Frances Bula header image 2

The first civic election debate: Experience versus leadership

October 2nd, 2008 · 17 Comments

It’s hard to believe some people chose to go to a hockey game tonight when they could have been sitting with all of us at the Vancouver Public Library talking about municipal policy. A loss for them of 90 minutes of action-packed excitement, but fun for the 300 or so of us there.

Okay, kidding aside, this was a fascinating night because it’s really the first time people, including the campaign teams, have seen the two candidates side by side. So it felt an awful lot like a first-of-the-season hockey game, with the fans from both sides in attendance. (In fact, we could save ourselves a lot of time and money by just letting the two campaign teams, who were out in full force, rumble with each other in the room. The team with the most people standing at the end gets to run city hall.)

What did we learn?

1. Peter Ladner is going to emphasize that he has experience. He said it’s not time to let someone be learning on the job. He’s sat on TransLink and the Metro Vancouver boards and he’s got the skills and knowledge to negotiate. And all of that is going to be necessary when Vancouver hosts the world in 18 months at the 2010 Olympics.

Signature line: “I have learned what it takes to get results.”

Gregor Robertson is going to emphasize that he is willing to be a leader and a motivator and that’s worth more than experience. He got the biggest laugh of the night when he pointed out that, if experience was a good qualification for a leader, then current Mayor Sam Sullivan would have had an amazing term.

“My commitment is to activate city hall. We need stronger leadership, bolder leadership.”

2. Both men identified homelessness as the one issue they would aim to solve by the time their term ends in 2011. (Neither one said how they would do it except by pushing other levels of government.)

3. Both men have improved their question-answering style considerably since even a few months ago. Ladner is more forceful and articulate and big picture in his answers that he has been over the past few years, when he often tended to speak quietly and kind of snipe at minor points.

Robertson sounds way more fluid (the stumbling and hesitation used to be agonizing) and he’s able to pull out details to drive home his points, along with being able to use a lot of strong emotional language. When the two were asked about Project Civil City, he noted that the city’s own interim report said that the project’s efforts to reduce public disorder were not measurable because there was never a baseline survey done of the problems and so it was impossible to say whether there was any progress being made.

4. They each have a message that seems counter-productive to me. Ladner just kept going on an on about how much experience he had. He ended up sounding like the snotty Grade 12 boy picking on someone in the grade below. Robertson kept talking about how the mayor has to bring an “edge” or “friction” to discussions with the province to get anything out of them. I don’t see how advertising that you want to play rough with the provincial government is a selling point.

5. Both men are good at not answering some questions. Peter Ladner’s sidestep was the most noticeable. I asked why people should vote for him, given that he spent six years serving with Sullivan then ousted him because he claimed the mayor was steering the NPA onto the rocks, but hasn’t said yet what he would do differently. Ladner’s somewhat flip response was: “My biggest answer is that I’m running for mayor and he’s not.” And then he went on to attack Robertson (“I don’t know if Gregor’s ever sat through an entire city-hall meeting”) instead of explaining what many people in the city would genuinely like to know: If Sam was so terrible and he had to be replaced, how are you going to be different?

But it wasn’t the only unanswered question of the night.

Others included: Will you continue to have a Project Civil City commissioner? Granted, it was a part of a several-pronged question from CBCer Stephen Quinn on PCC but Ladner never answered that part. I personally would like to know if Geoff Plant will be staying on.

Would you support legalized brothels as your NDP colleagues do? (Mark Hasiuk of the Courier’s question) Gregor talked a lot about the horrific situation for women doing sex-trade work in the Downtown Eastside and something about Four Pillars and the statement that “I’m not a proponent of legalization at this time” so I’m not quite sure what his overall position is.

Other points:

1. I thought their most thoughtful answers came in response to Stephen’s question about whether they would support electoral and campaign-finance reform.

Robertson said that he used to be a supporter of wards and he continues to be concerned about the lack of local representation, but he thinks that actually a mixed system might be better. He didn’t say why, but presumably he, like others, has been swayed by the argument that councillors acting for the whole city aren’t so vulnerable to big local opposition groups over specific projects. Ladner said he’s gone back and forth on the issue and he thinks there are strong arguments on both sides, but he noted that western North American cities tend to have at-large systems and they’ve all got pretty livable cities.

Both also took nuanced positions in response to David Berner’s provocative question about what they thought of the “moral costs” of packing buses with voters from ethnic communities and handing them fake ballots so they know how to vote in nominations.

Ladner: “I don’t know what the alternative is — tell people they can’t vote?” He noted that politics is a rough business and there’s a long history of difficult nomination meetings. Robertson also talked about there being a long history of different styles and cultures coming together in civic elections and that Vision’s recent meetings saw many sample ballots with many combinations of slates, not just one directed at one ethnic group.

The question did prompt an angry outburst from Vision council candidate Kerry Jang, who yelled at Berner: “How do you know what they don’t know?” I can’t imagine the question got too favourable a response from the several Indo-Canadians (who have strong candidates running for both parties) who came out to the debate, since it was clearly directed at the reports of busloads of Indo-Canadians coming in to vote at both Vision nomination meetings and the NPA mayoral nomination.

2. Answers to Mark’s questions on whether the city needs more supervised-injection sites.

Ladner: The current site mostly attracts people from a five-block radius who don’t even use it for all of their injections. “To think you could use that model all over the city, I don’t see how that would work.” (I don’t understand that answer either, in case you’re wondering.) Instead, he’d rather put more money into treatment.

Robertson: “I think there is a place for more supervised injection sites and different types.”

3. Answers to my question about what are three specific things you would do to create affordable housing, including one that would be politically risky but you’re willing to try.

Robertson: 1. Inclusionary zoning (That means requiring developers of projects to provide a certain percentage as affordable.) 2. Density bonusing (the controversial one) 3. Workforce housing for certain categories of people, like police, teachers, nurses, emergency workers.

Ladner: 1. Increase the supply overall, with encouragement from the city by rezoning for higher density around SkyTrain stations. (By the way, Ladner noted that the busiest SkyTrain station in the province, at Commercial and Broadway, has low density all around it and that should be changed. But, unless I’ve misunderstood what planners have told me in the past, that area is zoned high-density but developers are declining to take advantage of it for reasons no one can quite understand.) 2. Laneway housing 3. Bonus density, but used with care because the city also uses density bonusing, which essentially means giving developers more space to build than they would normally be restricted to on a site, to pay for many other things like parks, daycares, and cultural facilities.

Should merchants along the Canada Line get compensation?

Ladner: Yes, but it’s almost impossible to figure out how to do it without opening the door to compensating everyone every time the city so much as repairs a sewer line.

Robertson: I think he said yes, but he went on more to how it can’t happen again when the line is built on Broadway. He said the city has the power to force the province or TransLink or whoever to pay compensation or take greater care when building because the city signs all the approvals necessary to build. Ladner got off one of his better shots of the night when he pointed out that it was the COPE/Vision council that signed all the approvals for the Canada Line.

Do you support Vanoc’s proposal to the Britannia community centre that it be allowed to use the ice there for a month in return for giving a quarter million for improvements.

Ladner: It’s up to the Britannia board, although the hockey parents (those who would be the most affected by the closure) would like to see the quarter million put in.

Robertson: The Britannia board wouldn’t be the position of having to make the tough decision about whether to accept the Vanoc deal if the city had been willing to invest more in community-centre improvements.

There were questions from the audience about using Storyeum as a homeless shelter, civilian oversight of the police, cities’ losses of democratic rights because of Bill 30, and a weird one from lobbyist Cindy Burton (helpfully pointed out to moderator David Berner by Ladner supporter Reg Tupper (seated next to not-much-seen-in-public Allen Langdon, much to the annoyance of the Vision team) about Robertson’s voting record at the province.

The most interesting one was about the Whitecaps stadium and whether they would support expropriating the land. Both said no and both did not indicate a lot of enthusiasm for the current site over the rail lines behind Gastown. Ladner said something about the Whitecaps currently being in some kind of negotiations with the port about a structure that would be closer to the water and actually hang out over it, which is news to me. The things you learn.

Robertson said that there are likely better sites, like at the old Empire Stadium or on False Creek Flats. He also pointed out that it seems clear that city staff are not enthusiastic about the current site and they’ve sent a confusing message, noting that when Philadelphia was pitched a soccer stadium, it got approvals from the city there within six months. (And, reiterating his theme, he said the stadium has been floating helplessly around the city because there’s been “no clear leadership.”

That’s about all, folks. The impression I got from both campaign teams is they thought their candidates did well, perhaps even better than expected. The Robertson spinmeisters said they thought Ladner’s constant evasion about his record on council and whether he was different from Sullivan were his biggest noticeable weakness. The Ladner team said they thought Robertson had performed quite well (implication: way better than expected) but that his confrontational attitude about the provincial government wasn’t going to win him any votes.

Now: I await your comments.

The next debate is Oct. 8 at Science World, hosted by the Courier.

Categories: Uncategorized

  • Cameron

    Didn’t you notice that there was not one answer – not all night – that Robertson didn’t ask for more…more money for this, more resources for that, more from the provincial government. His days running for NDP opposition and promising voters the world (bribery with their own taxes) has failed to teach him that leadership is about choices, not giving out goodies.

    Ladner at least said no to Cambie compensation, didn’t promise a stadium within six months (really!), and vowed not to cut-and-cover a future Broadway transit system.

    This lightweight Robertson is not ready for prime time.

  • “Ladner said he’s gone back and forth on the issue (about wards) and he thinks there are strong arguments on both sides, but he noted that western North American cities tend to have at-large systems and they’ve all got pretty livable cities.”

    I’m not sure which Western North America cities Peter is talking about, but it seems to me the US cities that do have at-large councils have each councillor assigned specific portfolios like cabinet ministers.

    What we have in Vancouver now doesn’t compare.

  • Watched it live

    It sure looks like the Ladner team had been doing some serious spinning from the last debate, because Gregor out-detailed him tonight. And the fact that Peter could not give a straight answer to why he was different from Sam only reinforces the image that he’s in it for his own personal ambitions and not the good of the city.

    both had their moments, it was fairly even, and Peter had the most laughable moment when he said in his closing statement that Vision held the referendum because they wanted to see the Olympics fail. yeah, Larry Campbell was totally anti-Olympics.

    but as you noted before Frances, when Larry and Jennifer debated, Jennifer would smoke Larry on policy. But it’s clear Gregor has done his homework, so it’s hard for Peter to talk about how he knows way more than Gregor when the juice king is dropping references to the interim civil city report. He definitely performed above expectations. If the debates are going to be like this (re: pretty even), Peter is in trouble.

    After all, Peter has been accusing Gregor of never having sat through a council meeting and of trying to dodge debates. If 6-years-on-council-Peter can’t out-debate Gregor (and he sure didn’t tonight), well…..that’s not a good sign for the NPA.

  • And here, I was upset that I would miss the debates because I had to work.

    Great overview!


  • Rick

    I like it when a candidate admits he or she can see both sides of an issue — like the ward system…seems both candidates fall into this category which is nice to see.

  • Susan Heyes

    Thanks for the good over-view Frances – much appreciated.

    Ladner’s resonse at the debate about compensation for the victims of Canada Line construction belies some very important facts.

    When Peter shrugged and tried to suggest that this several Billion dollar government funded and driven secretive, several billion dollar over-budget mega-project lasting 3 years, sets the same presedent – has the same impact – as a street repair, and therefore that compensation would set a presedent for every pothole….ridiculous.

    The presedent that this project is setting right now, is that the government can destroy your life’s work with impunity. This is wrong on every level and must be compensated for and rectified.

    I wanted to offer him some help with the actual powers that the City could choose to use for good –
    … the fact that the City controls access to our streets,

    …….like the fact that when Gordon Campbell was mayor, our very own Premier was prepared to sue the Province to get compensation for the impacted businesses along the Expo Line.
    They must all have amnesia.

    And no small point, that the City voted its CONDITIONAL approval for the project on something that was never built – (a bored tunnel with minimal surface disruption) – with false information provided to the City by RAVCo themselves… the project should have gone back for a careful financial, and impact review when the method of construction was finally revealed, followed by extensive meaningful public consultation.

    Most likely if this democratic process had taken place – this project wouldn’t have proceeded as it has.

    There also seems to be no shortage of money to throw at this project by the Province. To add further insult to injury, it was recently discovered that Canada Line took it upon themselves to invest their ‘surplus’ operating funds in sub-prime mortgage backed paper – (this is hard working citizens’ pension funds, too)and lost it – so good old Gord topped up their cash flow with $56 million.

    That would have gone a very long way to right this horrible wrong with overdue direct financial aid to the small businesses.

    Now they are massing their army of lawyers to defend what is indefensible, willful harm.

    We put our faith in the courts.
    God help us, ’cause Gord isn’t. yet.

  • Wagamuffin

    Watched it Live:

    I watched it live, too.

    I’m not sure what debate you were at but if you are talking about details, the devil definately wasn’t with Robertson.

    Nice teeth, though.

    PS. What Ladner pointed out, quite precisely, was that Vision/Cope signed off on the Cambie Street work.

    People can watch SHAW and judge for themselves.

    Check your local listings, kids!

  • lenova

    Is there a video of the debate online? Google turns up nothing…

  • Vote for Pedro? Nope

    Peter got thumped. considering that with all of his “experience” he talks about you’d think he’d know that there is a safe injection site at the Dr Peter centre – which Gregor accurately pointed out.

    With his so-called six years on council (which Frances, Garr and Quinn all know was filled with more than it’s share of naps), Ladner should be owning the debates. Instead, he’s on the defensive by a guy he describes as inexperienced.

    did anyone else see how Pedro was allll over the map on Cambie street: he spent the first 2 minutes talking about why compensation was a bad idea, bad precendent, and then he went 180 and said he fought for it and there was still hope. what?? make up your mind.

    Face it NPAers, you can’t stand that you’re getting smoked on the small business file by a guy who has got the centre-left locked up.

    Did I mention that after 90 minutes, Ladner couldn’t give one – one! -reason why he would be different from Sam Sullivan.


  • Excellent overview Frances. And a good discussion by you others.

    I was there as well and was pleasantly surprised at how well both Peter and Gregor handled themselves: i.e. a mostly respectful tone and addressing the questions head-on at least half the time. This was definitely helped out by the specificity of the questions thrown there way.

    It’s hard not to see this contest as having some of the ingredients of the Obama/McCain race down south – obvious massive differences notwithstanding. That is to say that Ladner, like McCain, is somewhat pinned by his association and past support of a failed party leader (Bush/Sullivan).

    Though I thought Peter commanded a good presence and was clear, specific, even thoughtful, you get the sense that he’s inevitably shackled to a ship that’s taking on a lot of water. Having voted with Sam and the other NPAers (I won’t say 95% of the time), may prove his undoing. This might not be fair in the light of how party politics works but there’s no doubt that if Peter gambles at projecting a message of independence and change it will be very tough sell me thinks.

  • A Dave

    Great overview. I was there too and was wondering where Ladner came up with the 3800 new units of housing number? Eby would have a field day with that, I’m guessing. Can anyone comment on that?

    Also, as anyone who has sat on a board knows, there’s usually a few people on any board who do squat and are totally ineffective. If Ladner is so experienced at negotiating and getting results, then why, under his term on Translink board, do we have the debacle we have now? His “results” are a 3-fold increase in homelessness, a loss of civic/public power in controlling Translink, and the province is now essentially running the city. Great negotiating, Peter!

    About the only thing he seems to have done well is stab Sam in the back.

    Robertson may not have all the answers, but he sure seems to be a quick study and is rapidly getting himself up to speed on the details of many issues. Plus he seems to genuinely want to do the right thing for the city. In person, Ladner doesn’t come across as a guy who cares about any issue very passionately — other than getting himself elected.

  • Wow

    Ugh. “Quick study”? My word, we have let our standards for mayors slide here. Gregor is an unquestionable lightweight who couldn’t carry a real conversation on any issue without resorting to cliches and empty rhetoric. Regardless of the outcome of the 2008 elections, we’re in for one of the worst administrations Vancouver has ever had.

    What have either of these men shown in the way of leadership? Gregor’s so-called business chops are now the stuff of urban legend, but who leaves an enterprise at the peak of its success to run for public office, let alone in his early 40s? Ask Chip Wilson if he wants to run for office right now.

    By all accounts from Victoria, Gregor was an embarrassment as an MLA. Shane and Adrian ran circles around him. The Canada Line was a gimme for him, but what did he accomplish except a few media scrums with Susan? Was he in the least bit diplomatic in how he approached the government on this file, or did he just apply his legendary “edge” approach and tick everyone off?

    I’ve listened to Gregor enough to understand he is incapable of verbalizing an original thought. His improvised speeches are painful to listen to. At best he can string together a 4-second sound bite before a video editor needs to save him – see the video on as an example. Frances is being too generous by half for not pointing this out.

    He is the proverbial straw man. Good-looking, mayoral in appearance, but in reality he’s an empty vessel. The NDP are slavering so badly for control of City Hall they are deliberately ignoring this thinking Raymond and Geoff can turn the knobs.

    Sadly, like the experience of Sarah Palin stateside, Gregor’s telegenics will probably get him elected.

    Ladner while having considerably more substance, will always be the guy who knifed the crippled guy in the back.

    How did Vancouver get stuck with a choice like this?

  • Susan Heyes

    To blogger Cameron –

    Ladner said yes to compensation…..then tried to spin not doing it.

    COPE/Vision like everyone else, were presented with a fraud in the materials provided to the City by RAVCo when they gave their conditional approval. And by the way – those conditions have never been met)

    The real tragedy is that a full review was not conducted when this deception was revealed. This project was rubber stamped and rammed through.
    see my post above.

    If government funded, and driven mega-projects willfully mislead the public ; provide false information to those who are charged with voting its approval to proceed ; factor in nothing to mitigate the impacts of this negligence;
    then the project must not proceed.

    I guess you’re not a fan of the BC Liberals either Cameron, if you think bribing people with their own taxes is a bad thing. What did you spend your $100 cheque on?
    I hope it went to a struggling shop in Cambie Village.

  • Patrick
  • Housing Numbers

    A Dave:

    The 3800 units are right here – Francis posted it.

  • A Dave

    You’re right, Wow, past mayors like Gordon Campbell, Owen and Sullivan all set such high standards of intellect and original thought that everyone else seems like a lightweight. C’mon, Campbell’s private sector business record was a joke and he’s premier. He named a helicopter pilot as his first finance minister.
    And if you’re going to tie Robertson to the NDP, then don’t be disengenuous and conveniently forget that the civic Liberals, er, NPA hired Plante and Dobell. Ever read Business BC, Ladner’s paper, or one of his editorials? You wouldn’t call him a man of substance if you had. Straw man, maybe.

    RAV = easy political points for Robertson? At least he tried to stand up to the provincial bullying. Ladner was on the Translink board and on council, but he accomplished nothing for his constituents and barely made a peep. Why? He either didn’t care, isn’t an astute enough politician to score the easy points, or he’s a Liberal lackey (or, all of the above).

    Sure Robertson bumbles along occassionally and can seem a little idealistic at times, but compared to 3 or 4 months ago, he’s definitely showing himself to be a quick study and is becoming more confident with the media/public. If a newbie can hold his own vs. Ladner’s trumpeted wealth of experience, then what does that say about Ladner?

    And am I the only one who thinks that Ladner is the better-looking of the two? He’s a total-super-cutie in person.

    I do agree wholeheartedly with one point of Wow’s, however: Adrian Dix could run circles around any politician in BC. Here’s hoping we’ll see him in a leader’s debate sometime soon.

  • Wagamuffin

    A Dave:

    Great. So if Adrian is the best of the lot, you propose that we get an NDP castoff?

    Gregor underperformed in the Leg, and I don’t think there is any love lost between him and Dix.

    Dix will run pretty much unchallenged, when they finally have Carol James walk the plank.