COPE AGM 2007

Last week Sean Antrim outlined how the past three years of a Vision government has been anything but progressive. For reasons of principle and policy, he argued, COPE should not enter into another coalition with Vision. In addition to principles and policy, there are also strategic questions to consider.

What, then, are some of the strategic reasons COPE’s executive has negotiated a proposal with Vision to run a joint slate in the upcoming municipal elections? There are several possible strategic reasons, all of which don’t hold up under analysis.

1. At least COPE will have a “voice” on Council.

In the 2008 election, COPE and Vision made a coalition agreement. Vision ran 8 and COPE ran 2 candidates for City Council. Both of COPE’s candidates won seats, and yet have wielded no decision making power on Council. Vision holds a majority of seats, and all decisions are made in private by Vision’s caucus, without consulting COPE.

Although powerless in terms of voting, COPE Councillors could theoretically use their position to voice opposition. NPA Councilor Suzanne Anton has used her position to criticize from the reactionary right. But COPE has been an ineffective opposition voice. COPE often votes against Vision, but quietly. You have to follow the live audio-visual feed of Council meetings to hear about it.

COPE’s role has been as “conscience” of Council. Unfortunately, COPE’s alliance with Vision only makes them the fig leaf for Vision’s aggressive pro-developer, anti-resident agenda. There is nothing noble in propping up that status quo.

2. If COPE and Vision run separate slates, they will split the progressive vote, allowing the NPA to come up the middle.

As discussed, Vision is not a progressive party. Although Vision ran on a progressive platform in 2008, its actions have proven otherwise. Lack of consultation has alienated community after community; pro-gentrification policies are undermining affordability; and instead of implementing the homeless action plan, Vision has resorted to evicting the homeless from shelters. Even apparently positive positions, such as Vision’s pseudo-opposition to the Casino expansion, turned out to be all spin. There is no excuse for being fooled this time around.

Should COPE publicly criticize Vision’s policies, and clearly distinguish itself from Vision, there is no reason it wouldn’t be capable of securing the loyalty of progressive voters throughout the City, especially East Van. Criticism from the left would help properly characterize Vision as anti-progressive, forcing vote-splitting on the right, not the left.

3. Vision is identified strongly with its popular leader Gregor Robertson. It is too difficult to defeat Robertson, but after a leadership change, COPE can then run a Mayoral candidate and a slate.

Gregor Robertson’s favourability ratings have continued to decline since his election. The main reason his approval rating are not even lower is precisely that COPE has not criticized Vision strongly enough (if at all) from a progressive perspective. Vancouver is a progressive city, so without criticism from the left, Robertson’s approval ratings are artificially buoyed. People fear criticizing Robertson on account of his popularity, when in reality his popularity derives from a lack of progressive opposition from the people most familiar with the policies of Vision: COPE.

Suzanne Anton of the NPA has been a consistent critic of Robertson, creating the false impression that Vision is not a pro-developer, pro-corporate party (when in fact it is). The effect of this is that right-wing and centre-right voters will line up behind the horrible NPA this fall, giving hope to the NPA’s Rob Ford-ist dreams.

4. COPE will get wiped out if they run a slate and a Mayoral candidate.

It is important to understand that there are very few coalition scenarios whereby COPE might wield any power on Council. Vision has shown that it will not willingly work with other parties, so COPE would have influence only if Vision won a minority of seats and COPE held a balance of power. But it should be noted that if COPE holds the balance (for example, if COPE has two seats and Vision has four), the likely outcome will not be greater power for COPE so much as a new alliance between NPA and Vision, who already vote together on all major decisions. NPA and Vision are natural allies on all major issues.

In this ‘tight race’ scenario, COPE is in fact more likely to be wiped-out than to win the balance of power. On the other hand, with a full slate of strong candidates, there is no telling how many seats they might win (it all depends on the strength of the candidates). This election season, Vision has recognized the power of Vancouver’s only progressive party (COPE) by pre-empting their possible surge and giving them three candidates for Council. It is up to COPE’s membership to now agree with Vision’s analysis (but not their offer) and take the point all the way to its logical end: COPE can run independently and join the momentum of a progressive Vancouver.

COPE’s Executive announced today that it has negotiated a coalition deal whereby COPE will limit the number of council members it will run in the upcoming November 2011 municipal election in order to support Vision Vancouver. Under the proposed deal, yet to be approved by the general membership, COPE would run only three members for Council, four for the School Board and two for the Parks Board.

Leading up to the 2008 election, a similar deal was made to prevent a NPA majority. It was argued at the time that Vision, having split from COPE, shared similar principles. However, since the 2008 election the differences between the two parties have become even clearer.

Vision maintains a deceptive stance, claiming to support transparency and affordability, when in fact it does neither. Led by businessman Gregor Robertson, Vision is a pro-business party. Just last week they shifted property taxes from businesses onto residents for a third time. Vision staffers are closely connected with the BC Liberals and Christy Clark, while COPE is still a left-wing, working class party with connections to the NDP.

The coalition may have made sense in 2008, given Vision’s promises to end homelessness and increase transparency at City Hall. But Vision hasn’t delivered. There has been no new social housing built or planned. Neighbourhoods are suffering as lax zoning at City Hall leads to speculative property value increases. There was outrage last week as Vision passed a bylaw limiting public expression and shelter rights. Meanwhile, COPE has spent the past two years speaking out against Vision’s policies. The two parties couldn’t be less compatible.

Looking at voting records from the past two years, it would be more appropriate for Vision to form a coalition with the NPA. Both parties systematically eliminated most of the promised social housing from the Olympic Village and supported tax shifts from businesses to residents. They both refuse to use tools available to them to limit gentrification and skyrocketing housing costs.

Neighbourhoods across the city have been frustrated by City Hall’s current pro-developer stance, and have begun organizing against processes that put developers before people. Through this coalition deal, COPE is significantly limiting its ability to represent, and win victories for, the poor and working class in the midst of an affordability crisis.

There are more than enough votes in East Vancouver, COPE’s traditional base of support, to elect a legitimate working class party. The recent surge in popularity of the federal NDP is a sign of what’s possible when people start paying attention to politics and showing up at the polls.

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Condo marketer Bob Rennie claims to have sold 128 of 230 condo units up-for-grabs in the latest round of sales at the Olympic Village. Similar to last week’s re-launch of the The Village on False Creek, where Bob Rennie hired people to wait in line at the sales centre, Rennie’s press conference earlier today was a charade. Again this week, people were “hired by the realtor,” according to one hiree (see video here).

Rennie’s strategy was quite simple: over the past few weeks and months, he asked his speculator and real-estate agent friends how much they would be willing to pay for some units. Then, he convinced the City to let him sell-off 230 units at a discounted price to his speculator friends (who will not live in them). Then he planned to announce the sales as though these were actual families buying the units.

This ruse was the only way Bob Rennie could convince the public that the units were still viable as luxury condominiums. But the condo units, two thirds of which were promised to Vancouver’s poor as part of the Olympic housing legacy, will remain empty.

Rennie’s hope is that the hype will “lift the fog” from the “ghost town,” and that actual residents will then purchase the units now owned by Rennie’s speculator friends. Eventually, if people move into the units, Rennie can try to sell the remainder of the units not-yet on the market.

To reinforce the hype and create headlines, real-estate agents were paid to wait in line outside the sales office last week. Last week a similar attempt to use the media to draw interest in a real-estate development in Burnaby was called out.

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Real estate developers were noticeably upset when, on Jan 20, residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside scored a partial but significant victory against the City’s undemocratic condo-tower plan. Instead, the City was forced to finally allow a (potentially) resident-driven planning process for the area.

Shocked by their defeat, it took developers and their friends in the Corporate media over one week to respond to the democratic turn of events. Finally, on January 27, the Vancouver Sun editorial board published their talking points in an editorial titled Giving a lift to the Downtown Eastside: Build taller buildings. The piece is so counter-factual, misleading, and bigoted that it is worth unpacking line-by-line.

The Sun’s convoluted editorial begins by acknowledging that Vancouver needs more housing. Indeed, Vancouver needs more purpose-built social and affordable housing – but not more purpose-built luxury condos as the Sun prefers.

The Sun then asserts that because the Lower Mainland has a limited land-base, we must build higher buildings in the Downtown Eastside. But the Downtown Eastside already has a higher-than-average population density – why not build the towers in Shaughnessy instead?

The Sun then notes that there are “300 to 1,000 souls” who are homeless in the Downtown Eastside, but offers no solutions at all, nor any response to residents’ valid concern that gentrification will compromise the remaining low-income housing stock, pushing more people onto the street.

Instead of advocating a sophisticated approach to problem-solving in the Downtown Eastside, the Sun insults and stereotypes groups trying to address problems: “[The DTES] serves as the raison d’etre of swarms of social agencies, NGOs and self-proclaimed anti-poverty activists…Some activists have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. A gloomy ghetto of misery, destitution and squalor keeps them in business.”

Firstly, it is not acceptable to use language (“swarms of…”) which insinuates that community organizations are like insects. Nor is it ethical to suggest that it is a bad thing for people to form organizations to help each other out, to work for social justice, and to make their neighbourhoods better places.

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Last Thursday, grassroots pressure forced Vancouver City Council to halt plans for two condo towers, as well as halting overall plans for height upzoning in the Downtown Eastside. Over 80 speakers were signed up to speak at City Hall, most against the City’s gentrification plan. But rather than listen to the delegations, Vision Vancouver introduced a so-called “emergency” motion. The motion agreed to grassroots demands to conduct a community plan and social impact study before rezoning.

It is time to take stock of what happened that day. Or rather, the night before, at 4am!

The first thing that stands out is this: why didn’t Vision Vancouver agree to these demands last year? Or last month, when The Mainlander published the arguments clearly. Or the day before the public hearing, so that 80 people wouldn’t have to take the day off work, school and life to come all the way down to City Hall? Apparently, Vision Councilor Andrea Reimer wrote the emergency motion at “4am” the night before. What made Vision change its mind at the last minute, after literally years of pressure from grassroots low-income organizations? Was it the letter signed by dozens of professors? Was it this dialogue between Mike Harcourt and Councilor Andrea Reimer on Jan 19? Was it our pull-no-punches editorial (we wish)? Was it the prospect of having to listen to 80 public speakers?


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Mayor Robertson and his party won power on the backs of the poor, claiming to represent their aspirations and promising to “End Homelessness.” Today, Vision Vancouver is waging war on the Downtown Eastside, the last refuge for Vancouver’s low-income residents.

One might wonder at the use of a military analogy – “waging war” – but sadly Robertson’s party has employed ruthless political tactics to outmaneuver Vancouver’s most marginalized residents who, despite negligible resources, are nonetheless fighting back stronger than ever.

As we have reported previously, Vision Vancouver is moving to implement the NPA’s gentrification plan for the Downtown Eastside (deceptively called the “Historic Area Height Review”). The plan, which goes to Council for a vote this Thurs, Jan 20, calls for seven 15-storey condo towers in the Downtown Eastside. It is certain that these developments would impact surrounding property values. Low-income residents, as well as the stores, services, and amenities they use, would be displaced at a pace even greater than what is already underway, with the social and economic goal of gentrifying a low-income community by importing a new class of residents (which City Planning staff like to call “body heat“).

The Decoy

To distract the broader public from their undemocratic plan to gentrify the Downtown Eastside, the Vision-led City Council will be voting on a separate “view-corridors” proposal for towers in the central business district at the same Jan 20th meeting as the DTES plan. The City has purposefully attempted to link these very different plans in the public’s mind, with some success. The supposed link between them is the abstract notion of “height.” The two plans both deal with building heights, but will inevitably have more significant impacts on density and social demographics. Focusing on height instead of density changes the debate. This article from Sunday’s Province, for example, is stuck in the City’s frame about “height,” ignoring any question of social impact, and referring only fleetingly to the Downtown Eastside at the end of the article.

Gregor Robertson’s 2008 campaign for Mayor rode the Obama wave. At the time, however, positive comparisons between the two were decidedly false. Ironically, present criticisms of the American president apply equally to Vancouver’s Mayor.

In 2008, Obama was an eloquent and inspiring speaker, and Gregor an embarrassing one. I attended an early Robertson campaign event in the Dowtown Eastside, after which the 70-year-old woman sitting next to me remarked with conscious understatement: “not very inspiring, is he?”

Obama was a thinker — almost a pop-philosopher! And while Obama cultivated a blank-slate image onto which voters could project their hopes and dreams, Gregor could not escape the perception that the blank-slate was between his ears.

The most realistic likeness between Gregor and Obama in 2008 was that their supporters were Obama fans. These supporters longed for a politics that appealed to the best in people, a politics confident in the capacity for transformational collective action to overcome inequality, poverty, and discrimination.

In the summer of 2008, neo-liberalism had been thoroughly discredited, and voters had not yet forgotten that responsibility for the financial crisis lay squarely at the feet of right-wing policies. They voted in droves for Obama, who promised hope over fear, and for Gregor, who promised to End Homelessness by fighting day in and day out for the most marginalized in our City.

Comparisons between Obama and Gregor in 2008 were largely false. Ironically, in 2010 the comparison is far more plausible.

Marshall Ganz, who managed the grassroots component of Obama’s presidential campaign, recently published an influential article in the Los Angeles Times, outlining the reasons for Obama’s failure in his first two years. The analysis is similarly useful for evaluating Gregor Robertson.