Commentary: What’s behind the malaise with local elections in B.C.?

by Dermod Travis,

 

Taken aback by complete strangers walking up to you this summer to shake hands? Well, that’s because they’re back. Candidates on the hustings for a city hall near you.

And despite their enthusiasm, it’s not a passion shared by most voters if past elections are any indication.

Even though local governments in B.C. oversee more than $7 billion in annual spending, some communities may only see one in five voters go out and cast a ballot this November.

What does that mean in real terms? In Vancouver, it meant that less than one in five eligible voters re-elected Gregor Robertson in 2011. In Victoria, less than one in six re-elected Dean Fortin and in Nanaimo, Kamloops and Prince George less than one in seven elected their mayors. Ratios that get worse when it comes to electing councillors and school board trustees.

So what are some of the possible factors behind this malaise?

The cesspool that exists at the local level of dirty tricks, no holds barred campaign rules and backroom shenanigans might have a wee bit to do with it.

Lurking around many campaigns are the Don Segretti wannabes, Richard Nixon’s infamous dirty trickster.

Don’t like the media coverage your candidate is getting from a journalist? Then post disparaging comments about him online under his wife’s name and on his station’s website to boot, as one campaign manager did in B.C.

There was the recent kerfuffle between Vision Vancouver and the NPA over the separation of Mayor Gregor Robertson and his wife. Frankly, neither party came out of that one smelling particularly good.

Just last year, in a Globe and Mail commentary, Canadian financier and philanthropist Stephen A. Jarislowsky wrote: “We need good people to run for office but the democratic process today does not attract the best and the brightest. Many good people are deterred by attack ads that besmirch hard-earned reputations.”

And if good candidates are staying out because they’re turned-off by the tone, imagine how voters must feel?

Another factor is what Rod Tidwell screamed at Jerry Maguire in that 1996 film of the same name: “show me the money.”

There’s spending by special interest groups – real ones and those slapped together for the campaign – that candidates have to cope with. Unlike provincial elections where third parties are limited to spending no more than $3,138 in a riding and $156,895 province-wide, at the local level it’s a free-for-all.

In 2008, ‘Let’s Go Prince George’ spent $38,870 to support five candidates. That’s on top of what the candidates spent themselves. Three of the five won. The principals behind Let’s Go included prominent local developers who undoubtedly had the purest of intentions in mind. In 2011, a group calling itself ‘Four Change’ spent more than $30,000 in Kelowna to support its chosen ones. Six of their eight candidates won.

There’s no spending limits for candidates either. Maybe for 2018. It’s a complex issue we’re told.

Regina has them. A candidate running for mayor in that city can’t spend more than $62,635 or nearly $20,000 less than the $81,140 Shari Green spent to win the job in Prince George in 2011. And Regina has three times more voters than Prince George.

No cap on donations. Seventeen per cent of Green’s campaign spending was covered by cheques from the Treasure Cove Casino and its owner. Eight months later, Green and council supported the casino’s application to serve alcohol. It effectively increased the number of people who could be served on site from 250 to 1,200.

In Vancouver, so-called “condo king” Bob Rennie hosted a $25,000 a plate luncheon earlier this year for Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver.

Then there are those ‘let’s get acquainted’ meetings that countless past candidates are all too familiar with: the closed-door ones where like-minded donors exert some not-so-subtle arm twisting over future voting expectations should the candidate be lucky enough to see their name added to the group’s slate and be elected.

And there’s one last thing that may contribute to voter malaise: some people like things just the way they are. Don’t expect them to get too worked up about getting more voters out to the polls, because it’s easier to win elections with low turnouts. Don’t let them win this November.

 

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC. www.integritybc.ca

2 September 2014