As Vancouverites voted on whether to follow leaders or watch the parkin' meters, I was on the pavement of Bob Dylan's birthplace thinking' 'bout the government. Although Gregor Robertson clinched early, I stayed up past 1 a.m. Duluth time to see whether a late wave of pro Non-Partisan Association returns would knock incumbent Geoff Meggs from the tenth and final council position, and also end Vision's school board majority. One no, one yes.
By the end of the night, even from bitterly cold, far-off Minnesota, it was clear that Vision had taken a hit, despite the mayor's re-election to a third term and control of city council remaining in party hands. The anti-Vision sentiment that dominated all-candidate meetings, Facebook, Twitter and many media commentaries turned out be more than merely noise from a bunch of over-covered, angry cranks. The fact that none of the top four council vote-getters was from Vision speaks volumes.
Yet this palpable hostility still fell short of "throw the bums out." Vision's strong brand and powerful electoral machine managed to pull the party through a very difficult campaign, which, at one point, according to Meggs, was headed for a shipwreck. Voters also found the NPA wanting. With it's thin party platform on major matters, the NPA ran out of gas as the campaign headed into the stretch, seeming to offer little more than the negative zingers and debating skill of Kirk LaPointe. By the end, LaPointe appeared more like the Wizard of Oz, more huff and puff than substance.
Despite its shortcomings, Vision has provided some decent government for this strange outpost by the sea, tackling issues that win few votes but need to be tackled. On the other hand, whether calculated or genuine, Robertson's late apology did indicate an awareness the party needs to do better. So, what now? I have some thoughts on, as Lenin liked to put it, what needs to be done.
Herewith, the Mickle wishlist for the next four years.
1. Overhaul the city's rightly-scorned communications department. Its growth in staff and budget has been well-documented. Yet it seems to do anything but communicate, alienating just about every reporter in the city, who grit their teeth whenever they have to make even the most routine request. Yes, everyone knows city hall bureaucrats are busy. But why does that mean reporters should be regularly stonewalled or treated as "the enemy"? What's wrong with being helpful? Instead, the current policy is right out of the Harper handbook of messaging and control. Media friendly. What a concept for a communications department.
2. Heritage. Yes, please. Except late in the day, Vision expressed little interest in heritage matters, unless it was the threatened loss of the Waldorf. The mayor reacted to that within minutes, as if he'd been shot out of a gun. Meanwhile, the demolition of hundreds of beautiful character homes on the west side continued apace. Sure, it's a difficult issue, given property rights and all, but there was barely a whisper of concern from the mayor or anyone else in Vision. There has finally been some attempt to address what's happening, in Shaughnessy at least. That's a start, but it's not enough. Some passion for the heritage that has shaped Vancouver is long overdue. People care about these things.
3. Political donations. Vision can say all they want that accepting large donations from developers is permitted, the NPA does it, too, and it's up to the provincial government to change the law. But no one can be comfortable with the amount of corporate money that pours into party coffers. Banning both corporate and union donations would remove any suggestion that favours are being bought. Although Vision supports a ban, it's been more of a squeak than a roar. The NDP has just introduced a bill calling for an end to such donations. That's your cue, Vision. Be loud!
4. A ward system. Once again, the city's ridiculous at-large system presented us with the absurdity of a ballot containing the names of more than 125 candidates, the vast majority of whom we knew nothing about. With no ward system, we have political parties, slates, obscene amounts of money raised by Vision and NPA, and the defeat of good candidates on neither of the two main slates. You can be a terrific advocate/activist, but if you run as an independent, you will lose. Under a ward system, in place for all other major cities in Canada, councillors are elected to represent specific areas of the city, eliminating the need for big party machines. So much healthier and more democratic. Even a mixture of at-large and ward councillors would be good. Of course, those who win under the at-large system are loathe to change it. Yet an exit poll on election day showed increasing support for wards in Vancouver. While not perfect, a ward system is light years ahead of what we have today.
5. Consultation. It isn't easy in a city where many residents' associations, despite what they say, don't want much change at all. Still, a way has to be found to balance the need for growth and greater density and the views of neighbourhoods. More openness and inclusiveness would be a good place to start, as already pledged by the mayor.
6. Homelessness. This is an area where Vision can take a lot of credit for its aggressive approach, along with the critical assistance of the province and its housing guy, Rich Coleman. It's one of the few issues that seems to stoke some fire in the mayor's trim belly. However, individuals with nowhere to go remain a sad, ongoing presence on our streets. The mayor's ambitious 2008 promise to end street homelessness by next year will not be met. But one expects no lessening of the drive to house.
7. Absentee, off-shore owners. Another complicated issue that needs to be looked at, rather than throwing up one's hands. Providing some hard data would be a start. Let's have some facts.
8. Chinatown. Is there no other way to preserve the marvellous character of these historic city blocks than allowing towers on the edges, advocated by many Chinatown merchants as a means of revitalizing their often deserted streets? Read this illuminating article by the Vancouver Sun's John Mackie.
9. Tear down those viaducts!
10. It's not always enough to be right. Bring people with you. At the same time, criticism shouldn't be shunned, just because you have a majority on council. Listen. Engage. Explain. Communicate. Don't yield the public floor to all those negative Nellies out there.
Thus ends my sermon. Good luck.
Rod Mickleburgh was a journalist at the Globe and Mail for 22 years, until leaving the paper last year. He is currently freelancing and writing a blog where this article first appeared. Before joining the Globe he was a labour reporter for 16 years, in the days when there were full-time labour reporters in B.C.