The NPA will have to do more than sell $10 memberships

Last week, the Vancouver NPA  board of directors  announced that it is recommending that annual membership fees be cut in half from $20 to $10.

NPA president Michael Davis said that the members will vote on this at the next annual general meeting on October 14. He says the reduced rate will enable  his party to reach out to more voters.

At the moment, the NPA is in rough shape. The centre-right party has just one member on council (Suzanne Anton) and just one member on park board (Ian Robertson), as well as two school trustees.

The NPA has always operated on the premise that if it can just recruit enough good candidates and raise enough money, it can maintain control over the city.

Policies have never been an NPA strength. It preferred letting the bureaucrats run the show.  That didn't matter  very much when the left was divided, had no traction in the first-generation Chinese immigrant community,  and couldn't raise any money.

However, Vision Vancouver has changed the dynamics by accepting donations from real-estate developers and gambling interests, putting it on a competitive financial footing.

And Vision has talked tough on law-and-order issues, which helped its standing within first-generation immigrant communities. It has also presented a diverse slate of mostly capable candidates  to the voters at election time.

This has taken away  the  NPA's trump cards from the 1990s.

The NPA had a chance to win by default in the 2011 election  if the NDP had  won the recent provincial election. Vancouver voters  demonstrated in the 1990s that when the NDP is running the province, they're more comfortable with the NDP's opponents in charge of City Hall.  

But  the reelection of the increasingly unpopular B.C. Liberals will make things tougher for the NPA next time because the NPA are their friends.

The NPA has one thing in its favour. Vision Vancouver has presided over a significant property-tax increase, and there will likely be  more hikes coming over the next two years.

That presents a fat  target to appeal to the NPA's base on the southwest side of the city, which turns out in large numbers on voting day.

The NPA can also push its standard message that it's in favour of economic development. By  continuing to highlight  Vision Vancouver's refusal to allow the Odyssey, an LGBT nightclub,  to relocate to Denman Street, the NPA can also appeal to many LGBT voters.

But the NPA needs more than that. It has tried to highlight the lack of democracy under the new city manager Penny Ballem. It could advance this argument in a much more comprehensive manner over the next two years.

For instance, Anton could introduce a motion asking council to request that the provincial government appoint an auditor general to investigate wasteful municipal spending. If Vision supported this, the province could make such an appointment immediately.

Anton could also introduce a motion seeking a lobbyist registry at the municipal level to boost transparency. This one is a no-brainer. Surrey has done this. Why not Vancouver? I can't imagine Vision opposing this after all the fuss about Ken Dobell working for the city while under contract with the provincial government.

To take things one step further, Anton could introduce a motion calling upon councillors to post their schedule of work-related appointments on the city Web site on a monthly basis. This would demonstrate to the public who the councillors are meeting. It would be another step to greater transparency.

The NPA could also win a ton of support in the South Asian community if it abandoned its support for the at-large system and endorsed a ward system. This would seriously undermine Vision Vancouver's support on the southeast side of the city. The ward system is racist, and this is well-known within the South Asian community--if not across the broader political spectrum.

The NPA has never demonstrated a great deal of zeal for democratic reforms in the past, so I'm not expecting a sudden reversal. But the party has nothing to lose, and the city would benefit from all of these changes. If Vision voted against any of them, it would give the NPA a zinger to include in a campaign brochure.

Knowing the NPA, it will probably focus more attention on candidates and less attention on policies. It will try to find the right mayoral nominee who will come across well on the talk-show circuit. It won't question the size of the police department after the 2010 Games or try to put the brakes on a ridiculously expensive transit line along Broadway, which will no doubt be supported by Premier Gordon Campbell.

That's not good enough in tough economic times. And if that's all the NPA is prepared to offer, this will ensure that the party will remain in opposition until 2014.