NPA on its past, and its future

Post by Mike Klassen in


The slogan at the back of the room summed up the evening – photo: Tom Hu

Wednesday evening a number of NPA 'party faithful' gathered for their AGM. It was a mild and sunny evening and thankfully no Canucks game was on the schedule. While some might have preferred to go for a meal on a patio or a walk on the beach that evening, about 75 or so folks wandered into the NPA's AGM looking at the future of the organization, and looking to see if there is any hope for a political alternative to Vision's social change agenda.

For my part, I'm unwilling to write off the NPA yet and here's why. My involvement with civic politics revived when I met Peter Ladner at a tech industry mixer in Yaletown. I had long abandoned involvement in politics due to the demands of my career over the previous decade. That summer evening in 2002 I was looking for a way back into participating in my community again, and involvement in civic politics would be one small step in that process. At Peter's invitation, I volunteered on his campaign.

I entered at at a time when the political momentum was swinging against us. The public had fallen in love with Larry Campbell, who had the benefit of being immortalized as Dominic DaVinci, the gruff Vancouver chief coroner of the great CBC TV series. As so often is the case in politics, a fantasy world surrounded Campbell's public image, and it helped to lift Larry and his merry band of COPEsters into a majority at City Hall, School Board and Park Board.

A few months after the election, what was left of the NPA assembled at SFU Harbourside campus to discuss what had happened and where to go next. I remember federal Liberal politico Bruce Young – an old friend who chaired part of the morning session – saying, "Folks, we've just had our butts handed to us. In the battle of mind over emotion, the heart always wins in politics. Today, the public is in love with COPE more than us."

As a communications consultant with clearly too much time on my hands, I drafted a 10-page paper on the future of the NPA that was eventually was circulated to the board. In it I proposed that the Association come out from the backroom, that we use a website to take positions as opposition, and to attract the public as they slowly became disaffected by COPE's wackiness. I also proposed that we call the organization "Vancouver NPA," and came up with the domain name.

In the years following the 2002 election, it was felt by the organization that there was still an immense amount of value in the NPA brand. We had to remind ourselves then that this coalition of independents, Liberals and Conservatives had been the most successful civic political organization in Canadian history. NPA governments had led Vancouver for the majority of the previous six decades.

As much as our left-wing opponents attempted to disparage us, you couldn't ignore the fact that Vancouver was an immensely successful city thanks in large measure to NPA leadership. In the mid-1930s, hugely popular Gerry McGeer (re-elected as NPA mayor in the forties) fought Vancouver's establishment to get City Hall built at 12th & Cambie instead of downtown. NPA Mayor Fred Hume built the most rental and social housing in Vancouver's history during the 1950s. Throughout the 1960s Mayors Bill Rathie and Tom Campbell built Vancouver's West End, which is today arguably one the City's great assets and the location of our most affordable housing stock.

Gordon Campbell – a former political aide to Mayor Art Phillips – reformed the pieces of TEAM into a revitalized NPA, winning the mayor's seat for three successive terms. Philip Owen followed Campbell and was also elected for three terms in a row. Both mayors saw huge growth in False Creek and the birth of Vancouverism, as well as the first neighbourhood visions project and the implementation of sustainability programs like blue box recycling and Vancouver's first bike routes.

The strength of the NPA has always been that it is the proverbial blank canvass that those who lead it can leave their mark. For years the NPA represented only the tony west side enclave that gave birth to it. Eventually it became the best civic political organization when it came to representing our diverse multi-ethnic city, thanks to the work of several including the late, great Don Lee. Under Sam Sullivan it eventually elected an Eastsider as mayor, and it was a welcome place for people like me from East Van as well.

Which brings me to Wednesday night's AGM. I spoke at the meeting because of my institutional memory, and respect for the people within the organization. I've been there and working closely with most of the NPA's players for nearly eight years. I like what the NPA stands for in terms of governance, and as we watch Vision Vancouver embed the civil service with its supporters, I feel that we urgently must return to the principle of allowing the professional non-partisan public service run our city. Vision's damaging surgery on Vancouver's respected civil service is a trend that you can reverse after one-term, but will be much harder to fix if they are allowed two successive governments.

There was a long discussion about reviewing the NPA's name. I think most people felt that it is a frivolous exercise, but to me it's an opportunity to engage in a real discussion about what the NPA is. As a comparison, even the New Democratic Party considered changing their name for a short time because they're hardly "new" anymore, but in the end decided against it.

Once there was an importance to the term "Non-Partisan Association" when it basically meant that Conservatives and Liberals – who never allied themselves politically – or independents and members of smaller parties could all come to the table. That is as true today as it was in the 1930s, but given the confusion that the "non-partisan" phrase represents, it should just be dropped. Today with many corporations the acronym has more value that the words – CIBC, RBC, BMO and even KFC have replaced much wordier brand names. So it should be with the NPA.

The NPA is, as I stated earlier, whatever its organizers decide what it must be. It is a political organization where people who seem on the surface as different as Gordon Campbell and Gord Price can coalesce on issues. There is nothing preventing someone who is a Green Party member, for example, from becoming an NPA candidate.

Through its history the NPA has had to alter its stripes to suit the time. For example, the current legal name of the organization is the Vancouver Civic Non-Partisan Association, which I understand is because of a merger that took place between the Vancouver Civic Party and the Non-Partisan Association nearly a half-century ago.

The NPA of today has more vestiges of the TEAM government of the 1970s than it does of the NPA of the 1960s. Not only has it been supported in recent years by several people former members of TEAM such as May Brown, Marguerite Ford, Bill McCreery, Setty Pendakur, the NPA has built a reputation for supporting some of the most progressive policies in North America around sustainability, equality, accessibility and social policy, especially around illicit drugs. When Gordon Campbell took over the NPA in the 1980s, it was to make that organization as much like the TEAM party he'd help build with Art Phillips, while making more conservative voters feel they could participate too.

The problem that has dogged the NPA since 2002 is simply that the centre/centre-right has not held together. If we are to ever regain government, THIS SPLIT MUST END. The public will not support any party that will not hold together, and Vision Vancouver knows this well. Which is not to say that everyone in the NPA's ranks must all agree on all issues, but that we address these disagreements among ourselves and through compromise and negotiation.

I think those out there who might be proposing to form another party on the centre/centre-right to replace the NPA either do not have the self-confidence in their own idea to float it past the NPA, or they are doing it simply as an exercise of their own ego. If we are going to win ever again, we must all come together.

There's a funny phrase that says, I don't care what you call me, just don't call me late for dinner. I say that I don't care what people call the NPA, just as long as they call it the NPA. Voters will recognize both the NPA acronym and the wise governance it has provided Vancouver for many decades. It can continue to be a place where people with good ideas and those who have the best interests of the City over themselves or their party can assemble. I'm willing to give the NPA another chance to do this.


One side note of the NPA AGM... Coun. Suzanne Anton gave a few short words at the end of the meeting. I'm paraphrasing what she said, but the words were along the lines of "Regarding who will be the NPA's candidate for mayor, I'm convinced that the person we put forward will be absolutely the best candidate we can find for the job." I took it as Suzanne's indirect way of saying that the door is wide open for candidates other than herself for the top job.


Speaking of TEAM, not sure if anyone read Rod Mickleburgh's reference to Art Phillips where he said:

In his inaugural address, recounted to the audience by Ms. Taylor, the young and handsome new mayor (sound familiar?) mapped out the city's future.

What is it with the Globe's male reporters and their obsession with Gregor Robertson's looks? By the way, Frances Bula contacted us to say that Doug Ward didn't write the line making reference to the Mayor's youthful good looks, rather it was from a New York freelancer. I've updated the post.

UPDATE: I returned to the Vancouver Museum Sunday afternoon to attend the TEAM reunion, and will have a report on it soon.

- post by Mike


Your comment about the NPA now having "an opportunity to engage in a real discussion about what the NPA is' is inciteful. As a result of the motion passed by the AGM last Wednesday the organization now has that opportunity. The contributions of yourself & other interested people will be welcome. It is essential the NPA define itself clearly so voters know not only the initials & the name but, know clearly what the organization stands for in our contemporary society as well as looking to the future. The name & what the NPA is must be 'of a piece' so there is no disconnect, relevance & clarity. This will attract not only voters but, new members to the organization

The NPA AGM was a great exercise in showing the old girl has a tad more life in her yet.

Despite the wishful thinking and braying of certain pundits there is a tremendous opportunity to fashion the "Association" into a very relevant organization.

I suspect that the punditry paid and upaid and those who wrote it off will be surprised as "the rumours of her death have been greatly exaggerated".

There is an axiom which the Vison ideologues and their syncophants have forgotten and will learn again soon enough.

They can figure it out when it hits them. Of course by then it will be far too late for them but far better for the people of the City.

One thing that never changes is that ideological politics wears thin and eventually collapses under it's own weight as the wounds keep on coming.

OK, you convinced me...Vancouver NPA is what it SHOULD be.

Well put, Mike. The NPA needs to retrench around the idea of pragmatic governance in a way that is both genuine and publicly credible.

There is no shame in an organization conceding that it has not always lived up to its ideals, and humbly seeking to reconnect with its reason for being.

Anyone who has been involved in the last few years knows that the NPA has gone through a period of navel-gazing and despondency. To rebuild successfully, we must understand that phase as being vitally necessary. Failing to sufficiently question the reasons that we faltered would indicate hubris and arrogance, not strength.

Good analysis by Michael Klassen. Bill McCreery has done trojan service to the NPA and its membership by raising important issues of identity and mission, reminding us of our strengths and in the process, reminding us of where we've fallen short of our own ideals.

The NPA has never been a traditional party. It's more than that. The NPA is a movement and the broad range of views supported under the NPA banner represents our strength, not weakness. Our candidates and the breadth of views should reflect the diversity of the city we will govern. This will ensure all ideas are fully challenged and tested before being foisted on the public, which would represent a dramatic improvement over current governance.

While a skeptic when I first joined the Board, I now strongly support the NPA Board leaving policy to its chosen candidates, who are closest to the public that elects them.

But I encourage Bill to submit an updated set of values to the SGM this summer. And we should move towards engaging a full-time Executive Director to help oversee the extensive volunteer operation necessary between elections.

Changing the NPA name is a wrong idea – for many reasons.

I was a candidate in 1982 when NPA was at a low ebb – and many thought a name change would be a ‘quick fix’ - in fact, it would be a ‘slow fix’.

It will also be perceived as trying to hide from our past. We have nothing from which to hide.

In another life I ran a national ad agency and know something about how much time and money (neither abundant at the moment) it takes to get a name (brand) recognized.

The problem is not the name. It is the people/ideas behind the name that counts – proven by Philip Owen.

There also has to be a better way of arriving at candidates than the open fight that went on for the Mayorality choice. This simply presented a public image of a party split in half.

Focus on the tangible solution and we’ll be back.

Paul McCrea
Aldermanic candidate, 1982

Great analysis, Michael.

Re: "The NPA is, as I stated earlier, whatever its organizers decide what it must be. It is a political organization where people who seem on the surface as different as Gordon Campbell and Gord Price can coalesce on issues."

This made me think of the federal Liberals, another political party that did well in government because of its ability to adapt and take in new ideas -- but which has become relatively aimless in opposition.

It is certainly the opposition's duty to oppose. But with a range of options to choose from, the NPA really does have its work cut out for it in terms of defining the issues it wants to fight. I'd like to see more on what NPA-minded (or perhaps, neutral, civil servants would do differently.

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