City of Vancouver: Civic Elections 2018

Written by: Patrick Smith 

The City of Vancouver has the oldest continuous local political party system in Canada. It has also had one of the most orderly. Following a 1935 referendum to replace ward-based elections with an at-large system, a right of centre political force, the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) was formed in 1937 to combat what was seen by local business advocates as a leftist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) threat at city hall. After winning the Mayoral race in 1940, the NPA came to win a majority of council elections and mayor in each civic election between 1941 and 1967.

At the end of the 1960’s, one political interregnum occurred when more Liberal local reformist elements, energized by anti-urban renewal/ anti-urban freeway politics led to a platform of change, briefly superseding the NPA with The Electors Action Movement (TEAM). This centrist vs centre-right tussle resulted in TEAM civic majorities between 1972-80, after which TEAM fell back to contender status, before disbanding in 1984 – a short political interlude but one which had a significant impact on the city’s future development.

COPE (the Committee/Coalition of Progressive Electors) and other left independents also came to challenge NPA predominance in the first half of the 1980’s – with former TEAM councillor Mike Harcourt taking over the mayor’s chair, running as a left Independent (1980-86). Harcourt subsequently served as BC NDP Premier in 1991-1996; he was followed as mayor by Gordon Campbell, for the NPA; (3 terms -1986-93), and succeeded by NPA colleague Phillip Owen, for another 3 terms, 1993-2001). Campbell, too, went on to serve as BC’s Premier (Liberal, 2001-2011).

In total, between 1941 and present, the Non-Partisan Association could be described as the natural ruling party of the City of Vancouver. During this run, the NPA and its allies won mayoralty and council for more than 40 years. Eleven of the sixteen mayors have been NPA. Their closest, most successful rival, Gregor Robertson of Vision Vancouver is just finishing a 3rd term at 10 years.

Around 2001, the local political landscape began to change. Activists and local politicians agitated for a switch to Harm Reduction from the U.S. sponsored War On Drugs. Over the next three civic administrations, Vancouverites elected a leftist COPE mayor and council (Larry Campbell, 2001-2005), a return to rightist NPA (under Sam Sullivan. 2005-2008) and a shift to more centrist Vision (with Mayor Gordon Robertson (2008-2018). Robertson and Vision lead this local splinter, reconfigured from the COPE of Larry Campbell’s 2001-2005 term. What was remarkable is the fact that each of these three ideologically different administrations – between 2001 and the present maintained the central social policy consensus – to maintain Vancouver as North America’s first official Supervised Injection Site (InSite) and work on its harm reduction focus of the Four Pillars approach.

The local landscape of the October 20, 2018 civic elections reflects that consensus on the local opioid crisis, coupled with a new consensus on housing affordability – though not its solution – but the City’s politics are now much more convoluted: local voters have 21 candidates for mayor, including 7 with local party support; there are also 71 candidates for ten council seats with eleven local parties contesting. Voters need to figure out a split right wing which includes Coalition Vancouver, proVancouver, Vancouver 1st, and Yes Vancouver and the traditional pro-business NPA, plus independents such as Rollergirl and Mrs. Doubtfire.

In Vancouver, it has more often been the left/progressives who have split their vote, giving advantage to the NPA. The governing Vision Vancouver, after a decade in control of city council under Mayor Gregor Robertson, nominated as mayoral candidate Squamish Hereditary Chief, Ian Campbell, who then withdrew under a hint of scandal just before the mid-September close of nominations. No new Vision candidate was put forward though the party did manage to nominate seven Vision representatives – though only one incumbent appeared on the ballot for council.

After multiple local elections where the best predictor of re-electability was incumbency, 2018 is anticipated to be the an outlier of note. It is an oddity, where an Independent candidate for mayor, with District Labour Council endorsement, is the front-runner in the last month of the race; Dr. Kennedy Stewart, a 2-term MP/sometime SFU Public Policy/Urban Studies background with a strong ecological and democratic reform history, including contesting the Trans Mountain Pipeline, has led the large mayoral pack from the summer. Not surprisingly, the NPA, under Ken Sim, is his largest opposition; apart from Mayor, the NPA have ten council contestants.

A second oddity is the local Greens; their leader, Adrianne Carr has topped past polls for council but decided to not risk losing a seat in a less certain run for mayor. Instead they have a half dozen candidates seeking city council seats.

The split of the city’s right-wing forces, led by the NPA certainly is a third oddity: at least three of the local party candidates running for mayor sought the NPA’s nomination, After being rebuffed, the unhappy politicos set up new political tents nearby. With more than 70 council candidates and 21 running for mayor, (plus school board and local park board), name and local party recognition should influence outcomes (though perhaps less than a randomized ballot anticipates (see here). 

The fourth oddity is the impact of a new, not entirely fixed, local campaign finance law. Intended to “take big money out of local elections” by banning corporate and union contributions and adding limits for individuals, the switch in how and what can be raised and spent goes some way to explaining why half of Metro Vancouver’s 23 mayors decided to not run in 2018, including BC’s two largest municipalities – Vancouver and Surrey. The relative lack of advertising dollars may mean that voter recognition and turnout are also truncated below the typical mid-thirty-percent rate.

With the civic race now officially underway, Vancouver’s election results will be known on October 20th, just a month hence.

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