Vision Vancouver’s illusionists are shortchanging democracy

Electoral Reform Protesters Outside Liberal Democrat Meeting

Vision Vancouver can always be relied-upon to see one thing with clarity: image. While I find many faults with the current city council, their skill as political illusionists never ceases to amaze and entertain. Vision’s currency with the language of façade, symbol, gesture and token won them the last election and makes them formidable adversaries even today.

The scalping of the Ridge Theatre and placement of its iconic sign atop the condos that destroyed it, the greening of the roofs of unaffordable coffin suites built atop once-affordable housing: these are the most physically obvious of Vision’s mastery of these arts. But this artistry extends far beyond the corrupt greenwashing of the assault on affordability and the arts. It is, I would argue, most impressively practiced in the field of civic democracy and public accountability.

Last year, I wrote about the sleight of hand the Robertson regime has been practicing with public consultation. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Today, I want to look at two crucial areas of public accountability and civic democracy where the grand art of illusion is being practiced at the highest level.

Have you noticed how Vision is talking a lot about public transit affordability and sabre-rattling at Translink? There is a good reason: Vision has no jurisdiction over the regional transportation authority. They can promise all the Skytrain expansion and reduced fares they want because they have no authority whatsoever over these things; as usual, Vision’s enthusiasm for reform varies inversely with their jurisdiction over said reform. The thing is: our current council could actually fund supplementary transit and improve service on its own dime now, instead of pursuing its commitment to being the city with the lowest business taxes in the hemisphere. Even Suzanne Anton promised a city-funded toy train between Coal Harbour and Yaletown. But that’s not the business of illusionists. Why fund actual extra night buses with your own money when you can promise a Broadway subway with someone else’s?

Well, the same goes for the two most important issues in accountable, democratic governance today: ending corruption in corporate donations and creating a fair voting system for Vancouverites.

Since the election of Larry Campbell in 2002, Vancouver city council has, on four occasions, passed toothless, meaningless, symbolic resolutions beseeching the provincial government to grant it the power to change the voting system and to restrict corporate political donations because the Vancouver Charter lacks crucial tools for doing the best-possible job of that. The Charter does not allow the city to outright ban corporate donations, set contribution limits or limit spending by parties. Similarly, it does not allow voters to use marks other than “x” on their ballots, putting certain excellent voting systems like Single Transferable Vote (STV) proportional representation off-limits.

This month, councillor Reimer will be taking the Vision magic province-wide by asking the Union of BC Municipalities to pass an equally toothless and unenforceable resolution on these matters. The real purpose of illusionists on Cambie Street inveighing against the inaction of Premier Clark is to conceal their own inaction, their own failure to take immediate measures that are well within their power under the current Vancouver Charter.

True, council doesn’t have the power to regulate political donations through its elections legislation but it does have sweeping authority in the issuance of development permits and business licenses. At their next meeting, council could pass a bylaw disqualifying any corporation that has donated money to any civic political party from applying for or receiving development permits. Actually, no law would even need to be passed; the Vision caucus could just decide to stop voting for permits for companies that make political donations. Similarly, the issuance and renewal of business licenses and taxi licenses could be curtailed or eliminated for companies making financial contributions to civic parties and candidates. While corporate donations would technically still be legal, we all know the Aquilini and Westbank money flowing into Vision’s coffers would dry right up.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve chosen to work with COPE. Our approach is different. We have started that change from the bottom up, by banning donations to our party by developers, a measure the Vision board could take any time it wants, with no need for permission from Christy Clark.

The same goes for electoral reform. Currently, our city’s voting system is so unfair, so non-proportional, so bad that a study by the SFU Institute for Governance Studies found that switching to first-past-the-post would make the results more proportional and fairer. After all, our city’s current system has delivered 100% of the 27 seats on Council, School Board and Parks Board to parties with as little as 43% of the popular vote. Yet we know that first-past-the-post, the system that gave Stephen Harper an absolute majority of the seats in the House of Commons with just 39% of the vote is not a fair or progressive system. It is not a proportional system, i.e. one in which every person’s vote counts equally.

That’s why Vancouver city council has been passing resolutions asking the BC Liberals to give the power to institute STV, the system groups like Fair Vote Canada and Fair Voting BC see as the best one for our city, the one that Vancouverites supported at the provincial level in the 2005 and 2009 referenda, something else Vision will be taking to the UBCM this month. But, as with spending limits, this has more to do with distracting voters from what Vision can do and isn’t doing right now.

In more than a dozen US cities, due to the persistent un- and under-representation of minority voters, the courts have ordered the implementation of proportional representation (PR). The system they have imposed on those cities hasn’t been STV, the first choice of BC’s voting reform movement. It has been Cumulative Vote (CV) a system nearly as proportional in its results and perfectly legal under the Vancouver Charter. Vision could implement proportional representation for the 2014 election by enacting CV next week. And that’s what Fair Voting BC told councillor Reimer in their annual face-to-face meeting with her this year.

Under CV, voters would still mark ten Xs on their ballots for city council as they do today. The only difference would be that they could mark more than one X next to a candidate. Voters could mark one X next to each of their favourite ten council candidates, or two next to their favourite five, or all ten next to just one. That way those holding minority views could concentrate their votes and elect a couple of candidates who shared their socialist, anti-growth or whatever persuasion. And if the results in the US are anything to go by, this would also do much to solve the shocking under-representation of South Asian people and other visible minorities on city council.

Sadly, as with street cars, night buses and corporate donations, Vision is choosing to focus its energies on buck-passing and illusionism rather than enacting reforms that are within their power to make under the laws we have right now. City council could bring in CV as the voting system for 2014 next week. Vision could also bring in STV as the voting system they will use to select their own candidates at their own nomination meeting, if they like proportional representation as much as they say. They could also choose their board members using the same system and demonstrate to Vancouverites that they are something better than masters of rhetoric and illusion. But they won’t.

Meanwhile, I’ll be going to the COPE general meeting on September 22nd to enact proportional representation for all our party’s internal elections starting with our nomination meeting next April. I hope you’ll join me there.

Stuart Parker holds a PhD from the University of Toronto and is currently working as a lecturer in the UBC Department of Geography and serving as founding president of Los Altos Institute. A longtime voting reformer, he led the YES to Proportional Representation campaign in Vancouver’s 1996 referendum on voting reform. He currently serves as the Vice President of Fair Vote Canada, and has been a director of Fair Voting BC since 1999. After his election to the COPE Executive in April, he formed the party’s Electoral Reform Committee, which is sponsoring the proportional representation resolutions the party will debate this month.