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Vancouver's 'veneer-reform' government a throwback

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"Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce" - Karl Marx, in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver were thrown into power in the fall of 2008 by a populace demanding change. Robertson talked about ending homelessness, creating affordable housing, and even tackling real-estate speculation. Many residents, inspired by Barack Obama's contemporaneous campaign for President, knocked on doors for Vancouver's would-be change-maker.

But Vision-in-power has squandered its mandate for change. Vancouver's affordability crisis has deepened, so that people young and old can neither afford a mortgage nor rent. Outrageous land prices inflate costs across the board, from food to art. Meanwhile, Vision has refused to take bold action on affordability: nearly no new non-market housing has been built or planned; only token amounts of unaffordable market rental are on the agenda; the Olympic Village has been a social housing betrayal marketed by 'condo king' Bob Rennie; Council has refused to tackle speculation, while lining the pockets of speculators through massive uncontrolled upzonings; and property taxes have been repeatedly shifted from businesses to residents.

Despite these and other failures, many of us in Vancouver feel that Vision is doing a good job. And who can blame us? Vision's pro-developer 'veneer-reform' is shiny enough to appease all but the most vigilant political hacks. Fool us once, shame on the developers.

But fool us twice, shame on us.

In fact, this same brand of pro-developer 'veneer-reform' fooled Vancouver in the 1970s. In the fall of 1972, after 35 years of dominance, the NPA was swept out of power by citizen reform movements that grew out of the struggles to introduce a ward system, to save Chinatown and 'historic' Gastown, and to stop real-estate corruption on the CPR lands of False Creek, Coal harbour, and Kitsilano.

Two parties emerged from these reform movements: the left-wing Committee of Progressive Electors (COPE) and the centrist/liberal Electoral Action Movement (TEAM), and it was the latter that would win a reform mandate in the 1972 elections. But TEAM, like Vision today, failed to reform much of anything: it refused to actively support the ward referendum; it retracted its commitment to community participation and Local Area Planning; and it betrayed low-income housing promises on South False Creek, as described by Donald Gutstein in his classic 1975 book Vancouver Ltd.:

"One of the crucial issues about the [South False Creek] project was the mix of housing which would be built on the city's land. Originally there had been talk about providing housing for low-income families, those with greatest need. But these ideas gradually disappeared from the discussions between politicians and planners. TEAM argued that the land was too valuable for subsidized low-income housing, and besides that the poor do not need to live close to downtown. The outcome was a decision that only a third of the housing should be for families earning below $9,600, and two-thirds for those above."

That tragedy set the stage for today's farce on False Creek. If TEAM's betrayals mirror those of Vision Vancouver, it should not be surprising that contemporary critiques of TEAM hit home today. Gutstein might have been speaking of Vision when he wrote in 1976:

"TEAM in office has proven to be a newer version of the same old kind of city politics, pro-developer, pro-business interests, unconcerned about proper citizen representation or legitimate citizen interests. And it turns out that this new party is directly connected to the same establishment business interests which previously ruled Vancouver through the NPA."

The differences between the two were largely cosmetic, he argued:

"TEAM is a younger more vigorous and flexible group than the NPA but there is no question that TEAM represents exactly the same interests as the NPA, with two minor differences: TEAM is much more closely tied to the Liberal party; and TEAM has a preponderance of professional and middle management types, whereas the NPA executive was top-heavy with the speculators and entrepreneurs for whom the TEAM people work."

Likewise, today's Vision Vancouver is comprised of these same types, the most important of whom are also connected to the Liberal Party. Vancouver's most impressive cultural critic Stan Persky, also writing in the 70's, nicknamed TEAM's approach 'vaneer-reform':

"By 1974, as [TEAM Mayor Art] Phillips sought re-election, it had become apparent that vaneer-reform had about as much relation to reform as nostalgia has to history. Under Phillips, the proliferation of downtown towers, high-density West End high-rises, and conversions to condominiums had progressed pretty much as before. Perhaps the edges were softened somewhat by such palliatives as turning downtown Granville Street into a partial mall, continuing the refurbishment of 'historic' Gastown, and of course 'livabilizing' false creek."

It is telling that Vision has deployed the exact same three palliatives to candy-coat its NPA-lite pills.

Gutstein took his criticism of TEAM further, as we might do today: "People in Vancouver seem to feel that TEAM is doing a good job. But the reality belies that feeling. In fact, it could be argued that Vancouver's citizens would have been better off if TEAM had never been elected, and if the reactionary NPA had remained in power." Gutstein was not making the privileged argument that things must get worse before they get better. He argued that TEAM was a more effective vehicle for the development lobby. Gutstein gives the example of the struggle against the Four Season's development at the entrance to Stanley Park. During the NPA era, activists set up a large sustained tent city on the site, halting the project. But when TEAM (which had previously opposed the project) took power, opposition to the development subsided, and TEAM ran a confusing referendum which resulted in a reduced but substantial development, "something that never would have happened under the NPA," noted Gutstein.

Fast-forward to 2011 and the broad-based mobilization against the new casino adjacent BC Place. Under the NPA, the project would have surely been shot down. But Vision, abusing the good will bestowed upon its 'younger and more vigorous' Mayor, approved the new casino without hardly anyone noticing that it had done so.

It should be said that for all these reasons, and more, COPE of the 1970s wouldn't even consider forming an alliance with a party like TEAM. COPE icon Harry Rankin noted:

"Today it's hard to distinguish between TEAM and the NPA. The majority of TEAM alderman talk, think and vote like the NPA. What has happened, of course, is that TEAM has moved over to the right and climbed into bed with the NPA. For its part the NPA has happily and obligingly made room for TEAM."

It is surely time for today's COPE to speak loud and clear about the chasm between Vision's words and actions, as Rankin did about TEAM:

"TEAM's problem is that it started out in 1968 posing as a people's reform movement and has ended up, as we predicted all along it would, as a slightly more sophisticated edition of the NPA. What is confronted now is a crisis of policy. When you preach one thing and practice another, sooner or later there is a day of reckoning. That day has arrived for TEAM."

It is also time for members of Vision itself to start jumping ship, as Mike Harcourt fled from TEAM in 1976, at which time he confessed that the party was dangerously close to being "in the clutches of the landlords, real estate speculators and corporate interests in the city who want back Vancouver, their plaything, their Monopoly game."

On election night 1976, which saw TEAM's Jack Volrich become mayor, COPE's communist sage Harry Rankin, who topped the Alderman polls by a country mile, consoled his fellow COPE party members: "I've lived through famine, wars and insurrection. I guess I can live through a mayor like Volrich." And indeed we will live through Robertson and Vision, but let us work for something more in an election that remains to be fought.

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