Analysis

Vancouver's political culture could be on the verge of a historic realignment

At this point, the more salient question is who isn't considering a run for mayor of Vancouver?

Ban on corporate and political donations has contributed to the movement, But so too has the housing crisis

It's been 28 years since either an independent mayor or councillor was elected in the City of Vancouver. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

These days, listing the people considering a run for mayor of Vancouver requires a paragraph, not a sentence.

There's Ian Campbell, the Squamish hereditary chief who announced his campaign for the Vision Vancouver nomination Monday, NDP MP Kennedy Stewart, who announced his run as an independent last week, joining Shauna Sylvester, who announced her independent campaign last month.

And Ken Sim, John Coupar and Glen Chernen are all seeking the NPA nomination. 

Hold on, we'll need a third paragraph.

Councillor Hector Bremner, who was rejected by the NPA board, is currently considering a run as an independent. Councillor Adriane Carr may run under the Green Party banner. Several other people have applied to runas Vision Vancouver's candidate (though the party won't say who the candidates are or when they'll announce them). And COPE, the longest running left-wing party in Vancouver, may also run or support a candidate. 

At this point, the only thing you can definitely say is that it's created a lot of fun speculation for people who like to closely watch elections months in advance. 

But it could indicate something greater: that Vancouver's political system is set for a big, populist realignment, one that reduces the influence of parties and increases the importance of individuals.   

Parties and slates

For over 70 years, Vancouver city politics has included two elements that are relatively rare among major cities. 

First, political parties dominate: no independent has been elected to council since 1988 or become mayor since 1984. 

Second, Vancouver operates without a ward system, which means voters choose 10 councillors all at once on a ballot, instead of one for their geographic region.

UBC political scientist Richard Johnston says they feed into one another.

"When you've got a 10-member district, it means the co-ordination issues are enormous … and the information requirements for voters so high, that, in a way, the only solution to those problems is to have parties," he said.

Someone who thinks Vancouver has been well governed over the years would likely argue this political system has led to greater cohesion and predictability.

Those who have argued against it for years, most notably supporters of COPE, have consistently argued it shuts out most voices and real debate. 

Unique year

But this year, the old party mechanics seem to be sputtering.

Part of it could be due to the ban on corporate and union donations, which decrease the ability of big parties to outspend their opponents by orders of magnitude. Part of it is the departure of Gregor Robertson as mayor, creating the most wide-open, year-long race to run the city since 1993.  

But part of it, says Johnston, is the same thing that seemingly drives every conversation in Vancouver now — housing affordability. 

"It's how we react to development," he said, pointing out that a big split between Bremner and most of the other NPA candidates is around how much rezoning should be done on the city's west side. 

Meanwhile, the city's progressive parties focus on what type of government intervention would be most effective in cooling the housing market. 

"I think it's the public driving this. People are very upset with the affordability crunch here in Vancouver, and they don't think it's being addressed the way it should be," said Stewart, who studied municipal politics at SFU before becoming an MP. 

More co-operation?

But leaving aside why there's an opening for independents and smaller parties, the question remains: would such a change be good for Vancouver?

Not surprisingly, Sylvester, who hopes to become Vancouver's first independent mayor in a generation, argues it would. 

"People are getting tired of the way politics have been done in the past. Parties have been battling it out and become more and more fragmented. What happens is the vast majority of citizens turn away, and that's what happening in Vancouver," said Sylvester, who argues she has the background needed to find common ground. 

"What is exciting about what's going to happen is we're going to have a diversity of candidates elected. And in that context, you need a mayor that can work across that difference."

UBC's Johnston says there are both pros and cons to a more fragmented system. 

"We've been generally well-governed. It's not obvious that a more fragmented council would have more people who would know what to do, but it would be a more interesting place as a talking shop, and it would take a little more time to come to a decision."

Of course, there's always a chance the parties sort things out.

But political predictions are always hard to make. Especially when there's so little precedent for the perfect storm of realignment Vancouver is facing. 

"This it what change looks like," said Stewart. 

"It looks like a bit of uncertainty." 

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is a reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering political stories throughout British Columbia.

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