AT LARGE or WARDS
Underbelly of Vancouver
WARDS or AT LARGE
At one time I was a strong supporter of Wards as I
honestly believed Wards would increase voter participation and improve neighbourhood representation. My position I believed was well thought out. This was before I witnessed the seedier side of politics and opportunistic politicians.
Now I am left with as many questions as answers
regarding Wards. I have re-viewed the governing
party COPE's position on Wards and find it sorely lacking in articulating a better deal for the citizens of Vancouver. In fact, what their brief doesn't touch on is vitally important to the Wards or Not debate and hence to the voting public.
Firstly, there has traditionally been low voter turn out in municipal elections. However, claiming that Ward elections would improve voter turn-out is a bit of a stretch. Is it that Vancouver civic elections if held on a weekday might then vastly improve voter turn-out? Most people I know are extremely busy on Saturdays. Moreover, I haven't known provincial or federal elections to occur on this busy weekend day. Would politicians dare allow voting on a Sunday? I believe a party implementing this would risk political suicide. Yet in Vancouver we are left with one option only - which is finding time in an already crammed packed Saturday of going to vote. Shouldn't we think about moving our civic election to a more accessible voting day. Voting on a weekday I believe would greatly increase voter turn-out. And it Costs nothing to do this.
Secondly, COPE takes the position that having direct neighbourhood representation ensures accountability,representation and democracy. I happen to dis-agree. How often in federal or provincial elections have we seen parachute candidates running in electoral districts in which they don't live. The parties do this obviously to ensure their star candidates have better electoral success. And that in my opinion is disrespectful of the political process. In a Ward based system, voters are allowed only to vote in their district yet their elected councilor or representative can live outside their district. Once again COPE has said nothing about this in their manifesto for Wards. Is this Fair, Just or Democratic? A few examples of candidates running in provincial ridings in which they did not originally reside were COPE'sters Jenny Kwan who did not live in Mt Pleasant and Tim Stevenson who did not live in Van-Burrard. Although these two individuals ably represented their ridings and both were extremely popular one is left wondering if this is COPE's idea of representation by districts. I must pose two simple questions. 1) Is this democracy or political opportunism. 2) Would Wards change this?
Thirdly, for COPE to purport that independent candidates would enjoy greater opportunity at electoral success in a Ward based system is misguided. We have seen in provincial and federal elections which are in fact ward electoral systems that an independent candidate has never to the best of my knowledge ever been elected. COPE can now argue Chuck Cadman, was in the most recent federal election elected as an independent. However one must factor in that he was an incumbent who already served a couple terms in office. In fact though, interestingly enough, it was in an At Large system in Vancouver that voters elected popular independent councilor Carole Taylor. Its obvious to me that Party politics and first past the post will always play a dominant role in politics. This is set up to ensure that party candidates win. Parties have the ability to raise millions of dollars and hire staff while independent candidates wouldn't have the same opportunities. And nowhere in COPE's call for wards is there discussion around spending limits or changing the first past the post winner take all system. In fact in a Ward based system, a candidate achieving the highest votes would win even though a majority of voters voted for other candidates. I pose this - is this any different then an At Large System?
Fourthly, COPE puts forward that special neighbourhood concerns would be better addressed by having their councilor elected directly through neighbourhood electoral districts. But how would COPE deal with city wide issues such as liquor Licensing, Gambling or Parks and Recreation issues? Does it think for a moment that there wouldn't be fear and hostility in council chambers resulting from a politician feeling the heat to represent their constituents who may happen to have the loudest voices. Would councilors feel the need to champion issues even if this means overriding what is in the greater public interest. Or perhaps the special interests may be a majority voting block in their area. As a matter of fact the founder of COPE, longtime and well respected councilor HARRY RANKIN despised those who put special interests before the common good. His words echo in my mind after he endorsed my independent candidacy in the 1999 civic election. He said
'Goddamit they are taking politics out of politics. Whatever happened to leadership and taking a political position in which you believed in'. And as I see it this is exactly what Wards potentially and harmfully could do. In a Ward system, taking politics out of politics and replacing it with special interests, will breed hostility and contempt. As a matter of fact I witnessed this a few years ago when a group desiring a liquor license for their community, attacked many of us who preferred a city wide strategy. In fact this group targeted a city politician, making unfounded and unsubstantiated claims that simply were not true. Because this politician had the guts to demonstrate political leadership, articulating the need to re-view and examine policy from a city wide perspective, the affronted community massacred her in public. Imagine what would have happened to this politician in a Ward campaign. It seems to me Wards has the potential to create this hostile type
of environment and this isn't a system that we should be
evolving into. Wards can create the atmosphere whereby special
interests hijack the democratic process. Councilors would become fearful and City Councils would become dysfunctional. Again, this
I don't believe for a second is what the voting public desire. Also I can foresee in a Ward based system, the impartial civil service being politicalized and this isn't acceptable. Neutrality from our Civil service is vitally important for the welfare of our city. Sadly, it appears COPE may be on a collision course with the public in this regard as it pushes to change our At Large system to Wards.
Fifthly, councilor Sam Sullivan and Commissioner Suzanne Anton of the opposition NPA have it right when they say that Wards do not necessarily reflect democracy or the people's wishes. As a matter of fact lest we not forget, a strong majority of Vancouver
voters who didn't want Slot Machines in the city had their wishes disrespected by the majority of COPE councilors who rammed through the policy of expanded gambling against the citizens' wishes. How a Ward based system could have changed this political reality is beyond me.
Finally, while I thought I would never say it, the minority opposition NPA is taking similar positions on issues of leadership and trust that the godfather of COPE Harry Rankin also espoused. And if HARRY RANKIN was still here he would be championing the rights of citizens instead of the rights of special interests.
Isn't this what COPE should also be standing for.
Jamie Lee Hamilton