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Standing out in a crowded field, what happened to Vision, and the ‘mushy middle’

George Affleck shares his insights on Vancouver's tumultuous municipal election
Photo – Cutline is George Affleck
George Affleck

In a Vancouver municipal election with few incumbents, many observers saw an opportunity for two-term councillor George Affleck to run for mayor. Instead, he’s stepping down from politics, and returning to private life. Here are his thoughts on Vancouver’s tumultuous municipal campaign.

Q: I counted 21 candidates for mayor. Depending on who you ask, “only” 6 or 8 are serious contenders. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

A: I think it’s the result of a few things. It starts with election finance reform. There’s also major dissatisfaction with Vision Vancouver, but also dissatisfaction with government in general, because we’re seeing it across the region – a lot of politicians leaving, and a lot of people thinking “hey, I could do that job.”

I guess you could argue democracy is alive and well.

Q: We’ve already seen one candidate drop out, Ian Campbell. Whatever you think of Vision Vancouver – and I know you may have some strong views here – it’s remarkable to see what was, until very recently, a well-oiled political machine fall off the rails. What happened?

A combination of things. First, time. There’s a natural cycle where all political parties come and go. Second, the decision by Gregor Robertson not to run again. Third, a bad performance in the byelection last year – they came in fifth. Fourth, again, election finance reform means the money they enjoyed before just isn’t there anymore.

And finally, they lost a lot of people in the backroom – a first wave to Justin Trudeau after the federal election, and another when the NDP won in Victoria. They lost a lot of the people who ran the machine through three elections.

Q: Right now, Kennedy Stewart is the front-runner. He doesn’t seem to have ever lived in Vancouver. Does that matter?  

Some people say he’s had a place in the West End for some time; and that he’s actually more of a Vancouverite than someone from Burnaby – I don’t know. Certainly his role has been to represent the people of Burnaby, his academic career was in Burnaby, and so he’s probably more familiar with Burnaby than Vancouver. But he saw an opportunity, and he’s looking to take advantage of it.

Q: If you’re one of the other candidates, how do you stand out in a good way? If you were advising one of them, what would you tell them?

A: It’s name recognition. When you’ve got that many people, it comes down to whether voters feel comfortable with the candidate – and if they remember their name! So it’s less about policy than a brand campaign.

Q: Speaking of branding, one of the other candidates, Hector Bremner, has said it’s not about left or right anymore. This is going to sound like a pun, but: is he right?

I hear this from his team when I talk about left and right. I don’t know whether I’d call it naïve – that’s probably too strong – because I guess it’s one way to think. But voters still think in general terms of right and left.

For example, they look at me and say “you’re right wing.” I am conservative when it comes to finances, for sure, but I don’t think of myself as “right wing,” but a centrist who seeks balance in the issues. But when I say that, they just think “you’re from the Non-Partisan Association (NPA), and they’re right wing, so...”

This Yes and No division is an interesting marketing ploy. At the end of the day, people want to be inspired. I think that’s what Hector is trying to do, but eventually people will look at his policies, and categorize them as left or right.

In Vancouver, generally you win with what I call the “mushy middle.” We’re a centrist city. There’s a base of voters on the left and right, but really it’s the people in the centre – the federal Liberals, people like that – who are the route to winning. Look at Gregor Robertson and the mayors of the past; they’re never harshly left or right. As mayor, Gordon Campbell was very centrist, bringing in environmental policies we still have today, that Vision has enhanced and grown – but these were NPA policies. It’s the same with Phillip Owen, who was an NPA mayor for 10 years. He brought in the four pillars program, and injection sites. Those are not generally considered “right wing” ideas.

Q: It’s almost a microcosm of the whole country, where you have a vocal left and a vocal right, but it’s the mushy middle that wins – or at least, tends to.

I always think of Vancouver as the epitome of Canada. There’s the left, right, and centre politically. You have social issues at the forefront, alongside a strong business environment. It’s multicultural. It’s very representative of Canada as a whole.

Q: What’s your view of so-called “fringe candidates?” Harmless diversion, necessary and healthy, or a distraction?

Sometimes fringe candidates have great ideas. They’re worth listening to. But politically, the risk is in numbers. 500 votes here, 800 votes there, 8,000 votes over there – it’s hard to get a mandate.

Last election, we had a clear winner. This time, we have anywhere between five and eight real contenders, and a lot of independent candidates, so the vote gets spread across more people. Whoever becomes mayor could potentially win by 100 votes over their nearest competitor, with 20 per cent of the vote. That’s unheard of in Vancouver, and it’s probably only going to happen once.

Q: It’s an interesting situation alongside the debate about proportional representation. It’s one thing to discuss PR for a legislature or council, but electing a mayor means electing a single person. If someone wins with 20 per cent, do they have a mandate?

In that respect, it’s very much like proportional representation. In B.C., we have a “weak mayor” system. The mayor is only one vote. He or she is the chair, but they’re just one vote.

We have a strong possibility of a mixed council, with no one party having a majority. If that happens, whether the mayor is Ken Sim, Kennedy Stewart, or Rollergirl, they’re going to have to be a consensus mayor. So it’s interesting to see Shauna Sylvester pushing the message that she can work in a consensus-style government. That might be what it will take – someone who can get every single person in the room, take their very different ideas and philosophies, and work with them.

Q: We’ve been focusing on the mayoral race, but the races for council and parks board are no less interesting. What’s your impression so far?

Historically, you ride the wave of the mayor. That’s obviously not happening this year, because it looks like an independent mayor might win. What does that mean? Does that mean a wave of independents will follow him? Or will people back a political party for council, and a different person for mayor? I don’t know.

Vancouver is very unusual in that we have party politics; most other towns don’t. Councillors from other cities look at Vancouver and see madness. They look at their role as something like a board of directors. So if no one party dominates, in some ways, Vancouver’s council will look like those of other cities across BC – a board of directors focused on overall governance, not micromanaging. It’s not supposed to be like provincial or federal government.

Q: Can you expand on that?

A: Gregor Robertson really built up the mayor’s office into a premier’s office style of governance; top-down, agenda-driven policy, focused on provincial and even national files. That’s a departure from how things traditionally operated, where mayors and councils stuck to the basic needs of a city – roads, sewers, that sort of thing. Under Gregor, focus moved away from that and onto other things. Maybe now we’ll get back to normal.

Q: Do you think this sudden influx of independent candidates is an anomaly, or the new normal?

I think it’s an anomaly. It’s going to happen once, and then the parties will re-align and come back strong.

Q: It’s early, but any predictions for the last few weeks of the campaign?

It’s going to be tough to beat Kennedy Stewart. As for the other candidates, polling for Hector Bremner has positives but also very high negatives, which is usually not a good sign. Ken Sim has yet to make a real impression, but there’s still time. He’s new to politics, so we’re watching him learn the ropes. I think Shauna Sylvester is pushing through some interesting ideas – some of which I support, believe it or not. Whether it’s enough to capture voters’ interest, I don’t know.

There’s so many people running on the right side of the spectrum, and really only two on the left. Hector Bremner disputes that categorization, and maybe he’s got a point. My impression is that younger voters aren’t very familiar with traditional parties like the NPA or COPE. If the youth vote shows up, that could make a difference.

Right now, Kennedy is the guy to beat – but he’s beatable. Someone could win with 20 per cent of the vote. And keep in mind: that’s 20 per cent of a low turnout, maybe around 30 per cent. 30,000 votes might win this.

Q: Whatever happens, I think we can agree John Horgan is not likely to cut the size of council in the next few weeks.

A: Vancouver has a very efficient council. We don’t have wards, so being an at-large councillor means having to represent the whole city. It’s a lot of work.

Q: Representing the whole city, you must have discovered so much about Vancouver you didn’t know. Was there something that surprised you?

A: What surprised me most was how angry people wanted me to get about certain hot issues; bike lanes come to mind. And while it was tempting, it’s not me. I tried to be curious George, not furious George, and focus on making the right decisions — pardon the pun.