A few thoughts on Vancouver’s by-election results

Last night’s final Vancouver by-election results arrived late into the evening, and as you can imagine watching them trickle in was a stressful affair for the candidates, campaign organizers, and faithful partisans across the city. There were a number of narratives being pushed on social media afterward—particularly that the council win by the NPA’s Hector Bremner was somehow delegitimized due to the low voter turnout (10.99 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot – I had predicted 10 percent), and because of the split on the left between a crowded field of social activists (one-time mayoral candidate Jean Swanson came second, after Vancouver Greens’ Pete Fry).

Post-vote grumpiness is not new to elections, and it is unlikely Bremner will spend a minute mulling about how he led the field by 3,000 votes. By-elections typically favour those who are unhappy with the government in power, and the candidates on the left were really not able to distinguish themselves from Vision Vancouver.

Here are a few thoughts on the evening’s results and what it will mean for the 2018 election and the future of Vancouver politics.

  1. On the new NPA city councillor. Hector Bremner is not a new candidate—he ran once provincially for the BC Liberals—and his confident stump speeches show off his political experience. He is by far the strongest public speaker of any member of the NPA caucus, and it is the skill that will propel him forward into politics, if he so chooses. Bremner will now have to fine tune his skills as a public figure, watching those unguarded moments where what you say can sink you, and focus on representing the whole city’s interests. In his acceptance speech Bremner was quick to point out that the campaign for city hall begins now. He struck the right note when he said he will not blame other levels of government for the city’s challenges, an obvious shot at Gregor Robertson who perfected his blame game over 9 years as mayor.
  2. On the future of Vancouver Greens. With Janet Fraser topping the polls for the school board vote, taking two of her Vancouver Green colleagues Judy Zaichkowsky and Estrellita Gonzalez with her to the second and third spot, the Vancouver Greens are finally becoming a political force to reckon with in our city. With Vision seeming to collapse onto itself, one has to wonder if the party will become the Vancouver left’s new torch bearers. The VanGreens anti-development stances and talk of forming neighbourhood councils are straight out of COPE’s playbook. What the party lacks is a natural alliance with the public sector unions—in particular the BC Teachers Federation, the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers Association (“VESTA”), and the Vancouver Secondary Teacher’s Association (“VSTA”). The latter organization published a slate sheet with Vision and OneCity candidates (image embedded on right). It is reported that VESTA hand delivered its slate sheet (which did not have a Green candidate) to parents as they arrived to drop their kids off at schools around the city (something I personally witnessed in 2011). Another scenario is that OneCity will rise out of Vision’s ashes, now that they have elected their first candidate to school board—long-time education activist Carrie Bercic.
  3. On the future of the Vancouver NPA. Bremner’s win will adds much-needed wind to the sails of the Non-Partisan Association’s brand, which no one can deny was what propelled the three winning candidates into office. Independent candidates and new parties like Sensible Vancouver occupied were left stuck at the bottom of the vote count. The NPA elected two candidates to School Board — Fraser Ballantyne and Lisa Dominato. It is in Dominato where we can expect to see signs of positive change for the NPA on school board. A highly-qualified political moderate who has worked both with the provincial government and in cooperation with labour organizations, it is only a matter of time before Dominato ascends to chair of the VSB. What the NPA needs now is a prospective mayoral candidate who complements the caucus’ strengths, and builds upon the energy the newly elected team members will bring.
  4. On the future of Vision Vancouver. My instinct about Vision Vancouver is that it has done a good job of hiding an organization that is ailing on the inside. It lost one of its strongest team members in Geoff Meggs—who recently took a job in Victoria with the BC NDP. Many of its key organizers followed Meggs into provincial government jobs. Most of the Vision caucus are getting pretty long in the tooth—some were first elected before there were ever iPhones or Facebook. Their leader has lost a lot of his lustre in the public. Their enviable Liberal-NDP coalition appears to be on life-support, and only one of their elected caucus members—Catherine Evans on the Park Board—could be classified as a federal Liberal. Many of those Liberal supporters appear to be returning, albeit slowly, to the NPA’s coalition. Unlike the early years of their mandate, where the party methodically implemented planks in its ambitious 2008 platform, Vision Vancouver appear to be making policies up on the fly. As a friend said recently, Gregor Robertson has become a “specialist in pointless gestures” that seem to lead nowhere. It is hard to see how the organization can re-do their image as a tired political party before next fall’s general election. Vancouver Courier columnist Allen Garr writes that the by-election results could signal the party’s swan song is imminent.
  5. On the low voter turnout. While eleven percent voter turnout seems shockingly low, keep in mind that the City of Vancouver chose not to mail voter cards to remind the electorate that the by-election was pending, or when and where people could vote. The fact that few of candidates actually posted signs (the NPA being the exception), and the best-financed organization Vision Vancouver deliberately did not erect lawn signs, it is no wonder that most people failed to vote. Depending on the excitement built by next year’s campaign (where we could possibly see new mayoral candidates for the NPA, Vancouver Greens, Vision and OneCity), the voter turnout will rise back up to its traditional 35 to 45 percent. Still pretty damn low, but at least the turnout has been steady for the past two decades. I contend the best thing we can do is add more civics to the school curriculum so our high school graduates have at least a basic understanding of how our political system works.