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Vancouver’s two main political parties plan the future

April 29th, 2010 · 45 Comments

My assignment: Compare and contrast the annual general meetings of Vancouver’s two major political parties, the Non-Partisan Association, once all-powerful, now hunting for its way forward, and Vision Vancouver, the new ecocapitalist party, still riding high on its 2008 win.

(Someone once said being a journalist is like having homework the rest of your life. How true.)

Vision Vancouver: West End protesters outside the downtown BCIT building, handing out pamphlets claiming darkly that “huge subsidies are being offered to private developers” as they continue their battle against two towers proposed under Vision’s ambitious STIR program. For those who don’t recall, that’s the program Vision brought in quickly after being elected, aimed at boosting the stalled construction industry while creating some permanent (as opposed to investor condo rentals) rental apartments in the city.

Inside, about 200 people all feeling the love. As Jeremy Osborne said, when he made his pitch to be elected to the executive, “I’ve been getting more excited about the city since Gregor’s elected. When I see all the stuff that’s going around on Facebook and Twitter, that makes me proud.” Someone posed a gentle question to the mayor about the STIR program, which has generated significant opposition in the West End, and he said there were going to be community consultations set up. End of dealing with difficult issues.

Gender breakdown: Hard to get an exact count, but I’d say women represented slightly more than half.

Over at the Museum of Vancouver, it was nothing but painful issues, as the 80 people at the NPA meeting struggled with whether to initiate a search for a new name and whether to go out into the community and talk to them about possible NPA policies that should be developed.

The room was split on both issues, both of which prompted heartfelt speeches about whether the NPA is a dead brand that needs to be changed if the party is going to have any hope of winning an election again or whether it’s an honourable brand that has a long history and, yes, maybe needs some refreshing, but shouldn’t be abandoned.

In the end, the group voted to strike a committee to look at possible new names, some with the same NPA initials and some without. But voters rejected the idea of going out to talk about policy with communities, because, they said, that would violate the spirit of the NPA founded in 1937. The party has never really been a party, said the faithful. It’s a group aimed at nominating the best possible candidates, fundraising for them, and running an election campaign.

Sample quotes:

“I question whether the brand is something we should move forward on.” Cindy Burton

“This party has elected 11 of the last 17 mayors. We’ve been up and we’ve been down. I don’t think we should be so quick to throw out that legacy. It is the most successful, longest-lasting civic party in Canadian history.” Sean Bickerton, NPA council candidate 2008

“We’ve got more media attention for this name change than we did for anything else we did in the in the last 18 months. My marketing mind says this is good.” Mike Klassen, political organizer, one part of the two-man team at

“I have to tell you, I have some trouble figuring out what we are selling as the NPA.” Mike Davis, NPA president, public-relations specialist

“If we pass this, we’re essentially saying the NPA is going to change as an organization. We’re going to be a policy-debating organization and then there will be all kinds of arguments about whether we’re in line with the NDP or the Liberals.” Manjot Hallen, NPA vice-president

“I’ve got a news flash. We got trounced in 2002, squeaked through in 2005, and got trouned in 2008. We’ve got to change and we are a party. We vote as a bloc. Let’s admit that and stop trying to kid ourselves.” Peter Ladner, former councillor, defeated mayoral candidate 2008

“We need to be looking forward to young people. They can’t subscribe to an ideology. We can communicate ourselves as a multi-partisan party.” Simon Jackson, environmental activist

“One of the things I have valued most is my ability to say in a highly politicized environment is to say I am non-partisan. But how do we reach out to the public with that principle in mind.” Carol Gibson, NPA school trustee

“A surprisingly large number of people think we are a party. Worse still, they think we are the Republican party.” Michael Geller, development consultant, NPA council candidate 2008 (For his analysis of the meeting, go to his blog.)

And, the capper from former city councillor B.C. Lee, who made the best political speech of his life that I’ve heard.

“The next election is coming within months. We should be focusing on what is the new substance for the next election. Our energy should be going into what should we present to the citizens. If every time we were defeated, we changed names, I would have changed my name two dozen times already. We should be be going out saying ‘I am not who I am but I am who I am.'”

Gender breakdown: Out of the 75 people I counted in the room, 13 were women.

What did I think of it all?

– The NPA has been going round in circles on this “should we have more clear-cut policy, should we re-brand ourselves” for eight years now and I don’t see any movement beyond this. It all feels like a waste to me. Whether they like it or not, most people see them as a party. Their own principles from their 1937 consitution says they believe in basic things like the following.

  • Municipal levels of government should act for the benefit of the people and should allow every individual the freedom of worship, assembly, opportunity and initiative.
  • Individuals have the right to enjoy the fruits of their labour, and to own private property, and individual enterprise is generally preferable to government intervention.
  • Civic progress and stability can only be achieved by upholding the law, accepting social responsibilities, and accomplishing change by intelligent planning.
  • Elected civic representatives should make decisions based on the viewpoint of many individuals and organizations, and not be under obligation to policies or platforms of political parties.

They need to get on with the real issues. Instead of pretending that they’re not a party and that their party doesn’t primarily appeal to people on the right and centre-right, they should accept what they are and get to the work of figuring out what being centre-right means these days and how to sell their ideas to the public.

They can stay with the same name or ditch it, they’re still going to get the 30,000 faithful right/centre-right voters. But they need to figure out if they have anything to say to people beyond that group. It’s time to end the academic discussions. And the white guys in suits thing has got to go.

As for Vision, well, it might have been nice to hear a real debate there, some discussion about what Vision does actually see itself standing for, besides being the biggest green non-profit in the city. There are a lot of confused people out in the city, wondering if Vision is actually COPE Lite or whether it’s really NPA Lite. It wouldn’t hurt to have a painful discussion about who they are.

The biggest danger ruling parties always have, in my centuries of experience here on Planet Earth, is that they tend to hear from two groups.

One is the people who absolutely love what they’re doing and encourage them to continue down the same road (“Great the way you busted up those unions, buddy” on one side; “I love the bike trial on Burrard. Why don’t we close the whole downtown to traffic” on the other) and the other is the people who loathe what they’re doing, who tend to get dismissed as a bunch of out-of-touch cranks.

What ruling parties don’t hear much of is people who say “I sort of like what you’re aiming for, but I have to wonder about some of the decisions you’ve made” or “I support you but this was totally the wrong thing to do” or “You’ve really turned me off.”  Those people stay quiet. Or they’ll say polite, evasive things, rather than piss off the guys in power. They only realize how many of those people are out there when they lose elections.

The people who turned out to the Vision meeting look like an intelligent, diverse bunch capable of having a challenging debate about their party. I’d like to hear that.

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