Vancouver politicos can learn lessons from Tremblay victory

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

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Despite major scandals and police investigations, incumbent Mayor Gerard Tremblay won the election

Now that all the ballots have been counted and the election night hoopla has faded, some folks in Montreal must be wondering what just happened. As you can see from my tweets yesterday evening, the election didn’t live up to its tight three way race scenario that one pollster predicted. Union Montreal candidate Gerard Tremblay had been rocked with scandal over the last year and written off by pundits in the lead up to yesterday’s election. However, he managed to hold off both of his challengers to win another 4 years in office.

So how did Tremblay do it? Vancouver politicos may want to take note of several factors that played in his favour as it has some relevance to their situation.

Tremblay’s biggest advantage was the fact he was the incumbent candidate. Unlike provincial or federal politics, in civic politics name recognition plays a very significant role in your chances for re-election. As they say, better the devil you know... Sadly, one fellow told a local Montreal media outlet that he voted for the one politician who had exposed all of his scandals, versus the two others that hadn’t. Such is the state of Montreal civic politics.

Underestimate the power of incumbency at your own peril. In the case of Mayor Gregor Robertson, it means he’s a virtual shoo-in for 2011, unless he is hit with a major scandal or a super “star” candidate comes along. Even so, there is no guarantee the incumbent would be voted out. In Vancouver an incumbent mayor hasn’t lost an election going back at least three decades.

There are also some lessons from the Montreal election for the moribund Non-Partisan Association in Vancouver. They chose to dump their leader in the spring of 2008, mere months before the civic election. The day after former NPA councillor Peter Ladner announced he was going to challenge Sam Sullivan, NDP MLA Gregor Robertson finally decided he was prepared to run for mayor. Coincidence? Don't bet on it.

Unlike Montreal’s Tremblay, Sullivan didn’t have any major scandals or police investigations to contend with. Sure he may have pushed the envelope and upset some of his supporters by advocating for densification and drug treatment reform, but how does that compare to handing out contracts to friends and insiders?

What Sullivan faced was a much bigger challenge than scandals or police investigations. He was faced with a member of his own caucus who started to believe the headlines, and all the people surrounding him who said he could become the “saviour” of a city council run amok. Thankfully for Tremblay and Union Montreal, they not only had a cohesive team, they had enough political acumen to understand that stabbing their leader in the back on the eve of a civic election doesn’t help your electoral chances.

Based on what I just witnessed in Montreal, it’s hard to believe that a party led by former incumbent NPA Mayor Sam Sullivan could have done any worse than electing only one member to council. I guess it will be up to historians to determine what they think Sullivan’s chances would have been had he been given the opportunity to face his opponent head on.

Union Montreal also benefited by a split in the “anti-Tremblay” forces. In fact, over 60% of the electorate actually voted against the Mayor in the civic election. That vote was split between the Vision and Project Montreal candidates, thus assuring Union Montreal of their victory.

Again, there are lessons to be learned from the Montreal experience for Vancouver politicians. A split on either the left or the right of the political spectrum inevitably means an impact on the final election results. In 2005, the COPE and Vision split helped to allow the NPA win a majority at all three levels of civic government. In 2008, a joint COPE-Vision slate helped propel it to a massive victory. In 2011, if Vision doesn’t play nice with COPE (there are signs they don’t want to) and leave a few spots on the dance card for them, they too will end up paying the price. Watch Vision throw COPE a few trinkets over the next couple of years to keep them happy.

I got to know Mayor Tremblay when I worked at City Hall and he is truly an affable and statesman like politician. Despite the flaws, Tremblay’s defeat coupled with the pending retirement of Mayor David Miller in Toronto would have been a major setback for the cities agenda in Canada. There are only a handful of mayors in Canada that can get a Prime Minister to return their calls. Tremblay is one of them and I’m glad to see he survived another four years. Now he needs to get to work and help restore the image of a city plagued with corruption and scandals.

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