The Georgia Straight recently reminded us of a comment made by Mayor Gregor Robertson’s chief of staff, Mike Magee. Magee, speaking in 2009, indicated that the stance of Vision Vancouver toward COPE was to “love ’em to death”. Well, Mr. Magee, I’m sorry to bring you bad news, but it seems that COPE, while much battered, isn’t quite dead yet.
COPE hosted a healthy turnout of 100 dedicated members on Sunday (January 22) to do a municipal election postmortem. My reading of the meeting is that the deathly embrace by Vision is starting to wear a little thin with a growing number of COPE members. At the very least, many were calling for the terms of this marriage contract to be substantially revised.
It was noted at the gathering that more vote splitting in the 2011 election (compared to 2008) likely cut into COPE’s (and Vision’s) support, with a resurgent civic Green party and the newly minted Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV) contributing to this. However, the “cooperation” agreement between COPE and Vision was blamed by many for COPE’s poor showing.
One person condemned COPE’s “chaperoning” of Vision. Another noted that, to a great extent, COPE became “invisible” because of its lack of a mayoralty candidate. It was also noted that “COPE didn’t differentiate itself enough from Vision” and that this, in a sense, caused COPE to become “irrelevant”.
Some did identify as a central issue in COPE’s poor showing the fact that former city councillor David Cadman was not on the ballot (having failed to secure renomination).
A fundamental issue for me, and for many at the meeting, is that of money. Vision and the NPA have simply become the two “developer” parties on the civic scene. When the disclosure of campaign contributions is made this spring, I believe that we are all going to be a little shocked at the extent of developer contributions to Vision and the NPA (COPE has adopted a policy of not accepting any donations from developers).
For Vision, donations from organized labour become additional “gravy” on top of the generous developer handouts. I believe that the labour movement needs to do some very deep soul-searching around the ethics of its actions in jumping into bed with some of the developers who are involved with Vision. Some of these developers have questionable track records as landlords and in the provision of affordable housing—issues that very directly impact the quality of life for working people in the city (something labour should be very concerned about).
Former Vancouver NPA city councillor Jonathan Baker once referred to the NPA as “lint in the pockets of developers”. Well, to paraphrase Baker, Vision has become the new lint in the pockets of developers. COPE, especially in the dying days of the November municipal election, simply couldn’t compete with the enormous financial resources of Vision and the NPA and their ability to blanket the media with their respective messages.
Mayor Robertson continues to chip away at the city’s serious homelessness problem, but he cannot deal effectively with the huge issue of those in the city who could become homeless because of unaffordable rent and lack of social housing as long as Vision is bought by developers.
To borrow the language of the “Occupy” movement, Vision and the NPA represent the “one percent”. COPE needs to revitalize its traditional role of representing the “99 percent”.
So, for COPE to reclaim its position in advocating for the 99 percent, I (and others) recommended to the meeting that COPE immediately start acting like the real opposition at city council. Of course, it’s better to have elected representatives on city council to do this, but it can still be done effectively from the outside—especially with the many COPE veterans who have years of council experience (not to mention school board and park board expertise).
COPE needs to take its critiques of city policy out into the neighbourhoods and convey its message through the media (outside of the city council chamber).
COPE needs to revitalize all its committees—especially its city council, school board, and parks board caucuses. It also needs to create new caucuses that bring more Vancouverites into active involvement with COPE—especially more youth, aboriginals, Indo Canadians, Chinese, Filipinos, immigrants, and other citizens.
COPE needs to do continuous fundraising between elections.
Above all, COPE needs to fight strenuously for campaign finance reform. Vancouver, and the province, are a backwater of Wild West capitalism in the “sky is the limit” attitude toward municipal election spending. Vision and the NPA are not going to seriously push financial reform as long as they are both on the gravy train of developer largesse.
Look, for example, to the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador for instances of campaign spending control. Toronto provides rebates to voters of up to 75 percent of their donations in city elections (e.g., for a $100 donation, the voter gets $75 dollars back). Toronto has banned donations by both corporations and unions to city council campaigns. The city has also placed a cap of $5,000 as the amount that one individual can make to a specific council campaign.
While I am not saying that Toronto is necessarily the perfect model of campaign funding, I am saying that what we have here in Vancouver now is a disaster that reeks of conflict of interest and badly needs a major overhaul. It is worth looking at other jurisdictions to see if we can adopt the best there to remedy the dire situation here.
COPE must reassert its role as defender of the 99 percent in Canada’s least affordable city. COPE isn’t dead. COPE will revitalize and reinvent itself as it has done for 44 years. That was certainly the strong feeling at Sunday’s meeting.
Paul Houle has been a member of COPE since 1986 and served on the COPE executive for seven years. He was a panellist at the COPE election debriefing meeting held on January 22.