Andrea Reimer: Vancouver voters need to be invested in their government

Outgoing city councillors reflect on serving the city and its future

Note: These columns were written and submitted prior to Ian Campell withdrawing his name as Vision Vancouver's mayoral candidate and news that Andrea Reimer is mulling a run for the mayor's chair under Vision.

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As longtime colleagues and adversaries at city hall, Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer and NPA councillor George Affleck have played a significant role in running and shaping Vancouver. Both have also decided not to run for office this election to pursue other opportunities with, presumably, friendlier work hours and a lower volume of angry emails and tweets from disgruntled constituents. So, as the Oct. 20 election looms, and gets more unpredictable by the day, we thought who better to ask for their reflections, insights and advice on the highs, lows and importance of municipal politics.

 

The 2018 municipal election season in Vancouver started with a lot of promise. It wasn’t that long ago that journalists and armchair quarterbacks trumpeted in giddy articles and social media posts that this would be, without a doubt, the most exciting Vancouver election. Ever. 

But then as the year has worn on, it’s felt like one of those summer blockbusters where the hype compels you to check it out, but once you get to the theatre you have a sinking feeling that what looked like an interesting cast and non-stop action is overshadowed by a plot so flimsy you feel like it’s disintegrated before the opening credits are even finished.

There’s a reason for this, but it might not be what you think. Campaign finance reform is having a dramatic impact on the election. And while it pains me to say it as the lead proponent for this essential democratic reform for more than a decade, not all of the impacts of getting big money out of politics are good, at least not in the short term.

Civic elections are controlled by the provincial government, and while they fund it for their own elections, successive provincial governments have chosen not to fund independent, continuous offices for civic elections. This has a number of implications, but the most significant during the election year is that pretty much the only way you know an election is going on is because a representative of a political party shows up at your doorstep or gives you a call.

In the past, parties had a lot of money to do this. More than $5.5 million was spent in the last Vancouver election, and that’s largely what they spent it on.

The other thing parties spent money on was polling and focus groups to find out what mattered to you. They talked to experts about the best way to do those things at the municipal level and, then through that process, were able to create policies that matched voters. People are understandably more inspired to vote for policies they themselves have essentially created.

Now, without the money and not much time since the reforms were introduced, parties cannot develop or re-tool processes to be as robust. It feels and looks more like a game of bumper cars than a campaign trail with no one heading in any obvious direction and definitely no one going anywhere quickly.

The other impact of campaign finance reform is that a much higher number of people see an opportunity to run for office, reminiscent of the 1996 election campaign, which had 58 mayoral candidates. But while it might feel like a time for opportunity, resource-poor environments favour pooling scarce resources behind the smallest number of candidates needed to get policies passed by a government. Each new candidate entering the race only makes it harder for voters to connect their vote with a viable outcome of a clear group of people and policies governing the city.

And that’s not all. Shrinking media budgets, an open mayor’s seat, a shorter campaign period, foul-smelling third party ads and more than a whiff of whacky in some of the election shenanigans are not helping inspire voters by counter-balancing the tectonic shift created by campaign finance reform.

The upshot of all this is that voter turnout, already appallingly low at 44 per cent in 2014 (and that’s up by almost 50 per cent since I was elected in 2008), is likely to be at its lowest point in more than a decade. Producing a government that will be in office four years without a strong mandate from voters at the very time when Vancouver most needs to take bold action on the local impacts of global, social, environmental and economic challenges, is arguably as bad as the perception that big money was corrupting democracy.

The good news is that while you may have felt powerless against big money, the only person who can solve the threat to our democracy in this election is… you. And unlike the 14 years I spent advocating to provincial governments to get big money out of municipal elections, all you need to do is circle Oct. 20 on your calendar (there is also an app for that HERE), choose a time you’re going to vote and go do it.

Please don’t tell me there is no one to vote for. In an election with more candidates running than even the fabled 1996 municipal election, I can guarantee you that there is at least one candidate you would feel good about supporting. Values alignment is a critical question, but equally important is whether they can do the job: curiosity, intelligence, stamina, genuine care for people go a long way when you are on your 12th straight hour of meetings for the third day in a row on everything from sewage and garbage to the opioid crisis. Most importantly, do they know what cities do and how to get the things they want done within the narrow jurisdiction and fiscal tools cities have access to? It’s a tough job and distinct from the parliamentary system and constitutional authority MLAs and MPs enjoy.

A final word: Just as the success of a democracy can only be as wide as the number of voters who engage in elections, a council can only be as successful as the range of lived experience it represents. For too many years, many lived experiences have not been represented at all on council or been represented in much smaller numbers than they should.

With so many candidates on this ballot, your vote could see the next level of breakthroughs for under and unrepresented communities.

If you want government to be invested in you, you do need to invest in government. Oct. 20 is your chance to ensure Vancouver has a strong, representative government moving forward.

Andrea Reimer is a three-term Vancouver city councillor, a former school trustee and was recently awarded a Loeb Fellowship to study urban policy and democracy in cities at Harvard.

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