Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.
When it comes to flushing an opportunity down the drain, the latest shining example comes from Vancouver’s venerable right-of-centre civic party, the Non-Partisan Association. After electing a near majority of five councillors in 2018 to sit on a hodgepodge council devoid of organizing logic, the NPA seemed well-positioned to win in 2022, all else being equal. Except they just can’t seem to get along.
The resignation of four socially moderate board members last week was just the latest blow for the party, which has been struggling to regain its footing since the ouster of three-term mayor Philip Owen in 2002.
Mr. Owen was a blue-blood Vancouverite, a businessman who grew up in the city’s Shaughnessy neighbourhood and once chaired St. George’s, a private boys’ school. He was far from a revolutionary, but he came to believe that Vancouver’s drug problem should be addressed as a health crisis rather than a law enforcement issue. His support for the Four Pillars approach and the city’s first supervised drug-use site proved too radical for the conservative wing of the NPA, so he was pushed out of the party.
The power struggle between social moderates and conservatives within the NPA continues to this day. Fissures at the board level have already taken a toll on this crop of the party’s elected councillors.
A little more than a year into her first term, Councillor Rebecca Bligh quit the NPA in November to sit as an independent. Ms. Bligh, who is openly queer, says she did so to register her objection to what she characterizes as a takeover of the party’s executive by newly elected board members from the far right.
The recent board defections can only mean the moderates have given up hope of gaining control. That leaves the remaining four NPA councillors essentially rudderless as they near the halfway point in this term. And who will the board back as a candidate for mayor? Ken Sim, a businessman who was the party’s mayoral candidate in 2018, and former NPA councillor George Affleck were both considering a run. But neither are social conservatives and would not see eye to eye with a board intent on taking a hard right.
As for the four NPA councillors, it would be a feat for any board, regardless of its philosophical bent, to steer them in the same direction. Voting records show they are just as likely to be at odds with each other as with their more left-leaning council colleagues. The schism is most apparent when it comes to housing development, the issue Vancouverites care about most.
Melissa De Genova, the NPA’s sole incumbent councillor, has heeded cries from young people concerned about the lack of affordable housing in Vancouver and votes in favour of most rental developments. Colleen Hardwick tends to vote against most developments, particularly if they are west of Main Street, where her interests lie. Lisa Dominato and Sarah Kirby-Yung are less predictable.
What they do tend to agree on is social issues. Not one of the four NPA councillors is a social conservative. Within months of being elected, they all voted to designate space for an opioid vending machine pilot project to provide users with a safe drug supply, hoping it would help curb overdose deaths. And last week, all but Ms. Kirby-Yung voted to ask the police to end street checks. (She did not vote because she is married to a police officer and was concerned there could be a perceived conflict of interest.) All this is to say this group of NPA councillors is not going to mesh with a socially conservative board.
So where does that leave the party? Moderate NPA supporters have foolishly allowed the party to be co-opted by social conservatives. Foolish because most Vancouverites don’t think or vote that way. If the moderates can’t regain control, get ready for a new centre-right party to rise from the ashes. Remember COPE Lite, the more centrist wing of the left-leaning Coalition of Progressive Electors that peeled off in the early 2000s? That worked out just fine. COPE Lite morphed into Vision Vancouver, which went on to a three-term majority.
There’s a lesson in that for the NPA.
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