Big developers retain control of Vancouver’s City Hall

Peter Armstrong didn’t get everything he paid for in Vancouver’s municipal election.

Armstrong, President of the Non-Partisan Association and founder of the Rocky Mountaineer, poured in $470,000 of corporate and personal money for the campaign to elect Kirk LaPointe and the NPA. LaPointe fell short of defeating Vision Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson, but the NPA took control of the Parks Board and made gains on School Board. Vision maintained a majority on City Council.

In other words, candidates backed by corporate and developer interests won most of the seats up for grabs. Big money retained control of the city.

Vancouver, and indeed municipalities across the province of B.C., remain a Wild West when it comes to election financing. There’s no limit on what parties can spend, and no restriction on developer contributions, even though the city government is responsible for land use and planning decisions.

Pre-election disclosures revealed that both Armstrong’s NPA and Vision Vancouver raised over $2 million in 2014. Both parties raised well over half of their campaign funds from corporate donors. Vision’s contributors included myriad developers like notorious “slumlord” Steven Lippman and “Condo King” Bob Rennie. Chip Wilson, the billionaire Lululemon founder and Ayn Rand fan-boy who just built himself a $50 million house in Point Grey, chipped in $37,500 of personal funds to help finance Robertson’s re-election.

It’s a blatant conflict of interest for municipal politicians to take cash from developers. Luckily, the election includes some bright spots for candidates who refuse to play this corrupt game of campaign financing.

Mayor Gregor Robertson and big money retains control of Vancouver. | Photo by Anne-Diandra Louarn

Mayor Gregor Robertson and big money retains control of Vancouver. | Photo by Anne-Diandra Louarn

Adriane Carr from the Vancouver Greens topped the polls for Council with over 70,000 votes. She actually got more votes for Council than Lapointe got for Mayor. Partly, that’s because Carr benefits from name recognition and from being palatable as an extra vote for both left- and right-wingers, but some of the appeal is also the Greens’ more grassroots approach to politics. Carr was first elected in 2011, and distinguished herself on Council by being a consistent thorn in the side of Vision, raising sharp questions about condo developments across the city. The Greens also elected two new Park commissioners, Stuart Mackinnon and Michael Wiebe, and one School Board trustee, Janet Fraser. Carr declared the four elected “the largest Green caucus in Canadian history.”

Journalist Bob MacKin did some back-of-the-napkin calculations comparing money raised with votes received: “Vision’s per voter cost on campaign to re-elect Mayor was approximately $26.95 … Adriane Carr’s campaign cost was approx. $0.80 per vote.”

The surging Greens are a political reality the city’s left-wing parties will have to consider carefully. The Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) changed the shape of this election by running a strong mayoral campaign, and Meena Wong exceeded many expectations by winning over 9 per cent of the vote despite a big last minute push by Robertson urging COPE voters to back Vision in order to block the NPA.

Despite being passed over for endorsements even by most of the city’s alternative media, two COPE Council candidates got over 30,000 votes and School Board candidate Diana Day had a respectable showing at nearly 40,000 votes. A number of other grassroots activists – like Sid Chow Tan, Lisa Barrett and Audrey Siegl – ran with COPE and added dynamism and sincerity to the campaign. The other left party, brand new One City Vancouver, focused its efforts on a sole Council candidate RJ Aquino, who put in an impressive campaign.

For all this, however, COPE and One City were shut out. Both will have to consider how to broaden their base and how to relate to the strengthened Green opposition.

If the political will is there, this disparate opposition could find a way to dislodge the two big corporate backed parties from power in Vancouver. At the very least, they should be able to find a way to force through long overdue campaign finance reform.

City Hall is one piece of real estate in this town that should no longer be up for sale.