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The Signal Vancouver Can Send

A municipal vote eyed by progressives across Canada.

Murray Dobbin 14 Nov

Murray Dobbin is an author, commentator and journalist. He is the author of five books and is a former columnist with Financial Post and Winnipeg Free Press. He is a board member of Canadians for Tax Fairness and on the advisory council of the Rideau Institute. He lives in Powell River, BC.

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It's easy to forget in the middle of a civic election that it isn't just Vancouverites who have a stake in the outcome. While Canadians outside BC may not exactly be watching(there are lots of politics to observe these days) they will take note of the results. That's simply because the result last time around was so extraordinary that everyone had to acknowledge the victory of progressive forces. Most of all, social activists, unionists, civic politicos and anyone who cared about the country was given a boost.

If Vancouver city council falls back into the hands of the NPA and its smug corporate politics, the reverse will be true. We will make history again. The wrong kind.

That would be unfortunate. Back-to-back victories for progressive forces in Vancouver will be an important reinforcement of what we can optimistically call a turning point away from right-wing, corporate politics and back to politics that values community. The next few years will tell if this is real or just a temporary set back for neo-liberalism.

Consider: the near victory of the NDP in BC (some think a bolder campaign would have defeated Campbell's Liberals), the inability of either the Liberals or the Conservatives at the federal level to get much more than 30 percent in popular support, the prominence of NDP leader Jack Layton, the near-certainty of another minority government after the next election, the free fall in support for the Quebec Liberals' strategy of copying Mike Harris's vicious politics, and the increasing realization that "free trade" (the centerpiece of Tory and Liberal economic policy) is an ongoing disaster. All of these developments are signs of big trouble for the corporate domination of politics in Canada.

The return of government

At the root of these encouraging developments, is a renewed attention by Canadians to just what their country stands for, particularly in comparison to what is going on south of the border. This is not narrow nationalism or US-style patriotism. As always, nationalism in English-speaking Canada is tied up with questions of tolerance, community and pride in doing things together. Organizations plumbing the depths of Canadian values suggest we are actually becoming more progressive in our attitudes and what we expect from government.

This didn't happen by accident. It is the result of years of social and political activism, fighting back against the forces of the so-called "free market" politics, the ideology that says the market is good and government bad. Suddenly, (in part due to the response to Katrina and other natural disasters) government looks pretty useful. And corporations, in contrast, begin to look like, well, corporations: ruthless, greedy, amoral and out of control.

Government is coming back into its own. For years, many have seen it as little more than a promoter for big corporations. (The disgusting decision by the BC Utilities Commission to okay the sale of Terasen to Kinder Morgan is a good example). It often feels like we are being governed by an occupying power. But the notion that we should take government back rather than write it off is gaining strength. It is ours, fought for and won by previous generations of democracy activists so the power of money could be curtailed.

'Eye on the prize'

Politics at the civic level is the last to experience this resurgence in Canada, except in BC where in the last election, a concerted effort was made to challenge the status quo in many communities. That was especially true in Vancouver, where a coincidence of factors came together to deliver the most stunning victory for local progressive forces in living memory. This time I around, I keep hearing that people aren't as "enthusiastic" about the election, that progressive voter turnout may be down.

There are unquestionably things to be disappointed about regarding the last three years of civic government, but there is an enormous amount to be proud of, particularly when you take account of the accomplishments of the COPE School Board and Parks Board. The election may not be as much fun as last time. But political change and social justice aren't forms of entertainment. A lot of poor and working people will be affected by the results of this election, for better or worse. Who amongst us wants to answer their question "How did we lose?" with "Well, I just wasn't very enthusiastic."

Let's keep our eye on the prize. Put simply: Anyone who does anything, no matter the motivation, to smooth the way for the NPA to get back into power will have to answer to themselves for the results. The NPA has on offer the same smug complacency and privileged arrogance that characterized decades of its rule. Vancouverites took away their private club and they want it back.

Behind the NPA

And as 24hours columnist Bill Tieleman revealed, the NPA team is chock-a-block with right-wing political operatives who have worked for federal Conservative leaders Stockwell Day, Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell - a fact that makes their claim to be unconnected to party politics hard to sell.

As if that isn't bad enough, the NPA's campaign communications is being managed by Wayne Hartrick, the President of Wal-Mart's slick public relations firm, Reputations Corporation. The NPA has promised to reverse City Council's decision to reject Wal-Mart's application to build a store in Vancouver. That's corruption of democracy pure and simple and a sign of what we can expect if Sullivan and the NPA win on Saturday. They plan to turn back the clock on every progressive advance the city has made in the past three years. There are a few days left to work in this election to make sure the unthinkable doesn't happen.

Murray Dobbin's 'State of the Nation' column appears twice monthly on The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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