Opinion
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Municipal Politics

Sorry, Vancouver, It Will Forever Be Your Grandfather's NPA

Vancouver's centre-right civic party faces existential crisis and potential electoral defeat after rejecting fresh blood and ideas on housing affordability.

By Devon Rowcliffe 10 May 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Devon Rowcliffe is a commentator of Western and East Asian politics, as well as a non-fiction writer. Rowcliffe spent a decade working in the public service in British Columbia, Ontario and the United Kingdom. He holds a bachelor's degree from UBC and a master's degree in political science from the University of Toronto. Follow him on Twitter, or visit his website.

The recent disqualification of reformist mayoral candidate Hector Bremner by Vancouver's civic party, the Non-Partisan Association, or NPA, suggests Vancouver's so-called "natural governing party" may not sweep back into power as easily as anticipated this October.

Facing the prospect of a third term in office for photogenic Mayor Gregor Robertson, the right-wing NPA attempted to freshen its image prior to Vancouver's 2014 civic election. A swirling logo that shared the BC Liberal colour scheme was replaced with a gentler, purple ball, and the unofficial catchphrase "not your grandfather's NPA" fell from the lips of several candidates. Nearing its 80th birthday, the NPA was desperate to declare it had not lapsed into political anachronism.

But Vancouver voters saw past the rebranding and rejected an NPA policy platform that offered little to improve housing affordability.

Bremner's arrival in 2017 as an NPA byelection candidate offered a bold alternative: significantly increasing the city's housing supply by loosening antiquated zoning restrictions. He and political strategist Mark Marissen read the Vancouver electorate's sentiment perfectly, recognizing the bubbling discontent over high housing costs. Also partly thanks to an outdated voting system and a plethora of centre-left parties splitting the vote, Bremner coasted to an easy byelection victory for the NPA.

Although the NPA was pleased to gain another council seat and a millennial face in its caucus, it's likely Bremner's aggressive stance on increasing housing density alienated the party's old guard. Most of the NPA's elected incumbents fall into this category, leaving Bremner and his reformist agenda largely isolated as a new councillor.

After barely four months in office, Bremner announced his intent to run for mayor. The kid has guts. With longtime NPA councillor George Affleck opting to retire from politics and no high-profile outsiders jockeying for the NPA's top position, it looked as if Bremner might secure yet another easy political victory.

But this past Monday evening, the NPA board disqualified Bremner from contesting the party's mayoral nomination for reasons that remain opaque. At issue may be two complaints that allege Bremner could have been in a conflict of interest by not recusing himself from several council matters relating to development - complaints that Bremner brushed off as a "smear campaign."

Bremner works for Pace Group, which regularly deals with clients involved in property development. It's possible the NPA board felt that a person with such employment would not be an appropriate fit for mayor. But if so, why was he approved by the NPA board to run as a councillor back in 2017?

Perhaps an equally feasible reason for Bremner's disqualification from running for the NPA's mayoral nomination was internal opposition to an upstart youngster who wanted to steer the party in a radically different direction. The NPA's voting base has traditionally been landowners in detached houses in Vancouver's West Side who likely wouldn't react positively to Bremner's vision of mass upzonings across large swathes of the city.

Political veteran and NPA park board commissioner John Coupar, perhaps seen as Bremner's main opponent for the NPA's mayoral nomination, publicly scorned Bremner's reformist housing agenda. In an interview with the Globe and Mail's Frances Bula, Coupar stated that "housing is too complex for one-shot solutions," a thinly veiled criticism of Bremner's goal to allow more housing stock. Coupar subsequently said in a campaign video that housing "is a much bigger issue than a hashtag," an unsubtle jab at Bremner's "let's fix housing" catchphrase.

A veritable who's-who of former and current NPA politicians threw their support behind Coupar's nomination bid, suggesting that the party's old guard was not ready to let a young reformist take the lead.

Another significant - and new - faction in the NPA was also hostile to Bremner's housing plans. Its unofficial leader is Glen Chernen, an investment adviser who created the short-lived Cedar party during the 2014 election campaign. Chernen used Cedar to rail against both Vision and the NPA for being too friendly with property developers. Since announcing his bid for the NPA mayoral nomination, Chernen has blamed "corruption" between developers and city hall, as well as foreign ownership of Vancouver property, as the reasons for high housing prices. Chernen has not been afraid to resort to populist language, employing expressions such as "clean up city hall" and "take out the trash."

Shortly after Bremner won the councillor byelection in October, several NPA board positions were acquired by Chernen's small-business faction. This left the party's old guard and Chernen's group in control of the NPA.

Little surprise, perhaps, that Bremner - as the head of a faction with little to no power on the party's board - was the nominee to be disqualified from what appears to be a power struggle.

This year has witnessed the third acrimonious NPA mayoral nomination contest in just 16 years. In both previous instances - 2002 and 2008 - infighting left the party divided and demoralized, affecting election results.

Bremner's departure creates a dilemma for the NPA. He is arguably the Vancouver politician who has best understood the electorate's sentiment and also managed to articulate the clearest vision for resolving housing unaffordability. Bremner had promised to deliver votes from young Vancouverites to the NPA, a population cohort the party struggles to attract. Millennials are now a larger voting bloc than baby boomers, meaning the NPA cannot afford to lose them.

It appears unlikely that the three candidates approved by the NPA board to contest the party's mayoral nomination - Coupar, Chernen and Ken Sim - will be able to generate a level of interest that Bremner created. Coupar was unable to articulate any feasible solutions for housing affordability during his campaign launch. He also criticized Bremner's plans to rezone large parts of the city, stating "people don't want that because they care about their neighbourhoods" - suggesting a campaign narrative that may resonate with older homeowners but not the young voters Bremner is targeting.

With Bremner now rejected by the NPA, it's highly possible the party's old guard and the Chernen camp will turn their swords on each other. Chernen frequently slammed the NPA in 2014 for its coziness with developers, a narrative he may use against Coupar. Much like Bremner, Chernen is attempting to steer the NPA in a radically different direction. Expect hostility.

But regardless of whom becomes the NPA's mayoral candidate, the young, urbanist, millennial vote will now be next to impossible for the NPA to recapture. Vancouver's political centre-right has become a crowded minefield: the NPA, former federal MP Wai Young's Coalition Vancouver, ProVancouver, and likely a new party started by Bremner and his followers.

For the NPA, it's not just the 2018 election result that is in jeopardy, but rather the party's relevance to Vancouver politics. The NPA's refusal to accept change from younger reformists suggests the party could become as ideological and irrelevant as former governing party COPE is on the political left. While a Coupar mayoral nomination would offer the electorate more uninspiring status-quo on the housing front, a Chernen nomination could prove catastrophic to the NPA's long-term survival, possibly marking its last campaign as a viable political contender.  [Tyee]

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