Devon Rowcliffe: Cuts, cops, and cars dominate NPA’s 2014 election platform

A critical review of the Non-Partisan Association’s proposals for Vancouver

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      A great party, badly run.

      Having dominated Vancouver politics since the early 1940s—with almost a dozen former mayors under its banner—the Non-Partisan Association was expected to be a formidable contestant in Vancouver’s 2014 civic election.

      However, the right-leaning NPA (surely an anachronistic name by now) has been largely disappointing for those who may have anticipated novel remedies for some of Vision Vancouver’s governing faults.

      For a political machine that draws upon an election war chest worth more than $2 million, the NPA’s policy platform is shockingly clumsy. While it arguably offers an effective response to Vision’s penchant for controlling (and some would argue obscuring) information, the NPA’s platform presents few solutions to Vancouver’s pressing social ills.

      Trumpeted at the beginning of the platform is an “operating review” of the city’s budget, with a commitment to trim $36 million annually through “efficiencies.” For a city administration that has already gone through significant belt-tightening exercises in recent years due to the 2008 housing market collapse and the former Olympic Village debt of $630 million, it is doubtful how many additional “efficiencies” could be found. A $36-million budget cut would likely result in some city services being reduced or eliminated.

      Transparency is perhaps the most alluring aspect of the NPA’s platform. Making Vancouver “the most open government in Canada” is a worthy goal—and has certainly been crafted as a response to Vision’s six-year legacy. However, I’m doubtful whether this is an urgent topic for most voters. I also wonder if seasoned voters are wary of superlative-laced promises, given that so many of NPA mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe’s predecessors (including incumbent mayor Gregor Robertson) failed to fulfill similar commitments to openness.

      Beyond the topic of transparency, the remainder of the NPA platform is mostly an uninspiring (and rather odd) assortment of tasks that lacks cohesion, fails to adequately address Vancouver’s most pressing problems, and abstains from pouncing upon numerous Vision shortcomings. It does not read like the platform of a party destined to topple incumbents and seize power.

      Polls show that housing affordability is Vancouver’s most important election issue. While some other political parties advocate building social and affordable housing, the NPA offers few solutions. Their platform—at this point veering dramatically to the political right—asserts that attracting more high-paying jobs will make expensive housing more affordable. It also mentions that a revitalized CityPlan could potentially result in more affordable housing—but so too could it just as easily lead to neighbourhood NIMBYism against such housing types.

      In addition, the NPA promises to “allow mixed-tenure zones” (possibly against the wishes of future CityPlan participants), which could feature rental housing units. But without any financial incentives, developers are unlikely to have an interest in building rental housing simply because they would be “allowed” to.

      Frankly, the NPA’s housing plan looks likely to create an even less affordable version of Vancouver than what we’ve seen from Vision during the past six years.

      On the economy, reorienting the Vancouver Economic Commission to attract investment in collaboration with its Metro Vancouver peers and the province is a good idea. However, the NPA’s messaging that blames Vision for a lack of resource-sector office jobs is disingenuous nonsense.

      Regarding arts and culture, the idea of a “creative entrepreneurial office” to assist with the convoluted city-permit process should be applauded—although perhaps simplifying the permit process itself would be more effective. Pledging to include arts and culture in a revitalized CityPlan is also innovative. But surely the greatest obstacle that Vancouver artists contend with is affordability, and the NPA platform offers little to remedy this.

      In terms of the environment, the NPA hopes to make Vancouver the “car sharing capital of North America.” While this is a noble effort and would decrease car usage, it barely scratches the surface of what a city could do.

      The NPA also opposes the “zero-waste innovation centre”—a proposed garbage gasification plant that would be built in Marpole. There may be some merit in this opposition, as gasification reportedly emits high levels of nitrogen oxides and dioxins, according to the Pembina Institute. However, Vision has argued that “stringent air quality guidelines” would be met or exceeded, and that the plant would have to adhere to the Greenest City Action Plan.

      But what’s most troubling about the NPA’s opposition to gasification is the lack of solutions being proposed to deal with a major regional problem. By simply opposing the garbage gasification plant, the NPA is ignoring why the facility has been proposed: because the old garbage incinerator in Burnaby (which uses an antiquated and dirtier technology) requires replacing, and because the landfill in Cache Creek is nearing capacity (not to mention the environmental consequences of currently trucking garbage to a destination four hours away). Vancouver produces garbage, and something needs to be done with it.

      What is the NPA platform’s proposed solution for dealing with Vancouver’s garbage? “Do more to encourage residents to reduce, reuse and recycle.” That won’t make our metropolitan garbage disappear—so do we continue to truck it to destinations several hours away? Concerns about nitrogen oxides and dioxins fouling Vancouver’s air quality may be justified, but nixing a proposal without suggesting a viable alternative appears more like NIMBYism than leadership regarding a significant regional issue.

      On transportation, the NPA is proposing more 99 B-Line articulated buses on Broadway, despite a KPMG report that states Broadway is “already at transit capacity during rush hour.” LaPointe refuted this point at a mayoral debate, but didn’t elaborate.

      The NPA also proposes to build an “affordable” underground subway, without explaining how they could construct such transit infrastructure in a less expensive manner than Vision.

      Using counterflow lanes to reduce traffic congestion is another NPA idea. But these instruments are most effective on roads with traffic that moves primarily in one direction; civic journalist Frances Bula recently pointed out that the city (under former head of engineering Dave Rudberg) already looked at this concept, and found it was “not that practical” because many of Vancouver’s arterial streets have heavy two-way traffic during rush hour.

      Bikeways “that have community backing” are also proposed. But what if CityPlan participants aren’t keen on separated bikeways? Do we go back to simply painting images of bikes on the roads? That won’t make bicycling much safer.

      Additionally, the NPA is proposing to reduce tolls on car parking. While this may arguably help some small businesses on arterials, such actions would go against 21st-century urban planning philosophy by promoting car usage.

      The NPA does make a valid point: that cars idling at stop lights produce more greenhouse gases. However, they use this to argue that alleviating traffic delays would reduce overall greenhouse gases. Apparently the NPA doesn’t understand that efforts to make driving easier would encourage additional automobile usage, thus increasing the number of people driving and the total greenhouse gases generated.

      This car-centric thinking from LaPointe’s NPA is bizarre, and conflicts with Vancouver policy that has been in place since at least the 1990s (including the transportation plan approved in 1997 by an NPA-led council). I don’t dispute that driving is still the most common way for Vancouverites to get around—but the city should be showing leadership by promoting what transportation should become, rather than pandering to the status-quo.

      We must also acknowledge as taxpayers that the greatest area of senior government spending is health, thanks partly to our collective sedentary lifestyles that lead to problems such as heart disease and chronic illness (including diabetes). Our cities need to promote active transportation to make exercising easier, which should include constructing safe infrastructure. For a political party that seems so concerned about government spending, the current NPA seems to exist in its own little city silo, ignoring that car-centric municipal policies lead to ballooning health spending at the provincial level. Reducing provincial tax wastage is just as important as its municipal equivalent, and a truly coherent city administration would understand that its decisions affect both.

      Regarding parks, the NPA calls for the “permanent protection of parks and green spaces.” It’s not clear how they would achieve this, seeing as future councils could amend civic by-laws. If they intend to amend the Vancouver Charter, would the province agree?

      On schools, the NPA states they would reduce the number of “closure days”—despite that these closure days are the Vancouver school board’s response to chronic underfunding by the provincial government. Most of the political parties’ school platforms promise to advocate for more provincial funding, but the NPA does not.

      The NPA also plans to “support the Downtown Eastside” by launching an audit of the $350 million in government spending that goes into the neighbourhood. But what would the point of such an exercise be? We already know what the area’s problems are: a lack of decent housing, a lack of mental health support, and a lack of substance use support. There may be genuine issues regarding some money being misallocated, but surely the primary causes of poverty in the Downtown Eastside—which are already well understood—should be where the city focuses the bulk of its efforts.

      Despite a shrinking crime rate—only three percent of Vancouverites stated in a poll last spring that they felt crime was the most important election issue—the NPA pledges to give an additional $1 million to the police to deal with “street-level crime.” For a mayoral candidate who keeps reminding us that he grew up in poverty, LaPointe doesn’t seem very interested in addressing the root causes of poverty—rather, he appears more interested in alleviating the symptoms by punishing those (decreasingly few) who resort to crime.

      In summary, while I disagree with Ben West that LaPointe is “the Stephen Harper of Vancouver”—you’ll certainly never catch the latter merrily adorned in rainbows at a pride parade—LaPointe’s recasting of the NPA brand does seem to be very much in the mold of free-enterprise politics that former NPA mayor Gordon Campbell campaigned upon.

      We should note, however, that many past NPA mayors promoted a more balanced policy framework. Under Jack Cornett (1941-46), Frederick Hume (1951-58) and William Rathie (1963-66), the NPA prioritized housing as a major issue, and constructed significant amounts of affordable housing—although admittedly financial support from senior government was much easier to come by back then.

      LaPointe also seems to have drifted further to the political right than Sam Sullivan, the last NPA mayor. Sullivan implemented Project Civil City, which was based upon the premise that police were not the solution to Vancouver’s social ills, and resulted in the creation of Streetohome. LaPointe’s current suggestion to give the police an additional $1 million to deal with petty crime is in sharp contrast to Sullivan’s more sympathetic governing philosophy.

      The most compassionate offering from Kirk LaPointe’s NPA is a commitment to co‑ordinating breakfast programs for kids—other than that, their platform is mostly dominated by the predictable right-wing mantra of cuts, cops, and cars. Perhaps our grandfather’s NPA wasn’t so bad after all.

      Devon Rowcliffe is a Vancouver-based political commentator who writes about Vancouver, British Columbian, Canadian, and East Asian politics. He can be reached online at devonrowcliffe@gmail.com or @DevonRowcliffe.

      Comments

      4 Comments

      Tommy Khang

      Nov 13, 2014 at 11:30am

      I surely hope that there will be commentary pieces that are hyper critical of all the other major parties as well, because they all come with flaws.

      The NPA and their very weak policy platform however seems to benefit from general voter apathy and perhaps the growing discontent with Vision Vancouver from multiple angles - I feel that those who were more centrist, left light or right leaning and voted for Vision last time around but are now discontent have no legitimate option available to them other than the NPA. These same voters may vote green to show their displeasure with Vision but there is no chance they they will go for the more extreme option of COPE.

      But no Lapointe isn't a Harper clone and even Harper isn't that right (refer to Abbott in Australia)

      Forest

      Nov 13, 2014 at 11:50am

      Thank you for this factual and dispassionate analysis of the NPA platform. I hope that the voters of Vancouver will hold their emotions in check on election day and take these facts into consideration.

      A Very Concerned Citizen

      Nov 13, 2014 at 4:47pm

      This seems to be a backlash on the week's widespread commentary of how Vision and the mayor have bungled the past 6 years at City Hall - at our expense. The icing on the cake was yesterday's apology by Mr. Robertson. Wow.

      Hopefully the thousands of Vancouver citizen's Vision has bulldozed over the past 2 terms will make their voices heard on Saturday.

      wombat

      Nov 13, 2014 at 6:57pm

      "LaPointe doesn’t seem very interested in addressing the root causes of poverty—rather, he appears more interested in alleviating the symptoms by punishing those (decreasingly few) who resort to crime."

      Not an English major, but I think it should read "increasingly few".