Louisiana Governor Huey Long wrote the book on populist politics – is Vision reading it?
As we take stock of the past year of Vancouver civic politics, we're seeing a pattern emerge. Limited by their inarticulate yet telegenic leader, Vision Vancouver are proving to be less a profile in political courage than they are in political expediency. No Vancouver government in recent memory have had as many policy reversals in such a short period as our current government. With sizable majorities on council, park board and school board the question is, why?
I think we all understand the meaning of "vision." To have vision means that one can see the future unfolding, challenge the norms, stand up to naysayers, and exercise leadership. You'd be hard pressed to find any example of this behaviour within Vancouver's governing caucus.
Having political vision doesn't mean collapsing like a house of cards when the public complains, which we see demonstrated repeatedly by Gregor and the Vision team. The electorate are fickle as we know, but your job when elected is not to be continually reacting to the public mood. Your job is to often make tough decisions within your mandate. But when the going gets tough, you'll usually find Vision Vancouver hiding under a blanket.
This month Vision are cranking up communications to their base of supporters on how successful their first year in office has been. Thanks to all their hyperbole around the HEAT shelters, the greenest city launch, and the Burrard Bridge lane reallocation, you'd think they've found a cure for the common cold while ending all wars in their first 12 months.
Vision Vancouver are just the latest practicioners of populist politics. Rule #1 is to classify your opponent as elitist, which is why they like to portray the NPA as pointy-headed and bourgeois west siders, out of touch with the political centre. In reality, the NPA had blended quite well over time with Vancouver's many diverse parts. Hardly elitist, two of the last three mayors the NPA elected rose from very humble beginnings – one was the son of a school clerk, and the other was the son of an Eastside auto parts seller.
Even Vision's only controversial decision that held, to reallocate a lane on the Burrard Bridge, nearly folded under the weight of indecision within their ranks, and fears about how the public would react. Lucky for them the geniuses in Vancouver's traffic engineering department mapped out a way to make the lane closure have the least impact. It helped that the sun shone more brightly this summer than it has for the last four years, making cycling a more agreeable transportation option than usual this summer.
Here's a list of recent policy reversals by Vision caused by a backlash from the public:
- This week began with Vision caving in on their own plan to make the city more "fun". What council did was incite the wrath of restaurateurs, winemakers and diners who want better than plonk with our meals. On course for a collision, Vision grabbed their booze bylaw off the order paper.
- In the face of public criticism over their Olympic gag law, Vision once again changed their stripes. Gregor was out promising to give the bylaw a re-think, leaving Geoff Meggs, who had drawn fire on the policy for weeks, looking like a hypocrite.
- Councillor Tim Stevenson quickly dropped plans to attend an event in the USA on the taxpayers' dime last month as soon as questions began to be asked about his travel plans. Stevenson's overnight decision, he claims, happened after he figured out that the City was having money issues.
- Coun. Kerry Jang was hung out to dry by the Mayor when he said that Vision's promise of hiring a mental health advocate was all but dead. When the papers filled with stories about a broken promise, Gregor hedged and suggested that, again, he'd give the decision a re-think.
- Perhaps the biggest loss of face for council was the mess around the HEAT shelters. The Granville & Howe Street shelters were touted as a great success, and their critics as NIMBYs. But as the pressure built, Vision retreated.
It's not just when the media pick up on the story that Vision caves in on its commitments. The party's promise on electoral reform was a bargaining chip used to gain support with COPE, but as Vision becomes increasingly confident of its own political strength, the less it feels obliged to honour the promise of a 2011 wards referendum. Political analyst Kennedy Stewart and the Georgia Straight's Charlie Smith won't soon let them forget it.
And Council are not the only ones who get weak in the knees when the public complains. Park Board had grand plans for ripping up a contract with a private operator of a wedding services facility at Queen E Park's Celebration Pavilion, and turning it over to their generous supporters in CUPE. Again, when that private operator caught the attention of the media, Vision killed the proposed change.
A formidable list of flip-flops for a party with just one year in government. It's unlikely to get any better in years two and three.
Perhaps the most famous practitioner of populist politics was the legendary Huey Long, governor of Louisiana, immortalized in Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. While Gregor Robertson has none of the rollicking style of a politician from the Deep South, like Long, Robertson and Vision have quickly reshaped the leadership within the city's bureaucracy to stamp out any dissent. They also killed staff morale in the process.
Full of promises, and always aiming to please, Vision Vancouver take their cues from a salesman like Huey Long. As long as you don't expect leadership from them, Gregor Robertson and the Vision team will always dish up what the public loves. Standing up to controversy simply is not in their DNA.