Governance & Politics
December 5, 2018

Civic Savvy: The Import of Unanimity

The first major motion has passed Vancouver City Council – unanimously!


A unanimous vote on an ideological issue is a significant indicator – and Jean Swanson’s motion on renter protection was the first big test for the new council.  The way amendments and process were so skillfully handled among the various parties and interests suggests effective communication and negotiation.  (How much of that, I wonder, was done by the Mayor’s office?)

I would not underestimate the emotional impact of the more than 50 delegations organized effectively by the year-old Vancouver Tenants Union who, hour after hour, over two days, told personal stories of their experiences and anxieties.  Regardless of where any individual councillor stands politically, the emotional effect is substantial.  It wears away intellectual resistance, leaving the need to respond in some way.

Jean Swanson called the amended motion mush.  But the Tenants Union, having achieved a recognition of legitimacy, recognized it as a victory, regardless of the fact that not much actual protection is afforded those subject to a determined renovictor.

In the end, the NPA aligned itself with a vote on an issue coming from the far left; the amendments they supported came from the parties of the near left.  The result is a solid wall of political support for intervention in the rental housing market – another indicator of how much this election has changed the status quo.

What will property and development interests do in the face of this? Watch Jon Stovell and Berkeley Tower.

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I’ve revised this post on the consequences of negating the CAC mechanism – and why most candidates probably don’t understand the implications of their own platform.  Yeah, it gets into the weeds – as it should – and I’m open to criticisms of points I may have missed (or, gasp, failed to understand fully.) Comments encouraged.


Does any candidate really understand Community Amenity Contributions (CACs)?  Maybe one or two.   A lot seem happy to entertain the idea of gutting them in the name of transparency or fairness or expediency or something better.  Whatever.  But something valuable –  literally some of the value of land that CACs are meant to capture – may get lost.

To begin, here are some basics.

Community Amenity Contributions are not a tax.  It’s in the title: they’re “contributions”.  And while some developers may roll their eyes when they hear that word (yeah sure, contributions), it’s still true that there is no obligation to pay them if they don’t want to.  And that’s because …

They are only applicable to rezonings.  

Let’s be really clear: when developers own or buy land, their rights are within the maximums spelled out in the Zoning and Development Bylaw. If they want more density, they may apply for a rezoning – but they are not entitled to it.  

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There’s an oft-repeated line credited to Kim Campbell when she was running as Conservative leader in 1993: “An election is no time to discuss serious issues.”  She was savaged for it, but politicos from all parties repeat it because they think it’s true.

Shauna Sylvester doesn’t think it’s true.  From August 22 on, she released platform statements, one a day for a week, hoping for a boost in profile.  For her effort, she got praise from Charlie Smith at the Straight, but not much coverage elsewhere. (The Sun, not realizing it’s 2018, didn’t even run her pic in a line-up with the male mayoral candidates.)

But unless policy has shock value (“I’ll tear out bike lanes!  I’ll triple the tax on McMansions!), policy per se won’t get you profile.  It does do other helpful things.  It will show you have some depth: you’re a serious candidate.  It will earn you points with interest groups: you’ve thought about their concerns.  It will give you an opening line of attack on your opponents: you have a way of going negative without getting personal.  That last one is key.

Most candidates say they wish to avoid gratuitous ad hominen attacks. But in a heated campaign, negativity becomes increasingly attractive as a way to gain profile and to motivate supporters with a fear of the other. Given the number of unknown independents in this unique campaign, with its very short timeframe, restricted funding and public apathy (or confusion), expect negativity to increase proportional to desperation, of which there will be a lot.

Sylvester maintains she has ruled out negativity as a strategy. So has Ken Sim. So did NDP leader Adrian Dix in the provincial 2013 campaign.  (Ask him how that worked out.)

Frontrunners may have the option of keeping their pronouncements bland and their persona positive (it’s one of the ways you can tell how they think they’re doing), but it won’t work for low-profile aspirants, in a tight race or as a defensive strategy when one is under attack from the candidates who do go negative.  If Sylvester’s, Sim’s or any no-neg candidate’s strategy is to work, then they will need to weaponize their policies and frame them as an attack on their opponent’s position, or lack of one.  It will, however, be very difficult to distinguish the difference between an attack on the personal from disagreement on policy. That’s kind of the point.

So to answer the question in the headline, yes, policies can be good politics when used strategically.  But candidates have to find a way around Kim Campbell’s admonition in order to avoid Adrian Dix’s fate.



To keep track of the commitments being made by the myriad candidates for mayor, Global is running a helpful feature by Richard Zussman:

PROMISE TRACKER: What Vancouver mayoral candidates are promising voters



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In the last Civic Savvy, we profiled New West Councillor Patrick Johnstone – one of the relatively few Gen X leaders in the region, and maybe one of the few in the future. As the Boomers depart, it’s argued, the Millenniums will arrive to fill their vacant council chairs, jumping over the Gen Xers in between.

But that in-between generation will be needed, especially those familiar with our institutions and issues at a time of disruption and identity politics. Every aspiring candidate seems to call for ‘change at City Hall’, without ever really explaining, or maybe even knowing, what that would mean. Newcomers will need the perspective and memory of those who have been involved in actual governance and local process.

Tanya Paz might be one of those people. At 48, she’s numerically a Gen Xer, but more than that, her background gives her a worldview that covers a lot of world.

A third-generation Vancouverite, in a family with roots in Scotland, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Jerusalem. Half brown, half white. Raised in rural Aldergrove, lived in urban Vancouver, educated for a time in Japan and France. Cis-female, attracted to all genders. Experienced confused racism against South Asians and Jews. Stereotyped as a ‘cycling advocate’ but with nine years on the Board of Trade Regional Transportation & Infrastructure Committee – knowledge of air and freight issues, professional experience in mobility sharing, political involvement in active transportation.

I’ve watched her in action. Her ‘in-betweeness’ gives her an ability to put forward contentious positions (saying to bicycling advocates, for instance: my highest priority is pedestrians) without pissing people off to the point where they turn off.

So fine. Does any of that matter when the toughest label she has to deal with is ‘Vision Vancouver’? And it’s her first time.

Three factors might get her into the top ten, assuming they’re real: a still-effective Vision machine (especially those voter identification lists), identity and respect in enough interest groups to pull in premium votes above the base, and a desire among the electorate to have more youthful voices, on one hand, but earned experience on the other.

Someone in between.

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Much of the current election narrative has been stripped down to a conflict between Boomers and Millenniums on housing affordability and neighbourhood density.  Lost in the generalized simplicity is the role of Generation Xers – the missing generation.  As the Boomers depart, it’s argued, the Millenniums will arrive to fill their vacant council chairs, jumping over the Xers in between.

Well, the Boomers are departing (half the mayors in the region, for instance) – but it may be the best time ever for those Xers with some experience or an ambition to run for office, especially those with a lot of contacts and good relations among the diversity of communities in Metro.  The in-between generation will be especially needed, given the importance of continuity and institutional memory required for good governance.

To find out more, I talked to two Gen Xers: Patrick Johnstone (running again for councillor in New Westminster on Team Coté) and Tanya Paz (running first time for council as a Vision Vancouver candidate).  First up: Patrick.

Patrick Johnstone, 48, is a self-described citizen and rabble-rouser.  That may be true rhetorically but it’s not his working style.  When asked what he is proudest of, he replies: “I’m a collaborator” – possibly the ideal role for a generation which really has no choice but to work with the generations on either side.

He spends a disproportionate amount of time explaining things: how council works, the rationales for his votes, the complexity of issues, using plain language, especially for the increasing number of constituents whose first language is not English.  You can see how he does it on his blog ‘Ask Pat‘ – a compendium of explanations on the decisions he takes in council.  There’s probably no comparison in Metro, given the time it requires to maintain.  Why do it?  “My goal is not to change minds so much as to be transparent.”  Patrick is very big on transparency.

Shouldn’t it really be city staff doing something like this blog?   In fact, it’s too dangerous and difficult for public servants to simplify complexity or take positions; that’s a politician’s job.  Johnstone is one of the few to actually make the effort – stripping a thousand-page agenda into a blog report accessible to citizens with an unabashed political context.

Experienced incumbents will be needed for another purpose: regional perspective and negotiation.  After a term or so devoted to local issues in their municipalities, those with Metro background are going to be critical in the next four years, especially to offset those who find it expeditious to dump on the jurisdiction they only remotely understand.  Johnstone, having served as second vice-president on the Lower Mainland Local Government Association, grasps that issues like transportation have already spilled beyond Metro’s borders.

Gen X leaders will be mentors to newly elected Millennials, providing continuity and memory, using the tools of social media, caring less about parties and more about personalities that connect government to those who need a face, not an ideology, before they will get involved.

Faces like Johnstone’s will be a little older than generationally anticipated but younger than the traditional leaders now stepping aside.


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“Everyone is eating away at everyone.”

So says a campaign coordinator for some of the independents.  He’s experienced, active in provincial and federal campaigns.  He has perspective. “I have seen how ugly it can be and how unqualified and power-hungry people make it to the top.”  Most of the people he sees running for council aren’t like that, he has found.  They want to make decisions based on the good of the city, not their careers.

His view is that the new financing rules have altered the political landscape with an earthquake whose magnitude is not yet clear.  But it has certainly leveled the playing field.

Hence so many independents pursuing what may be a once-in-a-lifetime political opportunity.

What about the established parties?  Don’t they have a brand advantage?

Yes – but the brand is also one of distrust and fed-up-ness.  That’s reflected in the polls which show leaders of the NPA and Vision in the bottom third of preferences, with independents puling away votes in a lot of different ways.

Young people will continue to emerge with electoral strength, he thinks, but they’re not ideologically driven; their lives make issues like housing and equality more personally relevant.  If you can get to them through their phones.

So what will if take to get elected councillor in the City of Vancouver?  Not a lot of money – say, $30,000, plus  Which may help you get 30,000 votes, maybe 50.

Thirty for thirty is the formula at the moment.

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The North Shore is a self-conscious piece of paradise: the glory of post-war suburbia set into west-coast rainforest.  Understandably, most residents would like change to reinforce that paradigm, not pave it over.

But municipal government is essentially in the paradigm-changing business when it comes to long-term solutions.  In the short-term, however, anything that uncomfortably changes scale or character is objected to.  Residents say they want better transportation, but their way of life is largely car dependent.  They want affordable housing, but not an increase in taxes related to property.  Lots of circles to square.

So what does an aspiring mayor or councillor do?  I thought I’d ask a candidate with whom I had spoken prior to the last election.  Tony Valente ran as an independent for council in North Van City, and lost by only about 500 votes.  Now, as one of the next generation of aspiring leaders with more vacancies open, he has the odds with him.

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As you might have noticed, those commenting on ‘Civic Savvy’ – our savvyards – go mostly unnamed. That’s their choice. But they’re asked to speak frankly as insiders – something that might be lost if their names are attached, and so anonymity is respected. Here’s a guy, though, who speaks publicly as a columnist with the North Shore News and as a media and communications specialist. Paul Sullivan has lived on the North Shore since 1989, and is up to speed on who’s running there and why.

“There’s a changing of the guard as household names bow out,” he notes, and that’s opening up opportunity for the opportunists: “the one-issue wonders – NIMBYs who have no interest in solutions, just complaining about the culture and the process, even though they don’t know or care about the opportunities to engage.” Traditional long-serving leaders like District mayor Richard Walton is the antithesis of a grandstander, observes Sullivan. “He’s a coordinated thinker. Yes, things therefore moved more slowly – but there were not a lot of false moves.” Walton is one of those not running again.

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There are already nine declared candidates for mayor in Vancouver.  More to come – maybe many more.  Will a long list of unknown names confuse and discourage voters?  Will it chop the vote into small slices, with no candidate getting a big enough bite to claim legitimacy?  Or will it give, as argued in the previous Civic Savvy, a better path for Independents to get elected with a smaller, but sufficient, slice of the vote?

A long list of names – how about 58? – didn’t seem to bother people too much in 1996 (though afterwards higher fees thinned out the count.)  Here’s what that ballot looked like, according to Wikipedia:

Zippy the Circus Chimp did rather well at ninth.  And today L. Ron Moonbeam would likely poll higher.  But Philip Owen won decisively, and all the serious contenders had a party association.

That suggests the power of the brand will be even more evident this time around.

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