The Tuesday after thousands of Occupy Vancouver demonstrators flooded downtown Vancouver, Mayor Gregor Robertson kicked his party’s election campaign into action.
The immaculately suited Mr. Robertson, standing in front of downtown towers sparkling in the fall sunshine, announced that his Vision Vancouver party would guarantee no expansion of the downtown casino that had been proposed earlier in the year.
That launch was meant to push one of the city’s hottest buttons of the previous three years, reminding the two-thirds of Vancouver voters opposed to casinos which party was on their side.
It was exactly one month before election day. There was little attention given to the Occupy protest camp. The march itself had not generated a riot – everyone’s main fear.
That October Tuesday, there were only about 50 protest campers on the plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery. It was assumed by many that they would dribble away after a few weeks of rain and wind. Mr. Robertson had said two days earlier that the protest could stay as long as it was peaceful, a comment that no one paid much attention to at the time.
Now, after weeks of mounting public controversy and raucous debates over the camp, which at its peak grew to 170 tents and has seen an overdose, a death and a scuffle with police that had protesters biting officers, the question for many is: Why does the Vancouver Art Gallery plaza still look like a badly run refugee camp and am I going to hold the mayor responsible?
This wasn’t the plan for either party.
Vision had planned to campaign on affordable housing, homelessness and transit. The Non-Partisan Association had focused on small but emotional issues like bike lanes, chickens, rent banks for the poor, and money wasted on silly programs like growing wheat in front yards.
But an unexpected Trojan horse rolled through the gate.
“When the campaign started, the mayor was doing the classic front-runner thing of not responding,” said Simon Fraser University professor Patrick Smith. “[NPA candidate Suzanne]Anton started her campaign early enough and every few days she was trying to engage the mayor, but she was shadow-boxing.
“What Occupy Vancouver provided her was the first story that had legs to go on for many days and it was one that forced him to respond.”
Ms. Anton has now made the mayor’s failure to prevent the camp or to force it to leave within the first week a central plank in her campaign. She’s the only mayoral challenger in B.C., where civic elections are taking place province-wide on Nov. 19, to do so, even though there are similar Occupy camps in Victoria, Nanaimo, Kamloops, and Prince George.
“Yes, this is an election issue,” said Ms. Anton, in a meeting with The Globe. “His indecisiveness will hurt him.”
Mr. Robertson also acknowledges it’s going to be a ballot-box question, though he is framing it as a choice between Ms. Anton’s “cowboy diplomacy” style and his “patient” approach aimed at ending the camp without violence, while protecting freedom of speech.
“How we handle Occupy is connected to our leadership,” he said at his meeting with The Globe. “I believe it will shape some people’s decisions. There is a very clear difference in character and approach.”
Until the Occupy protest took over the campaign, Mr. Robertson and his party appeared to be doing well. In early October, a poll indicated 68 per cent of decided voters would opt for him this year.
The thinking from Mr. Robertson’s team (and many political observers) was that, given the absence of any big issues in the campaign, turnout would likely be about the same or lower – only 30 per cent of the city’s registered voters.
So if Vision could pull out its core supporters – estimated at about 50,000 – that alone would be enough to overcome the NPA’s voter base of about 30,000 to 40,000. The two parties would fight it out for the remaining 30,000-some voters who tend to swing.
Then came Occupy Vancouver, the catalyst to get more NPA voters mad enough to go to the polls, more Vision Vancouver voters confused enough to stay home, and more swing voters to swing right.
Ms. Anton didn’t jump on it right away.
Though her party issued a news release days before the Oct. 15 rally bemoaning Mr. Robertson’s lack of a plan for the day and hoping the mayor “does not allow another tent city to disrupt people’s lives for weeks,” there was no media pick-up and she didn’t press.
It wasn’t until Day 5 that Ms. Anton started to raise questions, after news reports quoted police saying they were going to blow their budget because of it.
Two days later, she began telling reporters she would shut it down. As that message resonated, the party kicked it up a notch with a news release on Day 11 laying out her plan: a seven-day ultimatum.
Around the same time, the mayor came out saying that, while the protest was acceptable, the camp was not – claiming later that that was what he’d meant from the beginning. After the death at the camp, the city moved to get an injunction to have it cleared.
Now, the Occupy Vancouver camp is the unavoidable election topic.
Polls show local people are almost evenly split on what they think of the mayor’s handling of the camp.
And they’ll have a chance to ponder it even more in the seven days until they vote.
Although the city has applied for an injunction to have the camp removed, a court decision is unlikely until after voting day Nov. 19.