Soapbox: Spinning the wheels of civic democracy

Holding governments to account with opposition is critical

Within 90 minutes of the polls closing on Saturday (Nov. 15), Vancouver citizens will have a clear idea of who will govern the city affairs for the next four years. Is “change” in the air, or will Vision once again sweep into decisive majorities at council, the park commission and school board?

As someone who has worked on many political campaigns over the past 30 years, I can say that in spite of millions being spent I have never observed such an uneven playing field when it comes to campaign organizations. When it comes to election campaign technology and sheer manpower Vision Vancouver appears to be behind the wheel of a new Lamborghini, and the NPA is steering a fully decked-out minivan. By comparison COPE and the Green Party are at the reins of a horse-drawn buggy.

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Yet for all that election machinery and voter identification, Vision cannot control the decisions of Vancouver voters once they are at the ballot box. Our democratic system may have its flaws, but the secret ballot is not one of them.

Who will Vancouver voters choose to lead their city? I have my fingers crossed that regardless of who wins that they’re sitting across from an effective and sizable opposition. That would be the biggest gift citizens could give to themselves in this election.

The last time a city council was practically split down the middle was during the term of former mayor Sam Sullivan (2005-2008). Five councillors and the mayor gave the NPA a one-vote majority, with Vision and COPE representatives making up the rest of council. For all the hyperbole and political rhetoric each side threw at each other, it turned out to be an effective council thanks in part to the strong opposition voice.

Something unheard of today happened during that term. Councillors voted, albeit rarely, with the opposition on issues of conscience. During the following term it was striking to see that even with a single member of the opposition (former NPA councillor Suzanne Anton) the Vision-COPE caucus members were “whipped” into always voting along party lines. It’s a practice that has continued over the past six years.

Holding governments to account is critical for a healthy democratic system. Even though Vancouver City Hall has become more of a closed shop under Robertson’s leadership, a resounding victory on Nov. 15 will — in his eyes — validate everything Vision has done in office.

We only need to look to neighbouring Burnaby to see what democracy on life-support looks like. Mayor Derek Corrigan rules over what amounts to a one-party state there. He shrugs off critics who question his big public expense accounts for golf with cronies, and junkets with R&R at MLB baseball games as a perk. He brazenly dismisses the idea that his government has any responsibility for homeless shelters, saying citizens don’t want them in their town.

When Richmond mayor Malcolm Brodie was asked at a recent candidate debate if term limits might make local governments like his more accountable, his response overflowed with political hubris. “We already have term limits,” said the mayor. “They’re called elections.” Afterward he left the stage walking past his opponent refusing to shake his hand.

When governments face a strong opposition, it keeps this kind of arrogance in check. Can you imagine Robertson, Corrigan, Brodie and their ilk continuing to thumb their noses at voters if they sat across from several people gunning for their jobs?

Even Vision Vancouver voters who like where Gregor Robertson is taking the city admit they crave a strong opposition at council, school and park boards. We all have 10 council votes — why not then use five of them to vote for those who you think would be strong in opposition?

Same thing for school board — pick four strong opponents, and not someone included in the teachers’ union-endorsed slate. On the park board pick three candidates from the opposition whom you know will stand up for our community centres and green spaces as well as your first four choices.

Getting out to vote, and voting strategically, is perhaps the only way all of us can slam the brakes on the one-party rule that puts our city at risk and makes us cynical about civic government. All of us have the power to give the minivans and buggies out there a strong voice.

Mike Klassen is a public affairs and government relations professional. He ran as an NPA city council candidate in 2011.

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