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Municipal Politics

Can Union-Brokered Deal Prevent Vote-Splitting in Vancouver Election?

Progressive parties agree to limit number of candidates, but critic fears unions’ role risks conflict of interest.

Carlos Oen 31 Jul

Carlos Oen is an intern at The Tyee from the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia. He is a Mexico City native who reports on politics, public policy, business and music.

An agreement between Vancouver’s progressive parties to limit the number of candidates they all run for city council and the school and park boards is historic to some and a conflict of interest to others.

The Vancouver and District Labour Council (VDLC) negotiated agreements with five progressive political organizations — the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), Green Party of Vancouver, Jean Swanson for Council, OneCity and Vision Vancouver — to avoid splitting the vote and prevent an NPA victory. It’s the first time there has been such broad co-operation among a group of parties.

With close to 100 union locals under its umbrella, the VDLC represents about 60,000 workers. They include the City of Vancouver’s unionized workers.

The city council byelection last fall was seen as a wakeup call for unions and progressives as Hector Bremmer of the NPA was elected with 27.5 per cent of the vote as four centre-left parties all ran candidates. The labour council endorsed OneCity's council candidate Judy Graves, who came fourth.

With new campaign spending limits and a ban on union and corporate political donations, the Vancouver and District Labour Council decided to invest in organizing.

“We need to talk to these organizations in advance,” said president Stephen von Sychowski. “We can’t wait to see who comes asking for an endorsement. We need to start a dialogue and encourage a dialogue between them. Also, encourage some limits to the number of candidates they run.”

After meeting with the parties, the labour council made individual agreements with each of the progressive parties on the number of candidates each will run.

The labour council’s goal was to persuade the parties to agree to limit their combined total number of candidates to the number of available seats — 10 for council, nine for school board and seven for park board.

OneCity has agreed to run two candidates. COPE is running three candidates, including Jean Swanson. Vision is running five candidates.

“Vision is not running any more seats than what we already have elected at those different levels,” said Michael Haack, vice-chair of Vision Vancouver. “In doing so, we agreed to leave space for new candidates that could bring an important perspective and not challenging candidates from the other parties.”

The Green Party initially agree to run three candidates, but broke the agreement by deciding to nominate four people for council positions.

The Greens attempted to amend the agreement, but the VDLC did not agree.

“That was a major concern to us, said von Sychowski. “We have relations with all these parties and the other parties had all ratified these agreements. We take that seriously. To amend the terms at that late stage, we felt would be opening the door for everybody else to ask the same.”

Vancouver Green Party of Vancouver chair Anthony Hughes acknowledged that some voters might have misgivings about political parties making deals with each other.

But he stressed the party has discussed the number of candidates with the labour council, not its rivals. “Our constitution and bylaws prohibit us from entering into accommodations or agreements with other parties,” said Hughes.

The Green Party had already assessed the likely number of seats it could win, said Hughes. “We came out of this process pretty close to these numbers.”

The agreements do not deal with whether the parties will run candidates for mayor. Vision Vancouver is the lone party among the four to nominate a mayoral candidate, choosing Ian Campbell, a hereditary chief of the Squamish Nation.

The labour council has endorsed independent candidate Kennedy Stewart, current NDP MP for Burnaby-South, for mayor.

The agreements do say that while parties can criticize their competitors’ policies, they will refrain from personal attacks.

“This is an opportunity for us to practise politics on a higher level. The way it is meant to be practised where we have competing ideas, not competing personalities,” said Connie Hobbs, co-chair of COPE.

A conflict of interest?

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, said he’s concerned the political parties reached agreements with the VDLC instead of among themselves. Unions, especially those representing city workers, have a conflict of interest in wishing to see certain candidates elected, he said.

“What I am not comfortable with is that an interest group that lobbies council is involved in reaching an agreement with a bunch of political parties whose candidates are running for council. That is the disturbing part,” said Conacher, who is an adjunct professor of law and politics at the University of Ottawa.

Patrick Meehan, co-host of the Cambie Report podcast covering the fall Vancouver municipal election, says the Greens, COPE and OneCity have the most to gain from the agreement.

Based on the past byelection results, Meehan foresees potential voter support for the Green Party and that COPE has a chance to return to city council with Jean Swanson’s candidacy.

“In previous elections, the unions would have donated vast sums of money to their political machines to win elections. I think this election has significantly less union influence than previous ones,” said Meehan.

Meehan said the labour council’s agreements show how fractured Vancouver politics is right now. With plenty of parties on both left and right, the threshold to elect a mayor or councillor could be low.

The Tyee contacted the Jean Swanson for Council and the NPA for comments, but received no reply before the publication of this article.  [Tyee]

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