Why Geoff Meggs Lost | ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’

This weekend NDP voters in the Vancouver-Fairview riding rejected Vision councillor Geoff Meggs as their representative in the upcoming provincial elections. The defeat of a sitting councillor represents a significant defeat for Vision Vancouver, but also a strong sign of disapproval for NDP’s leadership and union hierarchy. The party’s base of active membership has voted for George Heyman, striking down the endorsement of Meggs by the NDP-Fairview Executive, which includes CUPE’s Paul Faoro, a key player in labour’s rightward turn at the municipal level since the creation of Vision Vancouver in 2005.

Fairview is the former riding of Mayor Gregor Robertson. Due to this alone the rejection of Meggs signals a serious upset for Vision Vancouver. Fairview is a “battleground riding” in provincial politics, but also a weather-vane for the political climate of the city itself. But why exactly did members turn against Meggs?

For the past months there has been a silent conflict escalating between Meggs and the members of his riding. In October Meggs failed to show up at his own campaign event for fear of having to confront an anti-Vision protest organized outside. And at a community event on Heather Place — a social housing project in Fairview which Meggs is currently seeking to replace with expensive market rental and condos — the councillor tried to disrupt the first speaker and then stormed out of the room when the floor was not handed to him. Just a few weeks earlier, Meggs had displayed an outburst of anger against the tenants of Heather Place at a meeting between Metro Vancouver and the tenants. After saying he had “had enough” with the tenants’ “negative attitude,” he then quickly changed his tune and encouraged them to make most out of their eviction. The Mainlander reported on this strange incident:

In a dark and sobering [encounter]… Geoff Meggs recently told the tenants of Heather Place to “take some ownership for the future.” Despite the fact that their housing is slated for demolition to make way for market condos, and despite the fact that current rents will be literally doubled, Meggs urged tenants to embrace the vibrant city and make good out of a bad situation: “you have a chance, in my view, to take some ownership and direction over the future…”

All of these small confrontations are the culmination of years of struggle between residents’ organizations, housing activists and the Renters’ Union, on one side of the equation, and Meggs and the developer-backed Vision on the other — a crucial struggle to keep in mind when assessing this newest loss for Meggs and Vision.

Some have tried to represent Heyman’s win as a victory for “the common man” (citing his former role as president of the B.C Government and Service Employees’ Union) while others have tried to represent the difference between Meggs and Heyman as hinging on environmental issues (citing Heyman’s current role as Sierra Club Executive Director). While both are partly true, the Fairview result is best understood as a rejection of the politics of Geoff Meggs more than a vote of enthusiasm for George Heyman. Before discussing the differences and similarities between Geoff Meggs and George Heyman, it serves to look back on some of the flashpoints in the career of Meggs over the course of the past four years.

Vision Vancouver: A Brief History of Councillor Meggs

Since being elected in 2008, Meggs has consistently voted to decrease the business tax rate in Vancouver, to the abysmal degree that our city now has the second-lowest corporate tax rate in the world. For two years, between 2010-11, the Vision tax shift and other tax cuts helped bring Vancouver’s corporate taxes down to the lowest globally, according to the international accounting firm KPMG. It was a significant moment for NDP members when, during the debate against Heyman, Meggs wavered in response to the simple question: “will you raise income taxes.” Meggs said he wasn’t sure and “who knows,” consistent with the NDP’s provincial strategy of running from the right and beating the BC Liberals at their own game.

Meggs also used the nomination debate to bring his staunchly pro-business stance over to the question of housing, arguing that Rich Coleman and the BC Liberals have spent “a lot of money on housing.” He forgot to mention Coleman’s fourteen sites are a half-decade behind schedule and come after a ten-year freeze on the construction of housing. Despite this myth of the fourteen sites, Meggs and Mayor Robertson have consistently praised the BC Liberals for their housing policy, even endorsing Rich Coleman’s leadership bid for the BC Liberal Party.[1] It is significant that Heyman did not see this as a wedge issue in the debate. Notwithstanding Heyman’s sharp critique of Meggs’ decision to demolish Heather Place, there is therefore some truth contained in the claim that the two candidates agreed on housing policy.[2] According to Heyman, Meggs is a “fantastic representative for people in the city of Vancouver” — but from the standpoint of renters and low-income families in gentrifying Fairview, no representative could be worse or more wrong.

Perhaps the low-point under Meggs’ portfolio was the Olympic Village. In her book on disaster capitalism, Naomi Klein wrote on the gains made by neoliberal governments at times of instability and financial crisis. When Vancouver’s Olympic Village project entered financial tumult post-2008, Meggs and Vision Vancouver (in collaboration with the NPA) used fear to win the public over to an austerity agenda, declaring “the worst financial setback in [our] history.” Vancouverites were told that social housing at the Olympic Village needed to be cut in half in order to save the drowning taxpayer. In reality the cuts were to save the greedy developer, hitched on to a massive $100m bailout for Millenium and the Malek brothers. Some estimates put the bailout as high as $400m, and today the developer is as active as ever with a new development on East Hastings. Now the few remaining units of social housing are at risk due to excessive fees and private utility costs. Earlier this year Green councillor Adrianne Carr put forward a motion to subsidize tenants at the Olympic Village who are being double billed for their utilities in suites that are supposed to be affordable. Gregor Robertson responded that the social housing was not the responsibility of the city, and Geoff Meggs said that the residents have to pay their own bills. Now the tenants are facing eviction.

Unfortunately the list goes on and on. It is difficult to forget Meggs on CKNW recently, defending a $35m tax cut for the Aquilini Financial Group as part of the city’s Housing and Homelessness Strategy. It was equally painful to see Meggs argue against social housing on city-owned land in Strathcona, above the new library. “Geoff Meggs argued passionately,” The Mainlander reported, “that it was so urgent to begin building the library that we could not wait even a few more months to secure funding for social housing.”As though to foreshadow the Fairview loss, Meggs and Robertson lost that fight because low-income groups fought militantly, and with a conviction of social justice that Meggs denounced. (That didn’t prevent Meggs and Robertson from later taking credit for the results of the residents’ fight).

Fairview residents watched the actions of Geoff Meggs and didn’t agree with them — especially those residents most directly affected, like the tenants at Heather Place. We are living in different times relative to even one year ago. Although Meggs was instrumental in shutting down the Occupy encampment, the spirit of Occupy and the organized resistance to the “politics of the 1%” has now come to put a shovel in the grave of Meggs’ provincial aspirations for a cabinet seat. His supporters will continue to dominate the leadership of the large unions, his wife will continue to be secretary of the provincial NDP, but Geoff Meggs will be forced to stay on city council and hear a growing clamor against the results of his own involvement in the city of Vancouver: unlimited wealth, absurd privilege, and growing inequality.


Photo Courtesy of City Hall Watch

[1] Mike Howell, “Mayor, housing minister build tight bond,” The Vancouver Courier, June 10, 2010; Jonathan Ross, “Tim Louis prefers empty promises,” civicscene.ca, December 9, 2010

[2] Heyman attacked Meggs once in the nomination debate, during the final question of the night: “Could the candidates please outline their respective positions on the unjust demolition of Heather Place?” Some Heather Place residents seem to have taken notice, according to a comment from “The Committee of the 86” below this article.