Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson has proven that idealists can succeed in politics—with shrewd backroom tacticians.
There is something in the air this day, something unfamiliar after a month at sea. Behind them lie 6,000 kilometres of open Pacific and a daily dose of salty spray. But the smell is different now: less astringent, more fecund. The two inhale. Yes, at last: land. Somewhere ahead lies the tiny, jungle-covered, equatorial island of Hiva Oa in French Polynesia, their first stop on this 18-month, trans-Pacific journey and—it turns out—an aperture to a profoundly new world.
Gregor Robertson and his wife, Amy, dive for lobsters in Taaoa Bay, buy breadfruit and yams in Atuona, wander through Hiva Oa’s villages, and revel in the islanders’ self-reliance, their sense of community, their pride in surviving in one of the planet’s most isolated places. A nomad then, his future unclear, business and politics the furthest things from his mind, Robertson could look out from the hillside gravesite of the island’s most famous resident, 19th-century French painter Paul Gauguin, and down onto the anchored, 12-metre ketch he’d named Shoeless Joe. He could sense something within him shifting. It was April 1989.
In the months ahead, as the couple sailed through Polynesia and onward to New Zealand, Robertson became aware he had obligations. His middle name was, after all, Bethune. His great-aunt had impressed on him that his bearing the name of her late cousin, Norman Bethune—probably Canada’s most celebrated humanitarian—came with a price. If he couldn’t be a physician like Bethune (Robertson had been rejected by UBC’s medical school a few years before), he’d apply the social principles first encountered at family gatherings in North Vancouver, and later on Hiva Oa, someplace else. As the famous Apollo 11 photograph of Earth rising behind the moon illustrates—he told me over a Happy Planet apple juice in his South Cambie home a month ago—Earth itself is like Hiva Oa: an island in a vast, cosmic sea. Some big changes were necessary, he’d come to realize, if the planet’s inhabitants were to survive.
I heard this story about Hiva Oa in response to my question to Robertson about the event that had most contributed to where he now stood and where he might be headed. These are issues that perplex British Columbia’s chattering class and drive journalists to apoplexy. SFU political scientist Kennedy Stewart thinks, as do many others, that Robertson has his eyes on NDP leader Carole James’s job, that his Vancouver mayoralty is part of a larger, long-term plan to bridge the province’s Green-NDP divide. Others think the 45-year-old Robertson is—with his Happy Planet credentials and his youthful ambition—a closet provincial Liberal, and it’s Gordon Campbell’s position he’s after. The editor of this publication suggests I ask Robertson if he has federal political aspirations and is learning French. So, is he, as some critics say, an eco-opportunist? A chimerical New Ager? A puppet of leftist handlers, like his chief of staff, Michael Magee? Or the real deal? The questions make Robertson laugh.
But they arise because Vision Vancouver routed the opposition in the municipal election one year ago. On the civic left, COPE has been nullified by its loss of leadership—and money—to the centre-left Vision and its subsequent council alliance this year with the very people who abandoned COPE four years ago. The two surviving COPE councillors, David Cadman and Ellen Woodsworth, vote regularly with Vision. The always-a-bridesmaid civic Greens have, with the young and articulate Andrea Reimer, found a place within Vision and Vancouver city council at last. And on the civic right, the NPA appears to be roadkill. It was crushed in the 2008 election (Suzanne Anton winning the sole NPA seat) and was incapable of luring more than 50 people—at $10 for membership—to its cheerless, mid-October AGM this year. (The evening before, a glitzy Vision fundraiser at the Wall Centre attracted 600 bigwigs—at $200 a seat—from across the city’s political and corporate spectrum.) In fact, the NPA’s own supporters at CityCaucus.com have called for the formation of a new free-enterprise party to replace the one that governed Vancouver for 45 of the past 68 years.
How is it that the man who was running carrots through his Glen Valley Organic Farm juicer 15 years ago, and who was sailing the South Pacific on the Shoeless Joe before that, has come to sit in this political catbird seat—with everyone speculating about which direction he’s going to fly?
To understand where Robertson is going, it’s essential to know where he’s been.
If his family’s connection to Bethune and his 18 months cruising the South Pacific help explain Robertson’s philosophical roots, his purchase with Amy of a 20-hectare farm east of Fort Langley in 1991—and the fortuitous sequence of events that followed—help explain his politics. There were artichokes, deer, strawberries, turkeys, bok choy, and all the standard vegetables in the Glen Valley fields, and the first of four children—now all teenagers—around the house. In 1994, the farm was certified organic and Robertson found he needed a way to expand sales beyond a then-limited niche market. While watching the Vancouver–New York Rangers Stanley Cup final on TV that year (the Canucks lost, and a riot in downtown Vancouver followed), Robertson and gathered friends came up with the name Happy Planet for the juices they’d begun making on the countertop with the kitchen blender. There was some discussion about whether or not the name should appear with a question mark at the end: Happy Planet? While seated at the kitchen table of his current Vancouver home on West 23rd Avenue, with his son Satchel watching rugby on the nearby TV and his mostly overlooked tuba in the corner, Robertson admits that the company’s name may sound naive. “It’s more aspirational, given the world’s realities,” he says. “What will it take for that to be the ultimate goal? A happy planet. You can’t tease out the compass. My goal is to ground ideals in tangible steps, in achievable results. It’s about walking your talk. But you do have to start with talk that’s ambitious.”
Fortune intervened—in this case, literally—in a 1996 meeting between Robertson and Joel Solomon, a then–41-year-old Tennessee-born political activist who had inherited $3 million from his shopping-mall-building father and had subsequently drifted north, finding environmentally inclined New Age company at the Hollyhock Workshop and Retreat Centre on B.C.’s Cortes Island. There, in 1992, he’d gotten together with another rich American émigré, Carol Newell, who had inherited $60 million from her father’s Rubbermaid fortune. The two decided to pool their wealth, establishing Renewal Partners, a Vancouver-based foundation committed to providing cash and management advice—in return for a minority position—to companies dedicated to sustainable, green endeavours. They saw themselves as “business socialists”. In the summer of 1996, at Robertson’s invitation, Solomon spent a day pulling weeds from the Glen Valley carrot patch. By the fall, the two had become friends, and Robertson had more than $250,000 in his pocket from Renewal Partners to remove any financial question marks from Happy Planet’s future. If his right-wing critics called Solomon and his growing coterie of ecology-minded entrepreneurs “New Age revolutionaries”, they hadn’t missed the mark by much.
Sitting at his office window in the Flack Building, diagonally across from Victory Square, Solomon talks about the close bond that has evolved with Robertson over years of late-night conversations in his Downtown Eastside penthouse. From the beginning, Solomon says, he recognized in Robertson someone who was “intriguing and unusual” because he saw business as a tool for rescuing the planet from the calamitous possibilities that lay ahead. Solomon sensed that Robertson had, from his travels, a global, ecological vision, and—with a farmer’s love of the soil—an appreciation of the necessity of slowly, relentlessly nurturing the roots of institutional change. Robertson thought big. These views fit with Solomon’s own fundamental belief in the so-called triple bottom line: businesses should operate for profit, yes, but also for people and for the planet. As well, Solomon came to sense that as the years passed and the organic-food business exploded, Happy Planet juice was not a significant enough platform for Robertson’s increasingly political concerns. “What are we leaving for the next generation?” Solomon asks, repeating Robertson’s favourite question.
In 1998, Robertson sold the Fort Langley farm for $500,000 to a group of organic farmers, and he watched with a sense of frustration as B.C.’s political left, both in the province and in Vancouver, found ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of electoral victory.
Although Robertson won in his first foray into politics—taking the Vancouver-Fairview provincial seat in 2005 for the NDP—the party lost that year to the provincial Liberals. Again. And lost some ridings, pundits observed, by a margin that might have been altered in its favour had there not been Green Party candidates siphoning off five to 10 percent of the vote. That same year, Vancouver’s governing COPE imploded, and Sam Sullivan and the right-wing NPA returned to power as long-simmering arguments shattered the civic left. Against this background, in offices and living rooms around Vancouver, the future direction of upstart, centre-left Vision Vancouver was being hammered out—much as happened 33 years before with the founding of the city’s ’70s-era, big-tent, centre-left coalition called TEAM.
It was clear from the twin election defeats of 2005 that a different approach was needed if the left were to return to power in Vancouver. Here are some observations—from those in a position to know—on why change had to come to Vancouver’s political scene.
Wayne Peppard, executive director of the B.C. and Yukon Building Trades Council, speaks from labour’s perspective. “The arguments within Vancouver’s left alienated a lot of union people. The Canada Line? The Olympics? Labour wanted them. But many in COPE were anti-development. There needed to be a party that’s progressive and pro-development.”
Ideology had also been a problem, according to Ron Stipp, regional representative of the Canadian Labour Congress. “Strict partisanship is on the wane. The left used to attack the left—people like COPE’s Tim Louis. They’re gone now. There’s a new constituency out there: the Greens, the young, the cultural people, the multicultural groups.”¦They’re not terribly ideological. People want solutions.”
Jim Green, one of the founders of Vision and its losing mayoral candidate in 2005, says the party has broad appeal. “People nowadays see the need for human fairness and sustainability and the end of homelessness in Vancouver. They get it. So you’ve got developers and businessmen and trade unionists involved in Vision—even people who go to Hollyhock Centre and think Fritz Perls is coming back! Old hippies! Maybe I should reconsider my attitude toward flakiness.”
Chief of staff Magee stresses shared interests. “Just look at the voting patterns within the city. Eleven provincial ridings: six are Liberal; five NDP. In civic matters, the NPA and COPE each positioned in one area. To win a city that’s split like that in a municipal election, you have to find the commonalities.”
Bill Tieleman, a long-time B.C. political commentator: “Gregor’s surfing a wave of change in the economy and in society. He has always wanted to cross borders. But that’s not easy in provincial or federal politics, especially from opposition. Ideology rules. That’s not him; he’s pretty moderate. I told him a couple of years ago: ”˜There’s a lot less ideology in municipal government. You should run for mayor under Vision.’ ” Several others, it turns out, were whispering the same words. It was not a decision Robertson could make lightly: leaving a secure job as an MLA for the iffy proposition of leading a new political party to victory in Vancouver.
While sitting in his wood-beamed kitchen, Robertson confirms what I heard from associates about his frustration with the slow, often argumentative nature of the Victoria legislative process. “I don’t have a history of partisan politics. I don’t fit into a neat box,” he says, forming a square in the air with his fingers. “The clock is ticking. The short-term churn of legislative politics undermines serious change. At the increasing rate of consumption worldwide, we’ll soon need four planets to provide people with what they want. This is where my sense of urgency comes from. What is their future?” And he points to his kids’ pile of abandoned runners scattered beside the back door.
Gregor Robertson and his wife, Amy, learned lessons about self-reliance in French Polynesia. Matthew Burrows photo.
In February 2008, Robertson announced he was leaving his position as MLA for Vancouver-Fairview to run under the Vision banner for mayor in the November civic election that year. There were within the NDP those who wished him well, and those who resented his unseemly haste. And then there were those who suspected that there was a Machiavellian scheme afoot for Vision Vancouver—were it to win—to form a Trojan horse that could, if Carole James lost for a second or a third time, be dragged into the B.C. provincial realm and usurp the somewhat geriatric NDP in 2013. But these considerations were not occupying Robertson’s mind last year. He had an alliance to build, and an election to win. And that meant outmanoeuvring his opponents—especially the ones, curiously, on his left.
As it turned out, COPE had done Robertson a tremendous favour in 2007 by bouncing its most toxic leaders—people like former city councillor Tim Louis—in favour of a youthful board inclined to seek cooperation, not confrontation, with their rebellious old allies, now in Vision. Then Robertson helped negotiate a deal that would see COPE not run a candidate for mayor in 2008 and accept its seriously weakened political status by entering just two candidates for city council. It was sort of a shotgun alliance—with Robertson, very politely, holding all the ammo.
David Cadman, one of the two surviving COPE councillors, was instrumental in accepting Robertson’s proposal for a loose, unofficial coalition between COPE and Vision. As a poet once said: You don’t need a weathervane to know which way the wind blows. “Vision is Vancouver’s new TEAM,” Cadman says now. “The NPA isn’t where it’s at. COPE isn’t where it’s at. Vision’s where it’s at. The large middle is governing Vancouver and will continue to hold power for at least five years.”
This arrangement, for Robertson and his backroom strategist Magee, was half the battle. There were still the Greens, who could have played spoiler, as they had in several ridings in the 2005 provincial election. Both men knew the Greens, at least symbolically, needed to be brought under the Vision umbrella.
Andrea Reimer, 37, a long-time Green party member, had lost her seat on the Vancouver school board in the 2005 civic fiasco when the left fought a public internecine war. These deep divisions, she knew, needed bridging, and partisan politics needed to end if the city were to deal with the issues ahead. In a series of conversations, Reimer was impressed by Robertson’s dedication to the Green agenda. She could tell he was genuine. He was impressed by her range of concerns—childcare, car-free streets, subsidized transit for students—and her dynamism. (Of Reimer, he said: “She’s a force of nature!”) Her quitting the Green party last year to run as a Vision candidate found support among her civic Green friends but earned grumbling from provincial Greens who saw it as a betrayal that would damage the party’s brand.
With things patched up on the civic left and the NPA falling on its own sword in the near-fatal Sam Sullivan–Peter Ladner leadership duel, the 2008 election results were predictable. But even Magee wasn’t prepared for the scale of the landslide. Vision won seven of the eight city council seats it contested, including Reimer’s, and Robertson took the mayoralty over his NPA rival by almost 20,000 votes.
In his third-floor office in Vancouver’s City Hall, chief of staff Magee, 45, describes the steps that brought him to where he is today. He was there with his good friend Solomon 13 years ago when Happy Planet accepted financing from Renewal Partners. That’s how he and Robertson met. He was there, later, with Jim Green when Vision was formed. He was there, still later, as a friend to the Robertsons, to convince the farmer-businessman to run provincially in 2005. He was there to persuade Robertson to abandon Victoria last year, to join Vision, to woo Reimer, and to get COPE to accept a minor role in the 2008 election. And he was there 13 months ago when the municipal votes were being tallied and the magnitude of what he’d helped achieve became apparent. Magee is—although he’d deny it—the deus ex machina of Vancouver civic politics.
As funny as he is calculating, Magee has this to say about Vision’s future relationship with COPE: “We’re gonna love ’em to death.” His dark laugh at the last word leaves no doubt what he means. Of the NPA: “It’s a sad story. The brand is like Tylenol right after they found cyanide in the capsules.” And he laughs again.
“Look,” he continues, “Vision’s the start of a new political dynasty in the city. It represents different politics, neither left nor right. Progressive centrist with strong social values and environmental rules. We’ve got a 10-year plan focusing on Vancouver’s green economic development after the Olympics. In Salt Lake City and in Torino, once the Olympics were over there, the bubble popped. Economic and psychological depression followed. So”¦the mayor’s going on the road in 2010, talking to some of the 100 high-tech companies we want here. Green businesses, new media, cutting edge. There’ll be tax abatements offered and major rezoning proposed for a mixed-use, knowledge-based industrial zone on the False Creek Flats east of Main Street.” The goal? Making Vancouver the greenest city on Earth by 2020.
Political scientist Kennedy Stewart believes this is a lot of greenwashing; every North American civic official is spouting similar platitudes. Declaring the goal of making Vancouver “the greenest city” is, to Stewart’s mind, fashionable branding hype, and the Vision-COPE-Green alliance is an unstable house of cards, doomed to collapse as socialist-environmentalist principles and centrist business pragmatism collide under the pressure of irreconcilable gravitas.
On another day a month ago, Robertson and I meet upstairs above Granville Island’s Blue Parrot Café to sort through the results of Vision’s first year in power. At his back as he talks is the reconfigured Burrard Street Bridge, which prompted predictions of traffic apocalypse from the screamers at the Province newspaper five months ago when a vehicle lane was converted to bicycle use. The conversion is seen today as a success. The bridge accommodates as many vehicles per week as before the closure, with little or no delay, yet 900 more people are cycling to and from work downtown. (But as a man who cycles everywhere, every day, averaging 80 kilometres a week, Robertson is aware that the three percent of Vancouverites who bike-commute daily is nowhere near the 37-percent figure for bike commuters in Copenhagen.)
To his left as he talks is where his election vow to put an end to the city’s homelessness by 2015 hit reality. Two Vision-inspired Homeless Emergency Action Team (HEAT) shelters beneath the north end of the Granville Street Bridge were forced to close in the face of community protests this past summer. More than 2,000 people remain homeless in Vancouver today. The funding for HEAT expires in April 2010; both the provincial and federal governments are eyeing big deficits; and the city itself faces a $61-million fiscal shortfall for 2010 and has begun laying off 158 employees. There is, obviously, no money to build and furnish the 300 housing units required annually for Robertson to fulfill his 2015 goal.
On the positive side, the authoritarian city manager, Judy Rogers, was replaced by Penny Ballem a month after Vision came to power, a move that brought widespread approval. Ballem immediately renegotiated funding—borrowing $500 million—to pay for the completion of the stalled Olympic Village, and she then moved to decentralize city hall’s decision-making process, earning praise (no small task) from business, labour, and the city’s bureaucracy.
Far less noted, but in the long term more important, Vision established the citywide Laneway Housing Initiative. This legislation, utilizing former mayor Sam Sullivan’s Eco-Density ideas, allows 75 percent of Vancouver’s single-family lots to acquire a one- to one-and-a-half-storey rental-only house to be constructed on the back lane. This could almost double the city’s density without rezoning. No other city in the world has tried this on such a scale. To date, 291 applications for Vancouver laneway houses are in the planning office; and the first 16 permits are expected to be okayed by year’s end. It’s too soon to tell if this program will provoke any HEAT-like NIMBY reactions from laneway neighbours.
The latest political polling done by Strategic Communications shows Robertson’s approval rating at 70 percent. That’s 15 percent more than voted for him in November 2008 and five percent higher than former mayor Larry Campbell ever scored. When the Vision landslide combines with Robertson’s ratings, it’s little wonder the media can’t resist speculating on where Shoeless Joe is going next. Despite mutterings that he’ll head to Victoria or Ottawa in time, moving from mayor to premier is no gimme. Since Vancouver’s first municipal election in 1886, when backers of Malcolm Maclean advised people to “vote early and vote often,” only two Vancouver mayors—Mike Harcourt and Gordon Campbell—have gone on to the B.C. premiership. Robertson assures me he has no plans to be the third. What’s more, he’s not learning French.
Here’s what he says about being mayor: “I’m a lot more comfortable in this job. It’s more direct. It’s grounded in community. The ideological politics are minimal. I’ve got a long list of commitments to deliver on. It fills my dance card.”
Both Magee and Solomon corroborate that Robertson realizes he has found a place where he can promote—using his mayor’s position to advantage in Copenhagen next week, or in City Hall next month, or amid the Olympics next year—his profoundly felt environmental goals. All three men share a conviction that—unlike nations or provinces, which often find themselves immobilized by their size and political partisanship—cities can move on issues relatively quickly. Cities are political sailboats, not great ocean liners controlled by momentum or inertia. Just as the 19th century was about colonialism and the 20th century about nationalism, the thinking is the 21st century will be, as millions of people continue to surge toward downtowns, about urbanism and the rise of city-states. (Eighty percent of Canadians now live in cities.) The growing political power of cities, Robertson says, makes innovative places like Vancouver a sort of ground zero for exploring the changes needed as Earth faces the dangers ahead. Peak oil, the loss of cities’ manufacturing and service jobs, the health costs of unmitigated pollution, the decline of energy-inefficient suburbs, and the environmental advantages of metropolitan densification, eating locally, pedestrianized downtown streets, and community gardens are, Robertson knows, behind a public desire for dramatic urban transformation. In many, many ways, this new urbanism is, in fact, an old movie called Back to the Future, trolley lines, farmers markets, bicycles, and all.
“Here we are in the best of all worlds,” Robertson says, gesturing beyond the Blue Parrot’s atrium windows and across False Creek to the postcard skyline of Vancouver. “Cities that develop future urban strategies, future urban technologies, will lead the world. If we can do it here, if we can get it right”¦we can benefit the planet.”
The happy city, Robertson has come to understand, sets the compass toward a happy planet.