same pool of activists, voted-on by the same party members. And look at the difference. With no land to rezone, no social housing requirements to waive, no social development metrics to redefine, Vision Parks Commissioners have proceeded aggressively with an equity agenda, taking on conservative ratepayer groups and private clubs, nationalizing our community centres and creating universal, portable access to city facilities. While COPE and the Greens have pandered to insular local community centre associations, with “membership has its privileges” attitudes to public building use, Vision has remained stalwart and unflinching in one of the few projects of nationalization we have witnessed since the Cold War.

Meanwhile, on city council, the contrast could not be sharper. While Gregor Robertson has been a strong public spokesperson for climate justice, opposing the Kinder Morgan pipeline and Tim Stevenson made our whole city proud by his work against homophobia in Russia, when it comes to public policy, as opposed to activism and advocacy, Vision is a conservative party. Its front bench may feature people who have cut their teeth as Greens, Communists and NDPers but what guides this party’s policies on the fundamental questions of equity and affordability are developer cheques, not the party cards in councillors’ wallets.

 

In sum, neither Surrey nor Vancouver residents can go to the polls on Saturday and cast their votes from a big-tent progressive alternative to govern their city. Instead, they must craft a voting strategy to make the best of the current situation and sow the seeds for better choices in 2018.

No Fair Voting System

If there is one thing I have learned organizing for Fair Vote Canada, Fair Voting BC, the BC Electoral Change Coalition, the Ontario NDP and the BC Green Party, it is that voting as though you already have the voting system you want is one of the most effective ways not to get it. I see many voters crafting voting strategies as though some form of proportional representation is already in effect. It is not.

While Vision Vancouver could have implemented a proportional or semi-proportional system in the form of Single Non-Transferrable Vote, Limited Vote or Cumulative Vote, and were asked to by Fair Voting BC and Fair Vote Canada, they instead chose to maintain the current voting system, offering the excuse that they were holding out for the province to pass enabling legislation to permit their favourite kind of proportional representation. You know, they way they’re holding out of the province to pass legislation banning corporate donations, even though they already possess the power to substantially ban them.

Surrey First has lacked that option due to their lack of a specific city charter from the province, granting them the control over their voting system that Vancouverites enjoy. No blame can be assigned to Surrey’s government in maintaining the voting system under which we will be choosing our governments on Saturday, one of the most unfair voting systems in the world, one enacted in BC in the 1930s with the explicit goal of reducing voter turnout.

Voters heading to the polls on Saturday must make our votes count under a “multi-member plurality system,” known colloquially by voting reform activists as first-past-the-post on steroids, a system even more effective at delivering massive, disproportional, unearned majorities. In 1996, for instance, the NPA won 43% of the popular vote in Vancouver but that translated into 100% of the 27 seats being contested.

To get a sense of how the system works, imagine that there are three groups of voters, comprising 50,000, 40,000 and 30,000 people respectively choosing eight candidates for Surrey Council. Imagine that each group is associated with a party running a full slate of candidates and that each voter voted for their party’s entire slate. The result would be that the party backed by 50,000 people would choose all eight councillors and that the other two groups would receive no representation; 41% of the voters would have 100% of the seats.

But, surprisingly often, Surrey and Vancouver do elect candidates from outside the first-place party. That is because of “split tickets.” While most voters do, in fact, allocate all their votes to the party of their preferred mayoral candidate, a minority of voters don’t do that. How this minority of voters behaves largely determines the result of an election. So I am going to briefly offer an inventory of the subgroups that comprise this group, in order of estimated prevalence:

Mixed Slate Voters

Racist Voters: It appears that the largest group of voters to split their tickets are white Anglo voters with a long history in the Lower Mainland. Unlike the residents of rural mill towns who tend to behave in the exact opposite way, these voters feel that civic politics is “corrupt,” and tend to locate corruption in the awarding of civic monopolies (primarily taxi and food cart monopolies), high-turnout nomination meetings and public displays of generosity. They associate these things with a stereotyped image of South Asian people. South Asians, they seem to think, are an especially corrupting force, what with higher-than-average rates of political party membership and association with civic monopolized industries. Many of these voters will vote for every candidate their preferred party is running but withhold their votes from its South Asian nominees. Academics, community activists and electoral reformers have long made much of the ways in which multi-member plurality voting reinforces racial stereotyping and division and chronically underrepresents South Asian people.

Generally, the best way to salve one’s conscience after doing this is to then use some of these votes to vote for members of a different minority group. While Vancouverites of Chinese extraction don’t view Chinese candidates as harder workers or better fiscal stewards than other candidates, white Anglo racist voters often do, as typified in Rob Ford’s backhanded praise of Toronto’s Chinese-Canadian population. In most elections in the past generation, a Chinese-sounding name has conferred an unearned bonus from white voters of 5-10% while a South Asian name has tended to produce a 10-20% penalty.

Noblesse Oblige Voters: Especially in times of runaway victory and party hegemony, voters for the governing party also—correctly usually—understand that they are not just picking the government. They are picking the opposition. “Saving” a vote for Bob Williams, Harry Rankin, Jenny Kwan, this was something that NPA voters have been doing since the 1960s when they party has been securely coasting into yet another mandate. Noblesse oblige voters understand that the opposition candidates around whom they concentrate their votes will be the ones who get the handful of council seats that are not won by the incumbent government.

Often these opposition candidates will, in some small measure, epitomize what the government voter thinks their preferred party is losing sight of. In 2011, Adriane Carr earned the support of many people who were voting Vision because of its light green agenda and wanted an opposition voice who would enhance that. Conservatives concerned about fiscal probity would routinely save a vote for Harry Rankin to support his line-item budget reviews and ferreting-out of civic waste.

Voters Who Pretend We Have STV: If we had the single transferrable vote electoral system, one could vote for a mixed, multi-party slate and have those intentions translated accurately when votes were counted. That’s not how multi-member plurality voting works but, as I have written elsewhere, for many voters, what matters is how they feel when they cast their votes and the council they envision in their minds in the privacy of the voting booth and not the results of their ballot interacting with tens of thousands of others during the counting process.

I have been hearing a lot from such voters in Vancouver, people who think that there should be a four-party council comprising the Greens, COPE, Vision and the NPA who fill out a ballot that resembles that result, rather than one tactically designed to produce that result. Often these voters do a lot of research, poring over candidate statements and party platforms, attending all candidates’ meetings, etc. but then insist on doing no research whatsoever about how the vote counting system works.

While these voters are not the majority, they do affect the election substantially. Members of this group often exert a powerful influence on which candidates from the second-place party win and which candidates from the first-place party lose in very close elections.

Change-Focused Voters: In Vancouver and Surrey, it looks like the incumbent parties will be returned to office with fewer votes, following a bruising campaign. Voters engaged in a last-ditch effort to prevent this will sometimes scan the ballot for the highest-profile members of any opposition party and cast votes for anyone whose candidacy has a good shot of knocking the less popular members of the governing party. Voters whose primary concern is to defeat Vision may choose a mix of candidates who are polling well, are with mainstream parties, have names near the top of the alphabet and otherwise show signs of being electable.

Of course, such an approach is costly because it often prevents one’s favourite candidate from gaining, in relative terms, on opposition candidates that one likes less. Many COPE voters chose to include Adriane Carr on their slate of preferred candidates in 2011, increasing the chances that some opposition councillor would be elected but reducing the chances that Ellen Woodsworth would keep her council seat by placing ahead of Carr. Depending on one’s priorities, this can be a rational and constructive choice, that makes the best use of multi-member plurality voting.

Well, that’s 4000 words or so. I had better stop now. More tomorrow.

Phishing for Votes in Vancouver and the Politics of the Wealth Seminar

During the 2012 US presidential election, Bill Maher made an important intervention in identifying a new, or perhaps just resurgent, trend in political campaigning: the wealth seminar campaign. Observing the Romney campaign, Maher decoded its true message: “Mitt, a rich guy, knows how to make you rich too. And, if you elect him, he’ll tell you the secret.” It’s all about presenting a leader who isn’t so much the person voters want to govern them as the person voters aspire to be. As people lose faith in the idea that any political movement or leader could actually address the forces of global capital that are marginalizing and impoverishing them, elections are increasingly imaginative pageants that exist on their own terms. The point isn’t the election result; it’s the campaign because that’s where all the suspense lives now. The result is totally predictable: the “victor” will announce that the cupboard is bare and that we all must tighten our belts with higher user fees, privatization, austerity and handing sacks of cash to corporations and the investor class to keep them happy.

Because we know the result before we vote, our focus then becomes the campaign: what will happen to the characters seeking office, what twists and turns will the campaign take, and who will end up winning the prize of announcing the policies Standard and Poor’s has already drawn up for us? This entails the audience identifying with one of the characters in the shabby pageant they are watching.

While the prospect of being a wealthy, white, good-looking business patriarch appeals to some, the Romneyesque image doesn’t do a lot for urbanites. That’s why, despite a complete elite consensus in his favour, John Tory struggles to hit 40% in most Toronto mayoral surveys. Middle class suburban family men might want to identify with such a wealthy, respected figure as Tory but they are not the majority in the central political jurisdiction of a metropolitan area. And, as it has not endured any amalgamation with adjacent municipalities in 85 years, a much larger proportion of Vancouver’s middle-income families live outside the central political jurisdiction.

If we think, instead, of typical Vancouver residents, the people making major financial sacrifices, allocating as much as 80% of their income to rent or mortgage payments in cramped, substandard housing just to live within the municipalities city limits, wealth seminar campaigning takes on very different dimensions. First of all, people who emerge in their hipster gear from basement suites in Cedar Cottage onto the cramped and erratic number 20 bus have fantasy lives that are governed by something other than dreams of wealth, stability and the ability to provide. They are making sacrifices to be hip, connected and attractive-looking. In their mind’s eye, they identify with a different character in the pageant: that man with movie star good looks, a fit, taut body, a DJing career on the side, and friendships with a vast array of environmental activists, music scene luminaries and TED talk presenters.

Vision has figured out that in Vancouver, it’s not a wealth seminar. It’s a coolness seminar. And that’s why developers line up to hang out with the Vision gang too. They aren’t just converting a $25,000 donation into a $25,000,000 rezoning windfall; they are also getting the parting gifts: a night with great local DJs, a dip in the Hollyhock hot tub. Many wealthy businesspeople, by choosing to live in Vancouver, are already making a similar choice to those living in the coffin suites they are selling. They too eschewing even greater prosperity that would come from working in a more vibrant investment climate like Toronto or Calgary. They too are here for the coolness—and there is a mechanism for purchasing that dip in the hot tub.

That’s why Vision Vancouver is making a mockery of the very idea that candidates for election need to put forward policies on the major issues. Minor issues—sure, they deserve some policy, for the geeks and the everyday running of the city. But notice the striking inverse correlation: the more Vision states an issue is one of the major, deciding issues of the race, the less policy it generates. As witnessed in their 24-hour response to Kirk LaPointe’s school meal program announcement, Vision has the smarts and the capacity to generate excellent public policy on the fly. So we have to understand the total absence of any working public policy around the Broadway subway or the opposition to Kinder Morgan not as an oversight but as part of the plan.

Vision Vancouver’s number one issue in its re-election bid is the construction of a $3 billion subway down Broadway. In the past six years, they have spent not one cent on the planning or construction of this subway. In their ten-year capital plan, released last month, not one cent is budgeted. Nor is there any money for the subway in the last budget city council passed. That’s because they’re running on the Broadway Subway of the Mind. Like the mayor’s independent wealth, musical acumen, hip friends and striking looks, the point of the subway isn’t the subway itself. It’s the idea of the subway—one that would only be contaminated with financing plans, earth-moving equipment and tunneling machines—that really matters.

Well, that and, of course, the cool people associated with you. That’s where the diabolical genius of Vision will come to be studied by communications and political consultants all over North America. By refusing to make any effort to emancipate itself from Translink or to construct any transit on its own dime (such as the streetcars the NPA promised in 2011), Vision can centre its subway “promise” around one of those meaningless online clicktivist “campaigns,” in which we change the world by clicking “Like” and typing “RT:.”

When one goes to the Vision Vancouver web site and clicks on its “Broadway Subway: What the City Can Do” link, one quickly arrives at the online “petition” Vision is running. Instead of finding policies or plans to build the subway, one is offered the chance to—in some indefinable way—get involved, and then asked for one’s contact information. That’s right: Vision Vancouver has turned election platforms on their head, from statements of what the state will do for you, given the chance, into phishing clickbait. The same is, of course, true of their “fight” against the Kinder Morgan pipeline. There is no plan to build the subway or fight the pipeline because that’s not the point. The point is for Vision to get the contact info for low-information young voters they can drive to the polls in their hybrids on election day and for said voters to feel that their sacrifices are not in vain, that they are on a team of excellent, young, hip, attractive, connected people and not masturbating alone in a flooded basement suite, two months behind on their smartphone payments.

In twentieth-century elections, platforms were an exchange whereby people exchanged their votes for a pledge of future action on their behalf. In the new kind of election Vision offers us, voters exchange their contact information for the opportunity to imagine themselves to be part of a scene… a really cool scene, like the Hollyhock hot tub or DJ night at the Biltmore.

“And yet,” to quote Maher, “no matter how clear Jay-Z makes it that the hot tub is only for the coolest and most beautiful people, somehow, when the song ends, that is us.” After all, what is the alternative?