Nicholas Ellan: Trish Kelly, Vision Vancouver’s park board defeat, and half-baked democracy

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      And the best showing in #vanelxn 2014 award goes to...

      Trish Kelly in “The Case of the Missing Campaign”.

      As a major player in one of the oddest plot lines of the entire election cycle, Kelly leveraged her role to become a minor celebrity and local hero. Leading the polls in Vision Vancouver’s feel-good experiment in democratic nominations at the park board, she was later removed from that slate by Vision’s executive when an old video monologue of hers surfaced on a local political blog. Her funny, frank talk about sexuality which much of the city watched and nobody minded was still deemed too risqué for Vision, and Kelly was suddenly canned. Launching a clever media campaign in response, she harnessed public outcry against that decision to engage us in a citywide discussion of the challenges facing female politicians.

      Challenges like getting turfed by the backroom boys? It’s likely we will never know what really happened. But through sheer tenacity, Kelly turned her defeat into a major win. Hopefully she will one day return to politics and give us all a second chance at a first chance to vote for her.

      But what bomb went off behind the scenes that made Kelly a political hero for simply surviving? The Kelly affair stumped analysts, pissed off journalists, and dealt serious damage to Vision Vancouver’s renewal slate at parks, of which Kelly was generally considered the lynchpin.

      Congratulations on your victory, now please leave

      Despite her substantial efforts in bringing new members to Vision, the party barely blinked as they showed her the door. Crisis PR? Why bother. Outreach to new members that joined as part of Kelly’s campaign? Nah, we’ll pass. Vision staffers were in a huge hurry to turn the chapter on this blunder. They claimed that Kelly was going to be a distraction from the campaign they intended to run. But the question remains: what campaign were they referring to?

      Whatever campaign was planned to promote the fresh new grassroots faces of change at the park board, a diverse slate of young professionals, it was dead on arrival. Vision had major victories at park board over the last six years, like the OneCard, but that barely registered in the public consciousness come election season.

      And what the hell happened to all the incumbents? Vision’s NDP-affiliated commissioners had quietly exited at beginning of March. Trevor Loke became the lone standard-bearer of the Vision record, but the final results show he was denied any incumbent advantage, likely because the initiatives he’d been associated with had been dropped from the messaging.

      So if Kelly was such a distraction, what was she distracting us from?

      A modest conspiracy theory proposal

      In the final week of the campaign, Charlie Smith penned a response to conspiracy-theorists claiming politicians were trying to lose on purpose. Of course such theories do not hold up to a second of scrutiny. But if we ask if Vision Vancouver strategically abandoned the park board to hold ground elsewhere, that theory has a lot more going for it.

      When Kelly applied for nomination, she included in her disclosure the controversial video which later sealed her fate. At the time, the nomination committee had no problem with it, nor any of the other materials which were later deemed too explosive to even mention.

      What changed? The real value of Kelly’s brief sojourn into municipal politics is that it revealed to us a crack in the Vision coalition. The political climate had suddenly shifted in the last six months of the campaign, and this shift claimed not only every single Vision incumbent at the park board as casualties, but all of their democratically nominated replacements as well.

      Vision today is no longer the party of bold progressive women like Kelly, Sarah Blyth, or Constance Barnes; on the contrary, it has opted for safer, centrist choices appointed in secret. And as pundits already noted, the big losers in this year’s election were their younger and racialized candidates; the big winners were generally older and white.

      And we would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those damn whales

      While Kelly was campaigning for nomination, the defining issue of the park board election was emerging. At a media conference in the beginning of April, outgoing commissioners Barnes and Blyth held a press conference calling for the end of whale captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium. With that sudden shot across the bow, the two sides quickly mobilized for war: on the right, the Vancouver Aquarium’s formidable fundraising machine, and on the left, a loose coalition of old-school NDP politicians, animal rights activists, and environmentalists. It was never going to be much of a fight.

      While commissioners Barnes and Blyth were initially joined by the mayor in taking a hardline stance on the issue of whale captivity, the party steadily moderated their position over months of consultation. Eventually the park board decided to pursue a modest bylaw proposal which banned breeding of captive cetaceans on city-owned land. (They have since even backed away from that, and may kick the can to the next government.) But even this modest reform, proposed after months of public consultation, remained a polarizing issue.

      Instead of going away quietly, the situation continued to escalate. Disclosures made to the park board revealed that the aquarium had more belugas than previously reported, spread all over the continent, the majority leased to private for-profit facilities. Vision’s attempt to take a socially progressive position while lawyering it away in the fine print snowballed into major media coverage of the aquarium’s connections to American facilities, and the scrutiny of the park board investigation internationally tarnished the aquarium brand.

      With mere months until the November election, there was not enough time for a Plan B. Vision could only cut their losses. Catherine Evans was to be added to the slate to make things not completely hopeless, and no further controversies would be tolerated. It was this hostile and rapidly shifting park board environment that Kelly walked right into. And as she quickly found, the progressive team that had vetted her candidacy were no longer able to support her.

      That is the hard-won lesson that Kelly has given us. Half-baked democracy is no democracy at all. It is window dressing for the rule of the back rooms. And under those conditions, grassroots participation like Kelly’s is often punished by the powers that be, who while hidden, are always present.

      So next time we talk about this city’s engagement crisis, or the next time we talk about our lack of diversity in elected politicians—let’s make sure to remember all the people like Kelly. The people that we deliberately disengaged.




      Nov 19, 2014 at 2:10pm

      This is a pretty fair take. Failing to stand by Trish Kelly kind of pissed people off, myself included. From what, exactly?

      Indeed, anyone actually objected to Kelly's video probably would have found themselves in the negative spotlight rather than her.

      Tommy Khang

      Nov 19, 2014 at 2:23pm

      The defining issue of this election became the Vancouver Aquarium? Seriously? How can you write an article on why Vision lost the parks board and not even mention anything about the issue of the Six "Renegade" Community Associations. This is even backed up by electoral data that seems to strongly suggest that Vision lost the majority of it's support compared to 2011 in areas dominated by these associations?

      Nicholas, I know you have an axe to grind with the Vancouver Aquarium as it doesn't fit into your idealist left world but the reality is; and it's backed up by data that Vision lost the Parks Board because they really screwed up on the implementation of the OneCard and pissed off not one but six different community associations. Both Coupar and MacKinnon have come out saying that community centres are more important then the whales and that is the truth.

      Furthermore, what Vision did to Kelly was downright stupid and I am surprised it didn't get more traction then it should have. You can't claim to be a truly progressive party when you are removing people for a video that was truly benign at the end of the day.


      Nov 19, 2014 at 2:51pm

      Meet Nail. This is just a terrible analysis. Where are you getting these people from?


      Nov 19, 2014 at 6:42pm

      He's a UBC graduate. Be nice!


      Nov 19, 2014 at 8:50pm

      Good lord. Is Trish Kelly now just paying people to keep her name in the media?


      Nov 19, 2014 at 9:47pm

      First, while Trish certainly should ahve had her go at the election, seriously, why does anyone think her video was funny? The writing was dreadful and the acting, worse.

      So, here's MY conspiracy theory. As we know this Park Board has been as useless as teets ont eh proverbial bull. The Vision Park Board candidates, forced to carry the bucket for the Mayor, Penny Ballem and malcolm Bromley were handed poop on a stick with the Community Centre problems as well as smaller issues such as: where the hell has maintenance money for parks gone?

      The deeper into the mire the PB commissioners were thrust the more they became the loathed. At the end of the day Vision's own Park Board members abandoned the party. Also, since Sarah Blyth and Constance Barnes are not the sharpest tools in the shed (sorry, Nicholas!), and therefore didn't have a hope in hell of moving up into the 'Big Show', they decided to seek their revenge on City hall by throwing the Aquarium bomb into the mix. On their exit. Classy.

      This is the sign of disintegration in a party, folks. Use a whip hand, and many of your problems are not from outside, but from within...


      Nov 20, 2014 at 9:07am

      I must've blinked and missed this whole Trish Kelly thing.

      Susie B

      Nov 20, 2014 at 4:32pm

      I guess the party can pick and choose who runs with them. At least I hope so anyway.

      Jeff Matthews

      Nov 25, 2014 at 11:27am

      WHales were hardly the defining issue of the campaign. There were only 2 news items about whales as a Park Board issue during the entire campaign, and those were short pieces about whale advocates protesting at City Hall. No one wanted to talk about whales during the election, because as far as they were concerned, the Park Board had dealt with it and they wanted to move on to other issues.