By Peter O'Neil
Ottawa - Big-city mayors such as Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson have far more clout in Ottawa than in the past and they aren’t afraid to use it.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, despite a formidable B.C. opposition in Parliament that includes 15 MPs from three parties, has to deal with what is often a more troublesome resistance movement on the West Coast — one that’s headquartered at Vancouver City Hall.
On issues as varied as oilsands pipelines and the costly new seniors’ residence in the city that got federal funding last week, the Harper government is confronted with an often-critical political machine led by Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver political party.
Like the “Ford Nation” phenomenon in Greater Toronto and the Mayor Naheed Nenshi dynamic in Calgary, Vancouver’s potent municipal political movement is a challenge that Harper and other federal political leaders have to deal with.
While in many cases federal leaders are focused on courting these emerging political forces, relationships — especially between Ottawa and Vancouver — can get downright nasty.
“The city is letting politics cloud its judgment,” said Wai Young, the Tory MP for Vancouver South who announced last week a $2.5-million federal contribution to a proposed seniors centre in Killarney.
Young, who has been in a war of words with Vancouver since the Vision-dominated city council and park board last autumn officially accused Ottawa of foot-dragging on the funding, said in an interview Friday that Robertson is putting politics ahead of the needs of her riding’s many seniors.
The level of mistrust was underscored in another way last week, after a protest stunt during Harper’s speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade.
It didn’t take long for federal Tories to connect the dots and point out that one of the two protesters who got within inches of Harper (and exposed a huge gap in Harper’s security bubble), was a colourful Robertson/Vision Vancouver supporter in the 2011 municipal election.
Comedian-activist Sean Devlin, the subject of national media profiles due to his ability to draw attention to causes, was hired by Vision to produce slick mock anti-Robertson ads in 2011 that really flattered the mayor.
He also organized a creative “time-raiser” (as opposed to fundraiser) to recruit Vision volunteers.
Vision councillor Geoff Meggs, who was in the audience when Devlin walked to the stage with the other protester before the gathering of shocked businesspeople, said any attempt to link Devlin to Vision or the mayor reflects a “neurotic conspiracy theory.”
Meggs said the Harper Conservatives should recognize that Devlin’s protest stunt, which focused on Ottawa’s inaction on climate change and Harper’s reluctance to take questions from the media or ordinary Canadians, reflect legitimate public grievances.“ His behaviour was utterly peaceful and his views are widely shared,” Meggs said. Federal finger-pointing at City Hall “misses the fact that the opposition is very broad and very deep among not just elected officials but the public in the Lower Mainland to the expansion of tanker movements and coal exports.
“If there are folks in Ottawa that think there’s somehow a conspiracy behind this they’re missing the point.”
Devlin said Friday that he has no current role with Vision, has no plans to work with the party in the November municipal elections, and that he didn’t tell anyone at Vision of his protest plans.
“They didn’t know anything about it,” Devlin said, adding it “had absolutely nothing to do with” past contract and volunteer work for Vision.
Cities and mayors weren’t always such prominent players in Canadian politics, but the global trend toward urbanization — and the increasing fiscal and political clout of cities like Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver — has changed that.
Vancouver political consultant Marcella Munro, who has worked for Vision as well as the federal and B.C. NDP, traces the evolution to actions in the 1990s by Liberal finance minister Paul Martin.
Martin, as finance minister and later prime minister, courted mayors as political allies (he named then-Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell to the Senate in 2005) and gave cities a direct share of the federal gas tax to fund infrastructure.
“That’s why you’re getting more high-profile, charismatic leaders at the city level,” she said. “A generation ago, maybe people didn’t see the mayor’s role as being that substantial.”
Now Robertson and his political allies are taking on issues like climate change, and loudly opposing the proposed Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipeline proposals that are a key part of the Harper agenda.
“Cities always had a small role in these things but now they see themselves as a force to be reckoned with,” Munro said.
University of B.C. political scientist Richard Johnston says mayors can’t go too far in playing the opposition role, since cities need to work with Ottawa to win infrastructure funding and city-friendly policies.
But he agreed that municipalities are increasingly powerful, though he noted that Robertson has less political clout than Toronto’s Rob Ford and Calgary’s Nenshi because, unlike them, he doesn’t represent the entire metropolitan area.
“In terms of delivery of services and encounters with the future of Canada — ethnic diversity and all that stuff — cities are where it’s happening,” he said.
“Finally our metro places are attaining a weight — both absolutely and relative to the rest of Canada — that the feds can’t ignore them.”
This dynamic is evident every time Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s heads west. His visits often coincide with rumours that he is trying to convince Robertson and Nenshi to switch to federal politics.
It was also apparent during the height of Ford’s recent struggles. The Harper government has long taken a hard line against illegal drugs and crime, but had to handle the situation delicately because the Tories target the same pool of voters that makes up the remarkably loyal “Ford Nation” constituency.
In the 2015 election, decisions made by voters in the many ridings surrounding downtown Toronto and Vancouver could very well determine who becomes prime minister, Johnston said.
“These are the decisive battlegrounds.”
Photo by Ruth Hartnup