Several polls stayed open late last Saturday night to accommodate the lines of Vancouver voters. What had begun as a ho-hum municipal campaign turned into one of the most contentious in history. Two-time incumbent, Mayor Gregor Robertson of Vision Vancouver, touted as “the greenest mayor in Canada” and “Vancouver’s David Miller,” withstood withering attacks from challengers Kirk LaPointe of the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) on the right and Meena Wong of the Coalition of Progressive Voters (COPE) on the left. Robertson responded with a lawsuit against LaPointe and a fulsome last-minute apology to constituents for things as yet undone and mistakes he may have made in not listening to voters and minimizing local consultation. The result? Ten percent more voters at the polls than before, and Robertson re-elected to an unprecedented third term with 83,529 votes (46%) over LaPointe’s 73,443 (40%) and Wong’s 16,791 (9%).
For a Torontonian, the presence of party politics in the Vancouver municipal election is fascinating. Other novel features include the citywide nature of the vote, and the lack of ward politics. These factors seem to enhance the credibility of those elected to office. Everyone has a citywide mandate, all are responsible for their actions, and a shift in popular opinion can sweep an entire slate from office. Vancouverites complain that transparency in office is a problem. By comparison to what we have in Toronto where only the Mayor has a citywide mandate (but only one vote on Council), where incumbency prevails at the Council level, school board elections are risible, and there are no elections for any parks board, Vancouver elections seem to offer a model of accountability.
Vision won the Mayor’s job and retained six of ten Council seats, but the Councillor who polled the highest number of votes (74,077) was Adriane Carr from the Green Party. Three NPA Councillors followed her at the top of the polls, a gain of one for the NPA In the vote for seven Commissioners on the Parks Board, the NPA and the Greens gained six of seven positions, leaving Vision with a rump of one. Apparently, voters didn’t like the ideological policies of the previous Vision-dominated Board about access to local community centres and banning the breeding of whales and dolphins at the Vancouver Aquarium. Similarly, in the vote for nine School Trustees, several incumbents went down in defeat, Vision and NPA candidates won four positions each, and Janet Fraser for the Greens will hold the balance of power.
What is striking to an outsider is how all these candidates for City Council, School Board and Parks Board gained upwards of 56,000 votes each. Clearly, they have a citywide mandate which reflects the importance of their positions. That they are united in political parties also makes them accountable for their actions. Voters know what the parties stand for (or not) and can make educated choices. The party system also seems to allow voters to fine tune results in a way that is meaningful. Prior to the recent election, for example, The Georgia Straight was recommending a “Straight Slate” drawn from what they considered the best of all the parties.
Founded in 2005 as “progressive and pragmatic centre left party,” Vision Vancouver has a permanent organization, a specific environmental and social justice agenda, and a legion of diverse and youthful supporters. It has dominated city politics in recent years. The centre-right Non-Partisan Association is not a full-time political party with clearly communicated policies. That it gears up only at election time is a defect, LaPointe says, which limits its capacity to regain power. COPE supported Vision Vancouver in the last election. Running independently from the left this time, they struck out. When their vote is combined with that of Vision Vancouver, however, the pro-environmental nature of the Vancouver electorate remains intact. Add the success of the Greens, and it is a slam dunk.
Local pundits differ about the significance of this election. Some observe that because Vancouver progressives were divided, they lost power to the right, especially at the Board level, and helped defeat many young and diverse candidates running with Vision. Others say the result is a strong endorsement of Vision’s policy agenda in favour of transit, homelessness, and the environment, to be led by a mayor now hopefully alerted to the need for more local input.
Residing primarily in Toronto, I wonder if the Vancouver model of city governance and municipal elections contributes to the vitality of the local political scene. Renewing our municipal democracy is a perennial concern in Toronto. Maybe the Vancouver structure better meets the needs of a modern 21st century city than the ostensibly non-partisan, weak mayor/multiple ward system we have in Toronto? What can we learn from the west coast city? It’s a discussion well worth having. In the meantime, we can only wish the citizens of Vancouver well. The challenges ahead are enormous.
Vancouver’s Mayor, Gregor Robertson, was the keynote speaker at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Ottawa last month. Robertson brought to the national scene the experience of the Vancouver City Council: Mayor’s Roundtable on Mental Health and Addiction, a coalition of 140 community leaders to target the homeless with severe mental health and addiction issues. See their report, released October 22nd, and discussed by André Picard in the Globe and Mail.
For all its natural beauty, Vancouver has a continuing problem with the homeless, some of whom are hard-core street people with untreated mental illness and chronic additions. In the wake of an increase in violent attacks, emergency room visits, and Mental Health Act nonconsensual hospitalizations, Vancouver police report that they now spend 25 percent of their time dealing with severely mentally ill street people. Where psychiatric facilities are closed, local community services underfunded or cut back, and a “law and order” justice system no more than a revolving door, more homeless is inevitable. Vancouver is not alone. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, an estimated 300,000 Canadians live in the 1,096 shelters and on the streets across the country each year. They cost $1.4 billion in additional health care, justice and social services costs, annually. Vancouver has decided to do something about it. And homelessness is the key.
Reading Picard’s account of the Vancouver initiative, I recall similar attention and similar strategies in Toronto not so long ago. Homelessness was a big issue in Toronto. Apart from the Toronto Community Foundation Vital Signs Report, I haven’t heard much about it in recent years. Does that mean the problem has been solved? Or only that it has been drowned out by other issues and by other styles of municipal governance?
How Robertson went about dealing with the homelessness issue is what I want to focus on. He identified a big problem, gathered together all the affected agencies and institutions, researched the current situation, learned from the experts, and developed a comprehensive strategy to address it. He recognized the extent to which it is a national problem and is now seeking a national strategy, and federal funds, to deal with what has now seen as a “public-health crisis.” His is a model for the development of intelligent and effective public policy.
Compare the current Toronto scene where transit has been identified as the key public policy issue of the day. Globe and Mail municipal reporter, Marcus Gee, has produced a video on the history of how transit policy has been made (or not) in Toronto in recent years. It is hilarious and, alas, totally true. Maybe as a public service, the Globe and Mail should post the video on YouTube. It would go viral. You can click on the hyperlink and see if you agree.