Vancouver City Hall needs dogged opposition

Post by Daniel Fontaine in


MacPhail and Kwan
MacPhail and Kwan wrote the book on opposition politics - Flickr Photo: BC NDP

Late in 2008, Mayor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver team were elected to govern the city with a massive majority. After all the votes were tallied, it was 8 Vision, 2 COPE and only one NPA. Since then, you'd be forgiven if you thought the "opposition" on Vancouver Council had all but packed up their bags and left for Mexico.

In my opinion, the problem facing the opposition goes something like this. The NPA's lone representative Suzanne Anton hasn't realized she's not in government any longer. Meanwhile, the two COPE representatives actually still believe they're in government.

As a result of this, there are rarely any tough questions asked of Mayor Robertson and his Vision crew in any given week. Take for example the fact that Vision has yet to reveal who financially contributed to their party at the big Wall Centre fundraising event last fall. Continuous disclosure rules indicate they need to report any new donations as soon as they arise. COPE has yet to ask a single question of Vision in the Chambers on this issue.

As for Anton, she had the most to gain as the only NPA opposition member of council. If you look at what former NDP leader Joy MacPhail and MLA Jenny Kwan were able to do when the BC Legislature stood at 77-2, you'd think Anton could step up to the plate. As the only "real" member of the opposition, she's had ample opportunity to hammer away on a few key themes and help to establish herself in the media as an effective politician.

Unfortunately for Anton, she often appears more than willing to cozy up to Vision in the hope they throw her a bone. Meanwhile, despite her years of experience, Vision yanked her off all Metro Vancouver committees and avoided appointing her to either TransLink, UBCM or the FCM. Despite this snub, Anton has yet to get any fire in her belly on any particular issue. Perhaps the fact the NPA has gone to sleep in-between elections (yet again) helps to explain Anton's reticence to sharpen her political skills and keep Vision accountable.

With no real opposition at Vancouver City Council, the mainstream media have few talking heads to interview when it comes to various decisions being made by the Vision majority. No talking head with a quick soundbite, means no story.

A recent example of this happened last week when Council unanimously approved 7 councillors to attend a conference at Harrison Hot Springs. When the media sought a reaction from Anton, they were likely surprised to find that she actually voted in favour of sending all of her colleagues to the resort. Just imagine what Joy MacPhail would have done if she were the sole opposition councillor. I somehow doubt she would have quietly supported the expenditure. MacPhail would have not only voted against it, she would have made some real hay over it and kept the government accountable.

The long-term problem for governments without any opposition is they often become lazy and arrogant. They soon begin to think they can do anything they want without any sense of accountability. Some governments start getting a bit sloppy in how they handle new legislation and it ends up costing them at the ballot box.

This Vision crew have definitely shown a real tinge of arrogance in the way they've managed the first part of their term. They've used the lack of opposition and their massive majority to justify a number of controversial initiatives that received barely a glance by the mainstream media.

I am not holding out any hope that COPE will step up to the plate and keep Vision accountable. Anton on the other hand still has a few months to demonstrate she understands her new role, and has what it takes to help keep the NPA alive beyond 2011.


This comment is based on my knowledge of provincial politics rather than municipal:

Maybe Anton doesn't have a good staffer doing research for her? Does she have her own, or does she share with the other council members? Many decisions she makes should be judgment calls, I would think. Maybe the NPA needs to step up and hire a part-time worker to help her out.

It will take more than a part time worker to turn Anton into an effective opposition councillor. I think the point of this editorial is Anton needs to stop attending cocktail parties and start doing her job holding this government to account. That shouldn't rely on a part-time worker, but on her political acumen.

The Vision / Cope 'landslide', like the NPA 100% majority a few years ago, is the result of our bizarre combination of First Past the Post and At Large voting. It would be hard to invent anything much worse than this antidemocratic lottery so let's focus on the cause of the problem rather than its symptoms.

@david The reason for the rout was pretty simple. The votes on the centre-right were split. Happens every time the NPA can't get its act together.

Exactly. That's why this system is better described as a lottery. It manages to combine the defects of FPTP with those of the party list usually associated with PR.

The important choice of inclusion on the list is not made by the electorate but by the party caucuses, what the Italians call Partitocrazia. The single constituency with FPTP then has the potential to create a multiplier effect for the votes for the most efficiently organized party so that we get results like those described, representatives who do not represent the community.

However this patronising fake democracy suits the interests of the city's political elites so - thanks to the very apathy which it encourages - it survives. We can see the results.

So is it her political acumen that is lacking? She's always seemed more smart than passionate, though I realize smart and politically smart are different things.

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