Has the time come to retire Canada's oldest civic party?
It is with some trepidation that I write this editorial about a party I once dedicated myself to for over a decade. That's because whenever I've provided critical analysis of the NPA in the past, it has triggered some snarky responses from people I consider good friends.
When you're about to lose a loved one, the last few moments often prove to be the most difficult. As a coping mechanism, you want to turn back the clock and relive some of those fond memories. But there comes a point when you realize the life support system keeping your elderly grandfather alive is merely post-poning the inevitable.
In the case of the NPA, the last civic election was yet another indicator that the party (a.k.a. association) has passed its prime. Long gone are the days when Philip Owen and his mighty caucus ruled the roost at 12th and Cambie with not even one member elected to the opposition ranks. If you analyze the results of the last three civic elections, you will better appreciate why I think the NPA has been undergoing a slow and agonizing demise.
In 2002, with the left united, the NPA was all but wiped out. Only Sam Sullivan and Peter Ladner survived the nuclear blast.
Three years later the results were only marginally better with Sam Sullivan's NPA eeking out a slim 6-5 majority. Some argue the NPA would have actually lost that election were it not for Sullivan personally bringing in a block of votes to the table.
In 2008, Peter Ladner dethroned his leader then went on to pay the price as voters handed the NPA its worst electoral defeat in living memory.
Notwithstanding the fact Sullivan won a slight majority in 2005, few can argue that the last three civic elections have been terrible for the NPA. They've been on a slow and steady downward trajectory over the last decade. There are many reasons why this is so, but rather than dwell on those, I'll focus on where the NPA should go next.
Firstly, I don't think the NPA should even focus on 2011. Robertson's victory is all but assured in Vancouver's next civic election, that is unless he decides to quit again and head back to Victoria to become Premier. As the incumbents, Vision have a lock on all the developer money in the city (whatever is left of it these days) and they've also got the unions in their back pocket. A lethal combination indeed.
The best any free-enterprise opposition party can hope for is that Robertson's majority is cut back slightly by a few seats. This is a scenario that should be attainable if the opposition can attract even a half-decent mayoral candidate.
Why do I think Robertson is unbeatable? Well, he has effectively undercut the NPA party by becoming the NPA party itself. By doing so, he has left the "real" NPA with little room to maneuver. You don't believe me? Just look at Robertson's record.
Since taking office Vision has cut funding to the arts and parks while pumping millions into the police department budget. No so-called right wing NPA government would have dared make such a bold move.
Robertson is reducing millions of dollars worth of taxes paid by big businesses and pouring them onto the back of residential homeowners. There might be a good case to be made for this, but the reality is he actually opposed this position while in opposition.
Vision is also undertaking a massive review of city operations and threatening to lay off hundreds of city workers who are considered redundant due to duplication. Again, I can't recall when an NPA government ever undertook a campaign to lay off city workers.
Vision have cleverly parked themselves just right of centre, while managing to silence the left. This despite the fact that even a slight resurgence of the current NPA would result in a complete wipe-out of COPE in 2011. If Robertson continues to govern from the right, the political fortunes of the current NPA are dismal at best.
So how can any political party wrestle power from an incumbent mayor who remains relatively popular with the electorate? Simply put, they have to out work, out gun and out man him over the next few years. They also have to demonstrate to the electorate they are the only true centrist non-partisan party in Vancouver who remain unaffiliated to any provincial or federal political party.
Can the NPA win with the current brand and electoral machinery in 2011? I would argue not. I think they'd be better off looking at their long-term political prospects in 2014, which remains the first real window whereby they could regain power. By implementing a series of short term fixes, they are bound to make the current problem worse.
The NPA simply doesn't seem aware that it is losing currency with the public with each passing day. Almost one year after their devastating loss in last year's election, the NPA has done little to publicly demonstrate that it should be handed over the reigns of power. For some reason, they continue to naively cling on to the notion that the NPA brand is enough to help them get re-elected.
As we've reported here on numerous occasions, there are few community outreach activities to speak of. The upcoming NPA annual general meeting on Wednesday appears to be another drab and boring affair offering faint hope that a new slate of progressive board members will pull the party in a different direction.
Even if a new progressive slate of board members is elected on Wednesday, I doubt little will change in time to make a difference for 2011. Time is simply running out for the NPA to remake its image and connect with voters who have long since grown tired of all the internecine warfare. This is especially true for Vancouver's rich and diverse ethnic communities that used to consider the NPA as their party of choice.
As painful as it may be, the time has come to pull the plug. Just as Vision was able to rise from the ashes of a decimated COPE party, another political civic party dedicated to free enterprise values and social justice can emerge in Vancouver. A party that truly acts like a party. A political organization that is mature enough to realize that this is 2009, not 1955.
If a member of the NPA actually had the audacity, they'd put a motion on the floor of the upcoming AGM asking that a blue ribbon committee be established to review the future direction of the association. The committee should report back within 90 days after having consulted with both members and the public. The recommendations of the committee could then be put to a vote by all the membership.
Perhaps the committee will come back and report that the status quo is good enough, but I rather doubt it. I suspect if the panel is truly objective, they'll say the time has come to fold the NPA's tent and start up a new more dynamic civic party.
How about TEAM Non-Partisans? Or VOICE Vancouver? Or the Vancouver Party? Or Vancouver First? A new constitution, a new board and a new vision would form the basis for real change in Vancouver. It won't be a party saddled with the baggage of yesteryear. Rather, it will attract good candidates from the centre, left and right of the political spectrum. It will become a real viable alternative to the Vision juggernaut.
Right out of the gate, TEAM (if that's what it's called) should commit to continuous campaign disclosure and making Vancouver the most open and transparent civic government in Canada. Free votes would be the norm, rather than the exception on non-budget related items under a TEAM government. Real, effective citizen engagement will become the hallmark of TEAM's efforts to make Vancouver the new business and industrial hub of the West Coast.
It will take a lot of work and a lot of emotional capital to shut down what we've known for so many years as the NPA and set up a new progressive party. The NPA can choose this path voluntarily, or be forced to do so after another disastrous defeat in 2011. Whatever the decision, the future direction of Vancouver is riding on it.