How NPA fills ‘empty vessel’ will determine its fate next election

City’s oldest elector organization needs to tell voters why it wants to govern Vancouver

Vancouver’s NPA has a reputation problem — in that lately they have almost no public reputation at all.

Stop someone on the street in our city and ask them what the NPA, or Non-Partisan Association, stands for and you will most likely get a blank stare, or a wistful, “They oppose bike lanes, riiight?”

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Backers of the city’s oldest elector organization need not panic about this — yet. Sometimes it is helpful to start with a blank canvass before going to the voters.

But with seven months left until the next election, they better get cracking.

Former mayor and five-time elected city councillor Sam Sullivan likes to remind people that the NPA has always been like an empty vessel, where the organization becomes whatever its leader and caucus members put into it.

When the NPA portrays itself as both pragmatic and socially progressive, the organization succeeds. When it does not, it falters.

We may be closing in on a civic election, but traditional NPA supporters and other Vancouverites looking for something new will be watching to see how that “vessel” gets filled.

It has been nearly two decades since the NPA has been Vancouver’s dominant political force. Long gone are the days when winning an NPA council, park or school board nomination made electoral victory a near certainty. Today, each candidate will have to slug it out to woo wary voters.

While politics is never a bed of roses, the NPA might start by reminding Vancouver of who they are and what they have stood for when in government.

I believe if there is a single reason NPA governments succeeded in the past, it is because of their adherence to the principle of a non-partisan public service. Political wonks will get what this means, but the average voter would likely not appreciate how this value has been lost in recent years.

Pivotal public policy directions such as CityPlan, the Greenways initiative, prioritizing pedestrians and transit over cars, and Clouds of Change — Vancouver’s groundbreaking environmental plan — were not realized by NPA councils by imposing their political will on staff, but by setting a course so that the civil service can do good work.

As a city, Vancouver desperately needs an ability to be visionary again, but does anyone remember what that means?

Political organizations also must strive to recruit candidates from our city’s diverse communities, then work even harder to get them elected to office. It was under the NPA banner, for example, that Vancouver’s first openly gay city councillor, Gordon Price, and the first ever Chinese woman city councilor, Sandra Wilking, got elected.

Now former Musqueam band councillor Wade Grant is seeking an NPA nomination for council. Grant’s own reputation is strong, and if nominated, the association should pull out all the stops and be the first electoral organization to get an indigenous Canadian elected to Vancouver city council.

To succeed this time the NPA will have to understand how they fell short in past elections. In 2014, the association won a majority on park board, came just short of winning school board, and lost a council majority after a dog fight for the two bottom ranked seats.

What might make a difference for the NPA is acknowledging, and building a strategy around, the current popularity of the Vancouver Greens. That would mean running short slates on council, park and school board to leave seats open for their Green counterparts, whom they have aligned with more often than not on council and board decisions.

By running only eight councillors, five park board and six school board candidates, the NPA should leave room for Green incumbents plus an additional seat on council. Many consider, as I do, that Vancouver Greens’ Pete Fry has a good shot at earning a council seat alongside Adriane Carr. For the NPA, running larger slates would be a recipe for failure.

To succeed in 2018, however, it will not be good enough for the NPA to just talk about its past, or to simply attack their moribund Vision Vancouver opponents. They need to decide quickly what they would do for the city over the four years, and beyond.

It is time to fill up that vessel, and the clock is ticking.


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