Vancouver election: What’s the point of the NPA?

Maybe Kirk LaPointe and his team with the Non-Partisan Association are Seinfeld fans, because so far theirs has been a campaign about nothing.

The NPA, the traditional party of Vancouver’s establishment, has never looked so played out and anachronistic. They have failed to define a clear, policy-based set of alternatives to the status quo at City Hall.

Why is the NPA so listless?

The main answer is the breadth of the hegemonic coalition that Vision Vancouver has come to represent. When the founders of Vision split from the Coalition of Progressive Electors a decade ago, they managed to keep much of that progressive voting base with them, while boxing out and marginalizing COPE and other alternatives to their left. This story is pretty well known.

What’s less often observed is the way that Vision has taken over much of the NPA’s raison d’être. The NPA still describes itself as a “coalition of Liberals and Conservatives.” They were founded way back in the 1930s explicitly to block the socialists of the CCF from office. But today many Liberals feel more at home with Vision, and the NPA is no longer needed to keep the political left out of power.

Almost all the city’s big developers and much of the wealthy elite are part of Vision’s big tent – from BC Liberal stalwart and ‘Condo King’ Bob Rennie to the libertarian Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, whose $50 million compound is the most ostentatious mansion in a town filled with rich people with rooms to spare.

With Mayor Robertson serving as an attractive pitchman selling the city to tech and other new industry giants worldwide, while keeping corporate and property taxes low, what is the point of the NPA? What is left of their traditional constituency in Vancouver?

The vagueness of the NPA’s campaign this year might reflect uncertainty in its own ranks about this last question.

To their credit, the NPA realizes they can’t win by pandering to social conservatives; earlier this year, for example, they made the commendable decision to cut loose NPA School Trustees Ken Denike and Sophia Woo after they engaged in an appalling transphobic campaign against equal rights.

The NPA also seems to have toned down their opposition to expanded bike lanes and other minor reforms that Vision has made toward a more sustainable city. Gone are the shrill, negative right-wing talking points of the 2011 campaign, which infamously included a guy in a chicken suit in front of City Hall to protest Vision allowing chickens to be raised in backyards.

Kirk LaPointe, NPA candidate | Photo courtesy of Kirk LaPointe's campaign

Kirk LaPointe, NPA candidate | Photo courtesy of Kirk LaPointe’s campaign

In Kirk LaPointe, the NPA has recruited a presentable, articulate but ultimately bland candidate. With his long experience as a journalist, he’s an effective communicator, but he and the NPA just don’t seem to have much of anything to say.

LaPointe has a compelling personal story about growing up in poverty but, other than pledging to make sure school children are better fed, the NPA has had precious few specifics when it comes to how they would actually alleviate poverty or address the city’s glaring inequality.

Take LaPointe’s recent field trip to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, which the candidate blogged about last week. It almost reads like he’s visiting the neighborhood for the first time. Worse, his only proposals are to create a “DTES Czar” and to audit the service providers and government spending in the area.

The NPA’s criticisms of Vision on social housing are toothless, because their own proposals on this are paper thin, and because as a party they are also backed by the same big developers and so refuse to propose any substantive interventions in the market that would make the city more affordable. Worse, in recent years NPA councilors have actually voted against the provision of new social housing.

Finally, there is the issue of transparency, which LaPointe seems quite sincere about promoting and where Vision has clearly been lacking. LaPointe has pledged to create a new ombudsperson position and to create the “most open” civic government in the country. Here again, however, the NPA itself undermines the candidate’s credibility. After all, the NPA’s candidates were all pre-selected without a nomination race and membership vote, and the selection of LaPointe was done in secret by a handful of the party’s leadership.

Vision Vancouver, with their superior communications infrastructure, has pretty effectively defined the NPA ahead of the November election, highlighting LaPointe’s unwillingness to oppose the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion and the NPA’s poor voting record on housing.

In the end, this may be the biggest purpose the NPA still serves: as a right-wing threat that can make Vision look good in comparison. That’s why Vision will keep all its attention on the NPA, a mostly spent political force.

So while much of the media presents this election as a battle between Robertson and LaPointe, the more interesting and substantial challenge to the status quo at City Hall is coming from the left. That’s why future columns here will focus on proposals from Meena Wong and COPE, as well as One City and the Greens.

2 thoughts on “Vancouver election: What’s the point of the NPA?

  1. Kirk La Pointe is very smart. I’m probably one of the few people that watched his tv show on CBC Newsworld.

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