There are now 10 parties vying for seats on Vancouver City Council in the October election, and almost all of them have names few have heard of. Trying to launch or remake a brand in the city’s fractious political environment takes time and money and, because of recent restrictions on political fundraising, the new parties have neither.
The newcomers say they are left to scramble to find ways of connecting their ideas to voters while Vancouver’s traditional parties – the Non-Partisan Association and Vision Vancouver – have a head start after years of being able to spend at will.
“They have the advantage of having built a brand with millions of dollars before. I do think it is a challenge,” said Vancouver Councillor Christine Boyle, who represents the relatively new OneCity party. “I can’t see how a party now could do that more forcefully, with these new rules.”
The provincial NDP government changed the rules for civic elections as of 2018, after campaign spending in the 2014 Vancouver election had gone past $2-million each for the two leading parties – NPA and Vision Vancouver.
Corporate and union donations have been banned, donations which once accounted for much of the money raised. Individual donations have also been capped at $1,250 a person.
The change has forced all the parties to turn to the other pillars of successful campaigns to try to make a mark – strong, understandable positions on hot issues; candidates with name recognition; money-raising over years instead of just during the campaign period; and more energetic efforts to attract a large group of volunteers.
Civic parties that succeeded in breaking traditional voting patterns in Vancouver and nearby Surrey did it in the past with heavy fundraising and spending.
When the COPE party won a near-sweep of Vancouver council in 2002 for the first time in almost a half-century of existence, it was because the party went big, spending about $800,000 for that campaign – 2½ times what it had spent three years earlier.
When Vision Vancouver and Gregor Robertson emerged on the scene in 2008, the party raised more than $1-million in its successful effort to take on the then-dominant Non-Partisan Association.
Former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts also built a new party in her city through hefty donations, as much as $700,000 in at least two elections.
But this year, although Ms. Boyle gets a lot of media coverage because of her strong views on environmental, social and policing issues, she and OneCity barely register in both public and various internal party polls.
The challenge is not confined to one side of the political spectrum.
“I’ve built brands for a living and it takes time and money. To close the doors at a point in time where you’ve already created a brand awareness [for other groups] is a significant handicap for new parties,” said Bruce MacGregor, the president of the TEAM for a Livable Vancouver party.
Mr. MacGregor said civic parties in general also suffer from the handicap that donations aren’t tax deductible, as federal and provincial ones are, which pushes civic elections further down the scale of voter interest.
Although no one with any party is advocating a return to the Wild West of civic fundraising, he said even allowing for that kind of deduction would help.
“If anything, you would think you would want to do things that would enhance the interest in civic elections.”
TEAM was founded just last year by independent Councillor Colleen Hardwick, who was elected in 2018 as an NPA representative but quit the party after clashes with the board over how its mayoral candidate was chosen.
“Even though we’re all on a level playing field now, it hurts us on a relative basis because we’re starting from behind,” Mr. MacGregor said.
Civic campaigns in Canada typically generate less public interest and more public confusion than provincial or federal counterparts because the party labels don’t match those at the other levels, which makes it harder for people to figure out who to vote for. Turnout is often between 30 and 40 per cent, compared with 60 or 70 per cent at higher levels.
In B.C., the situation is particularly difficult for civic voters because councillors in this province are elected to represent the whole city, instead of one district or ward as is the case in Toronto and Calgary, among others. As a result, ballots are often lengthy. To overcome that, political groups in the larger cities have created parties in order to help voters figure out an identifiable team to select.
The ABC Vancouver party, headed by former NPA mayoral candidate Ken Sim, has been working since the last election to raise money. According to the annual reports now required of civic parties, ABC is in the best financial position, with $170,000 in assets at the end of 2021, after raising $145,000 during the year. There are no reports for earlier years, but Mr. Sim sent out a message a year ago to supporters saying he had already raised $500,000.
The money seems to be making some difference, since Mr. Sim shows up as the strongest contender in polls among those trying to challenge Mayor Kennedy Stewart for his job. As well, the party was successful in attracting three current councillors, former NPA representatives who left the party, to run with him.
In spite of that, Mr. Sim said it’s a long, tough slog to try to gain voter recognition.
“Harder? Absolutely. But you play the cards you’re dealt. And we love our chances right now. We’ve built the fastest-growing municipal party in Vancouver.”
OneCity has the next most in assets, with about $131,000 listed. Other parties, including COPE, Mr. Stewart’s new Forward Together party, the Greens and TEAM, had between $20,000 and $50,000 on hand by the end of 2021. Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini recently said he would be holding a fundraiser for Mr. Stewart’s team.
TEAM, Progress Vancouver, headed by Mark Marissen, and the NPA did not file annual reports.
But no one is counting them out. The NPA, after 70 years in existence, still has strong name recognition. Mr. Marissen is a strong advocate for more housing in the city, a position that is popular with a lot of younger people.
And political observers are seeing that Ms. Hardwick, the TEAM founder, is gaining traction because of her strong positions on housing and rapid transit that appeal to people who believe that Vancouver has been changing too fast, and for the worse.
Her opposition to the Broadway subway and to what she believes is rampant development helps her to stand out in the crowded field.
That will help, said Mr. MacGregor. “And we just have to work harder to build that brand.”