Should Vancouver taxpayers pick up tab for union conference?

No less than four NDP cabinet ministers sat in on presentations at 2019 High Ground

Would it surprise you to learn that as a taxpayer you shelled out so your city councillor could attend a conference run by a shadowy group with programs espousing right wing views on slashing taxes, contracting out work and reducing government, while mingling with leading and influential conservative politicians?

If the thought of this happening is raising your blood pressure right now, breathe easy because that right wing conference I described never happened.

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Actually, it was a labour-friendly gathering discussing raising taxes and growing government, while delegates mingled with provincial NDP cabinet ministers. And in many cases, fees to attend were picked up in part by city taxpayers.

The conference in question was 2019 High Ground, an annual multi-day retreat hosted in Harrison Hot Springs by a generic-sounding organization dubbed the Centre for Civic Governance. The group describes its mission as wanting “to support community leadership meeting today’s social, economic and environmental challenges.”

The Centre for Civic Governance is an initiative of another unremarkable sounding organization called the Columbia Institute, which was established in 2002 by a collective of mostly public sector unions. The institute’s board over the years has included a who’s who of public sector union leaders such as Ken Georgetti and Jim Sinclair, both former leaders of the B.C. Federation of Labour.

In instances like these, you may approve of governments covering all or part of the expenses depending on where your personal politics land. As a political wonk, what is most striking to me is that the expenditures have gone on practically unchallenged for years.

Strategically, it is pretty clever when any organization gets to network with officials whose decisions have a direct bearing on their livelihood, and then get those officials to pay for it. Whether it passes the smell test with citizens is another matter.

To my knowledge, the City of Vancouver did not pick up the cost of Coun. Christine Boyle attending the March conference, but in the past, several Vision councillors attended on the public dime.

Through an internet search I found politicians from the City of Port Moody attended at nearly $1,200 a pop. It was not hard to find expense claims from councillors from the City of North Vancouver, Port Coquitlam and Victoria for attending the conference in past years.

At the March event, no less than four cabinet ministers from the BC NDP government sat in on presentations at 2019 High Ground. Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Selina Robinson was one of the featured speakers. One delegate tweeted that Robinson — a former Coquitlam city councillor — proudly noted to the audience she was an alumnus of the High Ground conferences.

It could be argued that today Robinson is the most influential figure in B.C. politics when it comes to policies affecting local governments and municipal elections. Talk about the foresight of High Ground’s organizers.

To say that there is a sophistication to the unions’ approach at grooming political talent would be an understatement. In my observation it goes completely unmatched by the other end of the political spectrum.

Not that you need to feel sorry for politicians on the centre-right, who still manage to get their own elected in spite of the relative lack of organization.

Joel Solomon, the well-known Vision Vancouver founder and bagman, once referred to the “whole-system approach to change” he and others around the now-moribund civic party employed to shape and influence politics.

He explained how he would drive social change using several platforms in philanthropy, education and learning, political campaign organizations and communications.

In Vision’s case, they had several separate organizations that would seem to work as one.

By the same token, the union movement has deftly adopted this approach by setting up institutions that outwardly promote social good, while also protecting and promoting labour’s interests.

As cities tackle major challenges of housing affordability, pressures on public health and infrastructure, it certainly behooves us to know more about the forces driving our civic politics on both the right and the left.

Whether taxpayers are prepared to financially support one political group is a whole other matter.


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