Vancouver Votes for the Status Quo

The November 15, 2014, elections in the Lower Mainland provided more evidence of the high rate of incumbency in BC municipal politics: all the largest population centres voted for the status quo. Incumbents were re-elected in Vancouver (Gregor Robertson), Burnaby (Derek Corrigan), Richmond (Malcolm Brodie), North Van (Darrell Mussatto) and the Tri-Cities (Greg Moore, Mike Clay, Richard Stewart). In Surrey, Dianne Watts’ anointed successor Linda Hepner won by a surprising margin. In Langley Township, incumbent Jack Froese warded off a challenge from former mayor Rick Green. There were upset victories in more troubled municipalities: Jonathan Cote’s victory over longstanding mayor Wayne Wright in New Westminster, or the election of Randy Hawes in Mission. In both cases there were conflicts between mayors and their councils. In Abbotsford, Henry Braun ousted Bruce Banman; and in Maple Ridge Ernie Daykin lost to Nicole Read. Perhaps most surprisingly, the election of Lisa Helps—by the narrowest margin—in Victoria is a real surprise. But the main overall takeaway is that voters are happy with the status quo.

In the waning days of the campaign it looked like the Vision government might go down to defeat in Vancouver. After his political “near-death experience,” we may see a chastened Mayor Robertson attempt to be a better listener. He did promise to welcome more voices in his acceptance speech, but he also won a mandate to continue his policies: seeking to be the “greenest city,” prioritizing climate change, affordability, and homelessness. The NPA approach focused on growth, economic development, investment, transparency and accountability. It would have aligned Vancouver more closely with the ideological bent in Victoria and Ottawa. That this did not happen is a reminder that Vancouver is different, especially on the environment—something the federal parties will have to think about in 2015. The results were not what the oil and gas industry hoped for. The cities of Vancouver and Burnaby have both expressed opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, and Patricia Heintzman, the new mayor of Squamish, is opposed to the construction of an LNG plant in that municipality.

The NPA campaign was polarizing and negative. Kirk LaPointe could have run as someone who would not radically depart from the Vision agenda, but would offer more consultation and transparency, but then it would have been hard for him to differentiate himself from Gregor Robertson who already enjoyed greater name recognition and standing in the community. Instead, he ran a more polarizing campaign that highlighted differences between the candidates. Vision seemed surprised by such a strong challenge. Rather than using the negative ads to take the high road, Vision took NPA and LaPointe to court, which seemed petulant rather than politically astute. The Seinfeld-esque apology (an apology about nothing) looked insecure and…well, apologetic.  At one point, in the same debate in which the apology was offered, the mayor was put on the defensive about being a bike rider. He did not strike back over the attack ads, and did not aggressively defend his record. In the end, however, both the strength of the NPA campaign and the weakness of the mayor’s performance was not enough to convince voters to abandon the status quo. I tend not to like negative campaigns because they turnoff voters, suppress turnout, and encourage people to dislike politics and politicians. In this case, however, the NPA campaign led to a tighter-than-expected race, and this probably increased turnout. I think the high turnout may have favoured Vision, which had the better-oiled machine to pull the vote. Ironically, much of Vision’s support may have been a vote against the NPA as much as a vote of confidence in Vision.