Vision Vancouver: Is The Party Over?

November 5, 2013

As my clock flips over to 10 one morning this fall, the phone rings, just as scheduled. "I do own a train company," Peter Armstrong acknowledges when kidded about the precision. True: almost a quarter-century ago, he created the Rocky Mountaineer luxury rail-vacation company-a move that lifted him from little-known bus-company operator into the city's power elite.

He's less quick, though, to open up about another transformation underway: that he's launched the most aggressive, well-financed campaign going to knock Vancouver's golden-boy eco-mayor off his perch next November 15. The election may still be a year away, but stories already percolate about what Armstrong and his money are up to. Strange as it seems to many around him, he's dedicating half his time and an amount of cash he won't disclose ("Why should I?") to hiring some of the most experienced hands in B.C. politics, all to take down Gregor Robertson and his merry band of bicycle-loving, climate-change-hating council.

Modesty is not Armstrong's default setting. Yet the very same six-foot-four chunk of alpha male who's visibly dominated various rooms I've seen him in over the past three years declined to meet me in person. The desire, perhaps, to have a coach in the room while test-driving what might become next November's winning message? I never get an explanation. But the result is that when the president of the Non-Partisan Association dials from his Armstrong Group offices on the 30th floor of the TD tower, I answer all of 2.836 kilometres away. I can see the dark glass of his building from the top floor of mine.

Modest again, he says he wants to give others, his team, any credit due. "I am just one of the people here. You cannot do what we want to do and field 27 candidates with just one person behind it. This is not just Peter Armstrong." Yet the reality is this man is making the effort to do what the NPA could not in 2011, even though it spent $3 million trying: win against Vision. This time, he says, "We are not going to lose."

No doubt he has the determination. But the question remains: can this captain of industry (notorious among labour unions for his two-year lockout of employees at Rocky Mountaineer), with a pronounced propensity for taking charge but only one civic campaign behind him, really win the hearts of Vancouverites? Is he able to craft the kind of message that sways this town: at once sort of left, sort of right, sort of green? Continue reading…

Challengers do have some cause for hope. Disapproval ratings for Robertson are at their highest yet, according to an online poll done in mid September by Justason Market Intelligence, the local company that has made the most energetic effort in recent times to track civic politics. Of those decided, a third say they disapprove of the job the mayor's doing, close to the same number as those who still rate him positively. Those who strongly approve have dropped from 20 percent to nine, while the number of those who strongly disapprove has climbed to 20 percent.

Such a turn is to be expected. The shine comes off any party, even the most popular, after five years in office. Barb Justason, analyzing her poll results, says they tell her that Vision is suffering some of the consequences of making big promises. The party pledged it would end street homelessness, create affordable housing, put cyclists on par with drivers, and make us the greenest city on Earth. Disappointment was inevitable. And as the Robertson team follows through on those same nirvana pledges, the expected pushback isn't helping his ratings. A bike-lane plan for the West Side that got hundreds fighting their neighbours and council this summer; tower proposals that have ignited resident opposition throughout the city; a battle over the management of community centres; ongoing losses of talented staff from an organization perceived as top-down, with a near-paranoid fixation on controlling communications; community-plan consultations that have met such fierce resistance in four neighbourhoods that council has delayed any decision-the mayor still gets more thumbs up than down but not by the healthy margins of yesteryear.

"Could Vision lose? Yes, absolutely. I think they're in trouble," says the most Cassandra-like of senior Vision insiders. "There's a ton of material Vision should be worried about. What is the narrative? A lack of leadership. ‘The city needs more than bike-lane leadership'-you could make that stick in a good campaign." Other Visioneers are more temperate. Sure, people are angry now, they say, but when that bike lane or residential tower is completed, they'll realize the sky isn't falling. Come 2014, they'll also stop comparing Vision politicians with perfection and measure them instead against real alternatives. But even the optimists concede it's going to take a smart campaign to hold on to past support. Continue reading…

The NPA is not the only group to smell blood in the water. The coming election is unusual for the number of contenders forming a year out. Every one of them, big and small, is scrambling to channel the angst that's flooding various neighbourhoods.

The Coalition of Progressive Electors, the venerable left-wing party that birthed many Vision politicians, has taken a sharp turn away from its uneasy six-year partnership with the ruling bloc. COPE, now dominated by a young and less realpolitik-minded group of activists, is today grinding away at a manifesto it feels will ignite local voters in a way Vision cannot. Strategy? Polling? Not their preoccupation. They believe they will win by outlining the problems and presenting the best solutions. "The current party is bankrolled by corporations who will not contemplate policies that reduce the cost of housing," says Tristan Markle, one of the new generation of COPE. Markle and a band of volunteers, all of them expert critics of neoliberal politics, are dedicating nights and weekends to a master plan that will turn Vancouver into a city bulging with affordable daycare, rent-controlled apartments, and new low-cost housing kept out of the hands of developers and landlords.

Meanwhile, another cell is meeting weekly across town to redraft our political future. This group hails from a different generation. It includes Bill McCreery, 71, whose political high point (to date) was being elected to park board as part of the TEAM sweep in 1972; and Jonathan Baker, an iconoclastic lawyer who served four irascible years under Gordon Campbell in the mid 1980s. Once NPA supporters, they've broken off to form a new party because, like COPE, they've decided they won't take developer (or any corporate) donations. They're no socialists, though: they won't take union money either. And they've put a $1,200 limit on individual donations-a limit unlikely to be tested anytime soon. They, too, are putting in miners' hours for the cause, working community festivals and protest rallies with their party literature, to bring voters onside.

Also swarming around the city's clusters of the disaffected: Vancouver First (at this point, largely consisting of Hillcrest Community Centre head Jesse Johl); the Cedar Party (at this point, consisting of a website, a leader named Glen Chernen, and an unnamed board of "wise elders"); Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver, which arose out of West End protests against condo towers; and the Green Party, which elected its first councillor, Adriane Carr, in 2011. All seek to tap into the pools of resentment growing around town: the anti-tower camp in Mount Pleasant; the residents of Dunbar set perpetually against anything over four storeys; the angry community-centre activists; the disgruntled home and business owners along the new bike lanes; bus riders ticked off about the new Compass card; people who hate food-scraps composting; everyone who's ever been stuck in a traffic jam… The breadth of frustration could actually work in Vision's favour. It only takes a lead of 4,000 votes to win power in this city; that difference split among such disparate opponents could make a regime change recede like the mist. Continue reading…

Peter Armstrong knows his party has to harness this brewing dissatisfaction. He's practising on me today, articulating the memes that could well take off in the coming months. "The citizens of the city feel the city is broken. They feel there is no real consultation." Another: "We don't want to have trendy policies. We want to have smart policies." A third: "The NPA we want to create is centre-based, fiscally responsible, with a heart." He also knows they have to figure out how to campaign against a ruling party that has generated the perception that it is in bed with developers, without being anti-development itself-a tricky bit of spin given the NPA's history and its demographic base. Armstrong's take? "There's going to be tough choices, but you don't just ram it down people's throats."

To refine the language, he's brought in pollster Dimitri Pantazopoulos. (He's the one who claimed to know all along how soundly the provincial Liberals would thrash the NDP.) And when it comes time to deliver those messages Armstrong's money is also paying the salaries of Kelly Reichert, former president of the BC Liberal party and lobbyist in the BC Rail deal, and Natasha Westover, former constituency assistant for Liberal heavyweight Kevin Falcon, who are working out of his offices. He's rumoured to be looking for a third person, possibly Clark campaign manager Mike McDonald (recently relocated to the city).

And of course, he is recruiting a mayoral candidate willing to take on Robertson. (Or willing to believe that Robertson might decamp to the federal Liberals, something Vision claims will never happen.) Someone with enough centrist appeal to lure back former NPA voters and federal Liberals who went to Vision. Hearsay is everywhere. Former finance minister Colin Hansen? "That's a great name. He's a great Vancouverite," says Armstrong. Rick Antonson, departing CEO of Tourism Vancouver? "I'm not sure he's ready." Armstrong himself? "No." Ian Robertson, a former NPA park commissioner who left his job with Armstrong's Rocky Mountaineer after he was relocated to Toronto? Spotted at the anti-Vision, anti-development Our Vancouver, Our Plan rally at City Hall in September, he said: "I never rule out a return to politics."

With a year to go, nothing is certain. No doubt, Vision strategists are busily at work on their own campaign, one part of which will unquestionably be a direct attack on the NPA president, who generates some unease with long-time party workers and candidates. One NPA veteran says Armstrong and his chief co-conspirator, fiercely antisocialist developer Rob Macdonald, are just not the kind to understand how to create a party inclusive of those who don't think exactly as they do. "They're not the right ones. They can't build a broad coalition." Hence people like Bill McCreery and Jesse Johl, who've gone on to start their own parties. Another insider says he's worried the NPA will make the same mistake it did in 2011, running a provincial-style campaign with policy dictated by the strategists at the top rather than the candidates in the field. But Armstrong is smart, he's organized, and he's got cash to fuel the flames of dissent already flaring around town. Now he just needs to get voters mad enough.

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.