Paul Houle: Greens reject Vision Vancouver, as COPE has a shotgun wedding
On a sunny Vancouver Sunday (June 27), two big political dramas took place on opposite ends of the Downtown Eastside. At a high noon meeting, the municipal Green party rejected any idea of an electoral alliance with the ruling party at city hall, Vision Vancouver. At a mid-afternoon gathering, COPE became a somewhat reluctant suitor to Vision, with fully one-third of its membership adamantly opposed to the developer-oriented Vision machine. This happened after much of the intense, impassioned debate that one expects at a COPE meeting.
This one-third no vote on the COPE-Vision deal appears to me to be a substantial increase in dissatisfaction among COPE members with Vision compared to the 2008 COPE-Vision deal, which, by all reports, was approved almost unanimously (no counted vote results from 2008 were released to show the exact total).
This should be a real concern to the COPE executive board that the organization is going into a fall election with such a high level of its membership unhappy. The present board has done little to try to address the concerns of members of its organization who are displeased with Vision. Instead, they have gone out of their way to defeat and isolate them.
As a former member of the COPE board, it seems to me that the Green party has taken the more ethical, principled position, whereas COPE has once again saddled itself to Vision—an organization that has proven itself not to stand for much of what has traditionally been important to COPE or the civic Greens.
Vancouver Green Jamie Lee Hamilton came rushing over from the Green meeting to the COPE one. Hamilton told me that the Greens had rejected any notion of an electoral alliance with Vision, indicating that they would only seek to negotiate a cooperative agreement with COPE. With one abstention, this was passed unanimously. Furthermore, if no alliance happened between Greens and COPE, then Greens will go it alone with an independent slate and nominate four or more candidates for various positions at the council, school, and park board levels.
According to Hamilton, the Greens rejected an alliance, "Mainly because Vision is a developer party, no different than the NPA. No amount of chicken coops or bike lanes take away from the fact that they are a developer-friendly party." Hamilton added, "We can't support Vision because they won't support campaign finance and electoral reform."
Meanwhile, at the COPE meeting, members were told that without a "strategic" alliance with Vision, catastrophic things might happen: labour might withdraw its funding from COPE and the organization could collapse after 43 years in existence. But, one-third of the COPE members appeared to share Hamilton's view: seeing Vision as completely allied with developers, failing in addressing the homelessness issue, shifting the tax burden from business to homeowners in a massive way, and making Vancouver less and less affordable for low and middle income earners. Many of the one-third are union activists themselves who question whether their own unions would reject COPE simply because COPE rejects Vision.
As well, Vision has shown no serious interest in campaign finance or electoral reform. The party has engaged in a "race to the top" in garnering developer and big business donations. In fact, one needs to be a top notch forensic accountant to try to figure out where much of Vision's foreign and domestic financial contributions are actually coming from.
The meeting started with COPE board member David Chudnovsky outlining the "improvements" in the recommended deal with Vision. Chudnovsky indicated four main areas: 1) an increase in the number of candidates COPE can run; 2) room for COPE to grow; 3) processes and guidelines for cooperation between COPE and Vision improved; 4) COPE supposedly maintains complete political independence.
Under this deal, Vision has agreed to run seven for council, five for school board, and four for park board. COPE's share is three for council, four for school board, and two for parks. The deal proposes leaving room for one Green at the park board level, but if this is not agreed to, Vision will run five at parks. In the 2008 deal, the split was as follows—council: Vision 8, COPE two; school: COPE five, Vision four; parks: Vision four, COPE two, Greens one.
This does not seem to me to be much of an improvement with a gain of one at council for COPE and the loss of one at school board. "Growth" seems to be happening within a very narrow range and still leaves COPE in the position of perpetual minority status. The idea of COPE maintaining "complete political independence" is almost laughable given the subservient position it has put itself in in relation to Vision.
Two long line ups at "pro" and "con" mikes formed quickly at the COPE meeting. The debate got off to a bang, when feisty long-time COPE member Isabel Minty grabbed the microphone and demanded an emergency resolution supporting an alliance with the Green party and not with Vision. Minty's valiant attempt was quickly defeated. Later, Minty defiantly held up a glossy picture of skyscrapers overwhelming the Vancouver skyline, saying, "This is what you're going to get with Vision!"
A group of young activists billing themselves as "COPE not Vision" was also in evidence at the meeting—spearheaded by Tristan Markle and Nathan Crompton. Crompton said that "Vision is entirely, 100-percent intent, on carrying forward the NPA platform....COPE is strong. Say 'no' to Vision!"
On the pro side of the COPE deal with Vision, many speakers indicated that it is only a "tactical" agreement. School trustee Jane Bouey said, "It's not a coalition, it's a tactical electoral agreement." This was seconded by Trustee Al Blakey who described those opposed to the deal as being in a dream world: "To use dreams to work out your tactics is a bit stupid....COPE is not in a position to win a majority. You must deal with the reality of the world you're in, not dreams."
Also in evidence supporting the deal were some of the usual NDP and labour heavies: MLAs Shane Simpson, Jenny Kwan, Spencer Chandra Herbert, and former BCGEU president George Heyman. MP Libby Davies was absent this time as presumably she is very busy in Ottawa.
One of those speaking against the deal was former COPE park commissioner Anita Romaniuk who described the deal as "inhibiting COPE's ability to define itself." She stressed that "We are COPE, we have no connection to Vision, this is what we stand for." Also questioning the deal were former city councillors Fred Bass and Tim Louis. Louis commented on the fact that Vision had already nominated its candidates, without even waiting to see if COPE members would ratify the deal.
Chudnovsky said that "Sometimes our organizing makes Vision change its mind....The COPE presence helped to change Vision's mind on gambling." According to Coun. Ellen Woodsworth: "If this agreement fails, then the vote will be split....The only people who want the vote split is the NPA.....Are you going to vote with the NPA to take down this agreement?"
Comments like these from Coun. Woodsworth gave one the feeling of having a gun to one's head. Sort of a "You're with us, or you're against us" attitude rather than a reasoned analysis of whether COPE's policies and traditions really jibe with those of Vision.
I call upon COPE to abandon the alliance with Vision and to act like an autonomous political entity again, not a small barnacle stuck to Vision's back. Vision has shown itself to be the new NPA. As some have said, "NPA lite" or NPA with a "green veneer". COPE should go its own independent way as there is no advantage to be wedded to an NPA clone. Labour (and I am a union member and shop steward) should come to its senses and throw its support behind COPE—as Vision, with its developer alliance, has made it more and more difficult for average union members to afford to live in this city.
In the end, the vote on the deal was called before all the speakers had a chance to have their say. The writing was on the wall anyway and the deal was approved with a voice vote that indicated about two-thirds for the deal; one-third against (as ruled by meeting cochair Jane Turner).
This is a sad day for COPE and a sad commentary on the current COPE board, which seems intent on pushing out and castigating long-time, loyal COPE members, in an effort to accommodate the Vision bully.
Paul Houle is a Vancouver social worker who served on the COPE executive board for seven years.