Mayoral candidates debate against the public


Tonight’s mayoral debate on homelessness and affordable housing was a heated fight — not between the two candidates, but between the City and its residents. Mayor Gregor Robertson and mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton were supposed to face off and debate the issues, but the real debate was with the people of Vancouver.

Rather than reveal disagreements, the event brought to the fore the overlapping politics of Robertson and Anton. If before tonight there was a sense that the candidates’ two parties — Vision and the NPA — were different in their respective policy platforms, tonight’s debate showcased agreement on housing strategy: let the market do it. When asked in vague terms if the market could provide all the solutions, both candidates hesitated, and Anton frequently brought in her party’s history of buying sites throughout Vancouver for social housing — admittedly more than could be said for Vision. But on actual concrete politics, the candidates converged more than they differed. Most importantly, both candidates stressed that they do not support a speculator tax on housing and do not support inclusionary zoning in Vancouver.

Inclusionary zoning is an urban planning policy used in cities throughout the world — including Vancouver’s Oppenheimer district (“DEOD”) — mandating the inclusion of affordable housing in all new multi-unit housing developments. In exchange for pushing up property values and exposing low-income renters to evictions, developers are forced to build a percentage of new units as affordable. In Oppenheimer it’s 20%. Tonight, the question was: “Would an inclusionary zoning policy, one where you require developers to build a certain percentage of affordable units into their projects like Richmond does, be workable in Vancouver?” Gregor and Anton said categorically: no.

Gregor was referring to city staff’s current review of inclusionary zoning in the Oppenheimer district. Earlier this year head Planner Brent Toderian stated that the city will have to make “tough decisions” about inclusionary zoning in the Oppenheimer district. Tonight Gregor repeated this plan for affordability: replace affordable housing in East Vancouver with $300,000 condominiums. Like Anton, who tonight argued for a “common sense revolution” of “removing red tape” for the developers, Gregor wants further de-regulation to accompany more STIR tax breaks.

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Throughout the debate, however, dozens in attendance disagreed with Robertson and Anton, shouting slogans like, “Housing is a Human Right,” “Stop the Evictions,” “Drown Out the Developer Parties,” “Gregor Lies,” and “Three More Years of What?” A big theme of the night was the debate format itself, pitting two candidates “against” each other in a false opposition. Attendees — dozens of them from #occupyvancouver, arriving at the debate with the recent announcement that Mayor Roberston has ordered an eviction of Occupy — rejected the format of the debate, which excluded any political party or candidate not funded by developers.




Here Sean Antrim of The Mainlander interviews Sandy Garossino, who is running as an independent candidate for Vancouver City Council this November 19.

Sean Antrim: You launched your campaign in the Georgia Straight attacking the affordability crisis in Vancouver. At the Mount Pleasant all-candidates, every candidate from every political party gave lip-service to this issue. I think that everyone recognizes that there is an affordability crisis in the city. In 2008, Vision Vancouver was elected on a platform that would address housing, homelessness and the affordability crisis, but we all know they have done little to tackle the problem. How will you address this issue, and what distinguishes your platform from that of Vision Vancouver?

Sandy Garossino: Almost everyone that I have heard discuss this sees the affordability issue. I’m talking here about broadening this beyond homelessness and subsidized housing, but also market housing for the average working person. Almost everyone who talks about this, talks about it in the simple supply and demand equation, and their point is to increase supply. Because I deal with Asia, I understand capital markets in Asia, and I have dealings there, this seems to me to completely miss the true nature of the issue and the challenge that we confront. Just to give you a little bit of a background, our median income levels in Metro Vancouver place 20 out of 28 urban regions in Canada. Our median income levels for 2010 were below Sudbury, Windsor and St. John’s Newfoundland. We have the highest real estate prices in Canada, relative to median income. We have almost the highest real estate in the world. Relative to median income, we are 56% higher than New York City and 31% higher than London, so there’s clearly a serious distortion in the market. One of the first challenges we have is we don’t have the data. We don’t have information that can pin-point exactly what is going on and the extent to which capital is entering, and the extent to which that capital is non-resident, and how much that is affecting the market. We need to know a lot more than we do. But based on anecdotal information, which is turning out to be corroborated in news reports, it looks like global capital is having a massive impact.



A massive, global social movement has erupted weeks before a municipal election. Its goal is to bring light to the injustice and unsustainability of a corrupt capitalist system. In Vancouver, hundreds have taken the North grounds of the Vancouver Art Gallery, with a general message that change is needed now. But, the mayoral debate has orbited around the issue without touching it. Like the Czar on the eve of the 1917 revolution, the two most electable candidates are fighting over who is better at getting rid of the protest rather than who will better address inequality. The ballot question they want is: whose autocracy will better calm the masses. It’s almost as if they don’t understand the issue, and the polls are showing that most people are unhappy with both of them.

What has happened to make Vision sink in the polls? It’s not an NPA surge, that’s for certain.

HOUSING. The failure to address our housing crisis. In the 2008 election, Vision Vancouver won on progressive values, promising to end homelessness and implement an empty condo tax. But now, without the tax, condo prices are at historical highs, and homelessness is higher than it was three years ago (despite public relations spin to the contrary). Social housing has been sold out at the Olympic Village, and three years on the Village still has hundreds of empty units.

CORRUPTION. The corruption of developer-council collusion is only growing. The two major parties are accepting over $4 million in donations this year, much of it from developers. In the absence of a ward system, councilors answer only to the big money players and aren’t accountable to particular neighbourhoods, whether it is spot-rezonings or wholesale giveaways to developers in the form of blanket height changes.

PARTY POLITICS. The agreement with COPE has meant that instead of competing with progressives for a more equal and just City, Vision must compete with the NPA in a contest to see who can make it more unequal. Perhaps rightly thinking that they will receive the progressive votes by default, Vision challenges the NPA on the right-wing front, guaranteeing three more years of politics for the 1%.

NEO-LIBERAL POLICY. In lieu of the progressive promises of 2008, Vision is now embracing conservative ideas:



The 2011 Vancouver municipal election is in full swing. What do the candidates really think, and what can we expect of them? The Mainlander has interviewed some of the council candidates, and will be publishing a series of candidate interviews over the next few weeks. Recently, we sat down with COPE City Council candidate Tim Louis. A transcription of the interview follows.


The Mainlander: Why are you the best person for the job of City Councillor?

Tim Louis: I don’t believe there’s ever anybody who’s the best. Don’t believe that I would ever say that I am the best. I think many different people bring many different skills, positions and world-views to the table. The reason that I’m running for Council is that I believe, and always have believed, that it is very, very important that issues are framed in a way for the public to clearly understand the differences between the developers’ agenda on the one hand, and common sense on the other hand. I think in life, unfortunately, the media, the mainstream media, the corporate media, do a very poor job, in the sense that they make most issues appear to be far too complicated, and don’t leave the public with a clear understanding of what the choice really is.

ML: What would you say you would have done differently over the past three years?

TL: Without meaning for a moment, any criticism of anybody currently on Council, including my two good friends [COPE Councilors] Ellen and David, I would have clearly, and without pulling my punches, without muddying the waters, articulated the choices to be made by Council. For instance, with regards to the tax shift, from business owners to property owners, criticism was couched. Criticism of a view that we should be shifting taxes off of businesses and onto property owners, where technically the businesses pay with pre-tax dollars, taxes the property owners pay with after-tax dollars – in other words, taxes that business owners can write-off but that homeowners can never write off. I believe that that policy, of the current Council, when criticized, was criticized very tepidly, and very timidly, and not with a clear message being sent to the public. The average person, the average homeowner in this city, to this day, is unaware of the fact that tens of millions of dollars have been removed from their pockets, and put into the pockets of business owners, and business property owners.

So to come back to your question, what would I have done differently, I’d like to believe that for the six years that I was on Council, I tried very hard to present a very clear picture between what should be done on the one hand and what was being proposed to be done, by the developer Councilors on the other hand. We need to do as public officials a better job of making the choices that we are making clearly articulated to ensure that the public has a clear understanding of the choices we’re making. A clear understanding of the choices at hand.

ML: What are the top two policies you’re planning to work towards if you are elected?

TL: For me, the number one, is social housing. It is perhaps the one item that any Council has the greatest control over. Many would disagree with me and say no, social housing falls into the jurisdiction of the provincial or federal government, and it’s the one item that municipalities have the least control over, but I very vigorously disagree. There’s not a lot of good that a municipal Council can do as far as say, recalibrating income tax, which is federal, or implementing social programs, which is provincial. Most of what a municipal Council does is fairly routine, mundane stuff – getting clean water into our homes, pick up the garbage, et cetera. But as Harry Rankin, my mentor, always said, what we need to do is understand that City Councilors should be concerned with much more than dogs and garbage, and that their most powerful tool is the power they get at rezoning hearings. At rezoning hearings, Council turns dirt into gold. By way of a single motion, they literally, not figuratively, create tens of millions of dollars. As the Council, we have the authority and the ability, to make it a condition for any and all rezoning that this crisis of social housing is addressed then and there. Not in a policy document that gets cut-up outside the rezoning hearing as a meaningless set of watered down goals, but right in that rezoning hearing, that either a) or b). That a) build, in that development, a certain number of units of social housing, or b) pay a certain amount of money into a pool that the City would then use to build social housing. This City Council, as have previous City Councils, have done a wholly inadequate job of using that very powerful tool.


This weekend, Vision Vancouver declared its official kick-off of the 2011 civic election campaign. The party sent members a video of a speech by Gregor Robertson, in which he distinguished Vision from its “political opponents.” Election campaigns are in large part about strategically distinguishing oneself from opponents. In this sense, the campaign promises to be a fascinating one, given that the two parties capable of forming a majority agree on all core policy matters.

The opponent to which Robertson refered is the NPA, which he called “highly negative, well-funded.” Both the NPA and Vision are well-funded, so the remaining distinction is that the NPA is ‘negative.’ That claim may seem unfair, given that the NPA isn’t any more negative about Vision Vancouver than vice versa. In the video, Gregor’s critique of the NPA’s negativity is in fact negative.

For us the key term ‘negative’ should be replaced by ‘awkward’. The awkwardness stems from the fact that Vision has adopted the NPA’s policies and is, as a result, at a loss. When the NPA goes on the attack, too, they are found attacking their own policies. Worse, the NPA is now forced to use pseudo-progressive rhetoric when attacking Vision – rhetoric that Vision would have used in the past, but now is forced to reject. The whole game of false distinctions is awkward.

Consider the Vancouver Sun‘s first of eight civic election briefings, also published over the weekend. In the first briefing, about affordable housing, Vision councilor Geoff Meggs discussed some of the implications of the housing crisis. Indeed, when The Mainlander met with Meggs for an in depth discussion last week, he emphasized the need for consensus around recognizing and prioritizing the housing crisis. Excellent. The question remains: what are Vision and the NPA going to do about it?

The past three years of civic politics have been rich in spectacle, poor on substance. Politicians brought us the Olympic Games, hoping to cash in on Olympics-associated political capital. Then they brought us the Stanley Cup finals celebration, hoping again that street parties might translate into electoral favour. Meanwhile, our city became the most unaffordable on earth, and we even managed to fill a massive social housing project with only the fabulously well-to-do.

With the the right-wing NPA and the ‘centrist’ Vision identical on all core policy planks, these two parties are forced to highlight the most inane and trivial sideshows to distinguish themselves (bike lanes, lawns, etc.). Meanwhile, Vancouver’s working class party (COPE) has conceded the next three years to Vision-NPA rule. The established parties are avoiding all discussion of substantive issues. It appears that the coming civic elections will include many politicians but no politics. In this context of political oblivion, it is inevitable that other voices will begin to speak out. They may be unconventional, and we may not agree with all they espouse, but such is the cost when major parties impose political black-out. The Mainlander intends to highlight some of these less heard voices.

Gerry McGuire, of Vancouver Citizen’s Voice, is one of the individuals challenging the city hall scene. He has decided to run for Mayor against, among others, Gregor Robertson and Suzanne Anton. The Mainlander recently sat down with Mr. McGuire to find out why he’s running for Mayor, and why he thinks Vancouver needs a new political party.

ML: Why does Vancouver need a new political party?

GM: Because, from my viewpoint, none of them are representing the average Vancouver citizen very well.

Vision, by taking COPE in, has neutered the left, yet Vision is not a left wing party. They’re more developer friendly than the NPA would ever dare to be, which should be shocking for anybody that voted for them. You can’t stop progress, but what they’re doing is beyond the pale. They’re letting the developers run wild.

80%-90 of community amenity contributions don’t really reach the neighbourhood in the way they’re supposed to. $834,000 at Cambie and South-West Marine, for a bicycle facility. What about the kids in the neighbourhood who don’t have parks, swimming pools, libraries, community centers?



Vancouver’s two developer-funded parties, the NPA and Vision, are identical on core policy issues. Both put developers before people, and hold their breath for the market to solve our affordability and homelessness crisis. With an election on the horizon, the NPA is desperately attempting to distinguish themselves from their Vision doppelganger. In the absence of substantive differences, much is made of minor sideshows, especially environmental ones. The NPA first opposed backyard chickens, then eschewed downtown bike lanes, and recently denounced the Greenest City Neighbourhood Grants program.

But now the riot has given the NPA a new way to frame its opposition to these environmental sideshows. The NPA team is arguing that the mayor was too distracted by environmental concerns to pre-empt the Stanley Cup riot. But it is the NPA who is directing the sideshow, and it is the public who is distracted. Even with respect to the riot there is little meaningful difference between the NPA and Vision. Despite criticizing the Mayor for inviting masses of people into a confined area downtown, it was an NPA candidate who proposed the idea. He even claimed that opening up BC place stadium could be paid for through food and alcohol sales. At bottom, the NPA’s claim is that it would have implemented a different crowd management strategy involving more aggressive policing. Looking to history, we saw the results of such an approach in 1994 when riots exploded under the nose of NPA Mayor Phillip Owen: police over-reaction led to more cracked heads than windows.