The Voice/District Labour Council dichotomy and how it affects New West politics

Despite having no formal political parties in New Westminster, there is a clear schism between two opposing groups in the city: the powerful New Westminster & District Labour Council and the upstart electors’ group Voice New Westminster. Neither group defines itself as a “party” and yet the political discourse in this town is profoundly shaped by these two forces.

As a newcomer to New Westminster I found it very difficult to understand what the implications of Voice and NWDLC endorsement were, but after three years of paying closer attention I think I’m starting to get it. I’m going to share my understanding of it with the hope that it may help others to get a handle on what these organizations stand for, and I’m counting on the more politically informed readers of Tenth to the Fraser (and perhaps even some candidates themselves) to jump in and correct me if I get it wrong or fill in the gaps if I miss something important. As I said, it’s complicated and made more so by the fact that neither group is a political party, and the processes by which both groups identify who they support are pretty opaque to those of us on the outside looking in. With the caveat that all this is (perhaps needlessly) complex, and therefore I am bound to miss some nuance or another, here is how I understand the Voice/NWDLC dichotomy.

The NWDLC side of this divide is pretty straightforward: it’s a group that represents trade unions at the local level. They do not field candidates, but they do set aside a pot of money to donate to candidates who share “progressive” values (which I understand is typically left-leaning: fair wages & unions, support for underprivileged groups, environmental sustainability, and promoting inclusiveness among all members of society). Any candidate can apply for funding regardless of personal union affiliation. To be endorsed, candidates must participate in an in-depth screening process during which they are grilled on their opinions on a variety of topics that matter to the NWDLC. Candidates who have been endorsed by the NWDLC say that they are not asked to make any promises in order to secure the endorsement (which includes both a formal endorsement shared with NWDLC members and campaign funding).

New Westminster candidates who have been endorsed by the NWDLC this election include:

COUNCIL

  • Jonathan X. Cote
  • Bill Harper
  • Jaimie McEvoy
  • Lorrie Williams

SCHOOL TRUSTEE

  • Jonina Campbell
  • Michael Ewen
  • James Janzen
  • David Phelan

My understanding is that Voice New Westminster arose to try and level the playing field for candidates who don’t qualify or don’t want to seek union endorsements. Some Voice candidates are right-wingers, some feel a union endorsement would limit their independence, and some are wary of the endorsement process itself. If I were to generalize the sentiment I hear from Voice candidates, it seems that most feel that accepting union donations implies a commitment to supporting union values, and they want to feel free to vote according to their conscience. Most also seem to distrust unions and especially organized labour.

Voice is an easily misunderstood group. Although members pool funds to campaign together and often stand in active opposition to NWDLC candidates, they insist they are not a political party. They pride themselves on their independence and diversity of opinions. Until very recently, I had never heard a satisfying answer describing what Voice actually stood for. They were against the NWDLC, yet had trouble describing what did unite them as an electors’ group. Last election, this led to them being dogged by criticism that Voice was a negative party. This time around, they have taken a more positive tack.

Unlike the NWDLC, which seems pretty straightforward in terms of the criteria used to evaluate candidates (progressive values, support for unions, some NDP ties), Voice has been harder to pin down. Voice council candidate John Ashdown sent me the following text that attempts to answer that question after a discussion we had at the Queens Park Residents’ Association All-Candidates Debate. It’s the best answer I’ve seen yet describing what Voice is and is not:

Voice New Westminster stands for putting the community’s interests ahead of special interests in public affairs. That is Voice’s core platform. Voice seeks broad consensus in decision-making through honest, open consultation that results in well-informed, balanced decisions that are fair to all community stakeholders and interests.

Voice is not a political party. Voice is a civic electors group, and as such our main purpose is to bring forward and support candidates who can be counted on to always put the community’s interest first above all other interests.

Voice does not fear differences of opinion or differing viewpoints. In fact, we embrace differences and believe they are essential to open discussion, and that they form the basis upon which good decision-making takes place.

Of course, I have to wonder is what is included in “special interests” – after all, communities are made of many special interests, and one of the most important roles of our politicians is to weigh the interests of minority groups against the interests of the mainstream. Still, I can see the value of an electors group that is not aligned with organized labour, and I think it’s good to have groups that represent both sides. I can also say that there will be candidates from both Voice and NWDLC on my ballot when I vote November 19.

Voice-endorsed candidates include:

COUNCIL

  • Gavin Palmer
  • Susan Wandell
  • John Ashdown
  • David Noshad

SCHOOL TRUSTEE

  • Casey Cook
  • Jim Goring
  • Lisa Graham
  • MaryAnn Mortensen
  • Brenda McEachern Keen
Finally, there are the true independents. Some of these are former Voice folk who have chosen to return as independent candidates. Some have no affiliation past or present with either the NWDLC or Voice.  Interestingly, none of the mayoral candidates are currently endorsed by either Voice or NWDLC. The list of independent candidates includes:
MAYOR
  • James Crosty
  • Vance McFadyen
  • Francois Nantel
  • Wayne Wright
COUNCIL
  • James Bell
  • Cal Donnelly
  • Vladimir Krosnogor
  • Gerry Liu
  • Betty McIntosh
  • Paul Mulangu
  • Bob Osterman
  • Chuck Puchmayr
  • Harp Sihota
SCHOOL TRUSTEE
  • James Bell
  • James Pepa
  • Glen Richmond
Well that’s how I understand the Voice/NWDLC influence in civic politics. As I mentioned, I’m still relatively new to the local political scene and I’m still trying to get a strong grasp on who these groups are and what they do. If you feel like I’ve misunderstood something or omitted something important that might help others understand the influence of these groups on local politics, please share your insight in the comments.

Neil Powell Voices reflections on running for City Council in New Westminster

Voice New Westminster President Neil Powell (photo submitted)
Voice New Westminster President Neil Powell (photo submitted)

This is a guest post by Neil Powell, written in response to a call I put out to several politically active members in the community to share advice about running for New Westminster City Council. Neil is the current president and founding member of Voice New Westminster, which I would describe as an electors’ group that acts as the “unofficial opposition” to the District & Labour Council candidates (and aspires to turn the tables on the DLC of course!). Neil is also an active member of the McBride Sapperton  Residents’ Association. His is the first in a series of posts leading up to the next municipal election in November 2011. Those of you who are considering throwing your names in the ring may gain some insight from Neil’s experience. Watch for a follow-up post with information on the mechanics of how to run for city council, among other things. – Briana.

Making the decision to run for municipal office, be it council, school board or mayor, is not an easy decision to make.

Running a campaign, and being elected to municipal office, certainly cannot be considered a wise financial decision. It costs a fair amount of money and lots of time to run a campaign and the amount of time that those elected give to the community would certainly not equate to a very high hourly wage.

Our elected municipal officials give many hours of their time to do a job that is often not recognized or valued by the public. This is time that is taken away from family relationships. It is often also challenging for a person to juggle a career and their involvement in municipal politics. One has to balance a career and elected office as you can’t survive in this city on a councillor or school trustee’s financial remuneration. These were some of the things I, along with my family, had to consider before we made the decision that I would run for council in 2008.

Before we as a family made the decision that I would run in 2008 I also had a few good long conversations with a few elected friends, both in New Westminster and elsewhere in the Lower Mainland, who have spent some time in municipal politics. I asked them about the number of hours required per week for community meetings and how long a councillor would expect to spend at City hall on Mondays. I also asked if they thought it would be possible to balance council and family responsibilities. One of the big challenges to doing so is reading through the many reports that council are presented with prior to meetings. In order for council members to be able to make informed and wise decisions they need to familiarize themselves with a large amount of background reading material and staff reports.

The ability to make sense of such a large amount of often complex material is one of the qualities I believe one needs in order to be a good councillor. I also believe it is important to know the history of issues and to be familiar with the many issues within our city and the myriad of regional pressures we face.

In the past running a campaign in New Westminster was a little different than many other Lower Mainland municipalities in that New Westminster did not have municipal elector’s groups or slates. That is, there were no officially recognized or blatant elector’s groups. When Voice New Westminster formed the organization identified and exposed the DLC wizard behind the curtain of politics in New Westminster. Anyone who was the slightest bit politically astute had already noticed though that there was an unofficial District Labour Council (DLC) slate. The DLC funded the campaigns, often the lion’s share, of most of our successfully elected councillors and school trustees. That is not to mention the behind the scenes support they give in operating phone banks, etc.

Since its inception Voice New Westminster has valued transparency and we believe that begins with disclosing the true nature of your campaign and the agenda of your financial backers. When one looks at the diversity of Voice campaign contributions it is clear to see that our support has been wide and varied and that we have the interests of all of our community in mind.

Voice New Westminster gave the electorate another viable option. Certain councillors and trustees who had been working hard in this political climate saw the value of working as a group with other community minded individuals and chose to run as part of the Voice New Westminster team. The Voice council and trustee team recognized the importance of organizing resources so that candidates weren’t working independently to cover all of the election tasks on their own. Being able to support one another along the campaign trail is yet another advantage of being part of a slate. As the 2008 municipal election results clearly show, to be successful in New Westminster municipal politics today, one has to be part of a slate.

Voice candidates are not ideologically bound to certain ideas. We want what is best for our city and neghbourhoods and what will make us a truly “livable” city. The DLC demand things like “no contracting out” and looks out for the interests of the city and school district’s employee groups whereas Voice looks for and supports candidates that can look out for the community’s interests, including those who work for the city and school district.

Voice doesn’t direct the voting of its elected members, we entrust them to approach all questions with an open and unencumbered mind and commit to transparent, accountable public processes. Voice does not expect that everyone will always agree on issues, but we do expect that a positive way forward will be found and a consensus achieved that is broadly supported by the New Westminster public.

After spending so much personal time and finances on running a campaign what is truly discouraging is voter apathy. It is alarming, and even surprising, that given the fact that for most people their most regular interaction with government is municipal government that only 25% of eligible voters did  actually take the little amount of personal time required to vote. Perhaps apathy has been created by the traditional lack of forthrightness among candidates in the city who claim to be “independent” and the long list of candidates the voters have had to whittle through.

It is my hope that given Voice New Westminster’s open and new way of doing municipal politics in New Westminster that more people will take an interest in being part of our upcoming election and get involved in a candidate’s campaign. Most of all though I really hope that people use our democracy and VOTE.

A note on the Windsor Hotel court case

I’ve had a few people post comments about a current court case in New Westminster on unrelated posts on this blog. The City of New West is involved in a case currently before the Supreme Court of B.C. relating to the former owner of the Windsor Hotel’s unsuccessful attempts to relocate a liquor store to 12th St. a few years ago, and the commenters I mention would like us to write about it. (Note: I haven’t approved the comments, as they are off-topic, and also because I am concerned about the legal implications of some of the statements they made. )

It’s pretty unusual for us to “cover” hard news like that of a court case. We just don’t have the resources to do it justice, so we leave it to the professional journalists and those amateurs who are passionate enough about the subject to invest the time required.

The Newsleader’s Mike McQuillan is following the case, and I imagine someone from the Record will be too.

If you’re interested in a dab of speculation while following the play-by-play of the court case, I suggest you check out the blog of VOICE New Westminster, a political slate opposed to much of the current council’s policies.

Just an FYI for other readers who wish we would write about a particular issue, if you’ve got a story tip for us, please email me directly at info [at] tenthtothefraser.ca rather than leaving an off-topic comment on another post. We do read all the email we get, and we write up story tips as time allows.

If you really want to make sure your issue is written about here, the best way is to offer to write a guest post (under your real name please). Please contribute an original piece or clearly state where else the work has appeared or submitted (i.e. republished from another blog, or also sent as letters to the editor to the local papers).

If anyone wants to comment here on the Windsor case, you may, but please pay close attention to how you write it. Considered criticism is fine, but I can’t approve comments about current court proceedings that imply guilt (we are all innocent until proven guilty, right?), or that are an excuse for name-calling. I will reply privately to anyone whose comments I don’t approve so that you know why. If you use a fake email, that obviously can’t apply.

Voting is hard!

In the last federal election, Canadian voter turnout hit a record low, with just shy of 60% of the population casting a ballot on October 14, 2008. Hearing that over one-third of us chose not to exercise the right to vote is depressing … until you hear that fewer than one-third of us bothered to vote at all in the last round of civic elections in British Columbia in 2005. With 26% voter turnout, New Westminster was only slightly below the B.C. average of 30%.

This is not something to be proud of.

And yet, this year’s election, we may see even worse numbers. Few people in Canada were happy with this month’s federal election results, no matter who they voted for. The whole exercise, as Rick Mercer pointed out, was nothing but a $300M waste of time.

Says Wikipedia:

The basic formula for determining whether someone will vote is

PB + D > C[4]

Here, P is the probability that an individual’s vote will affect the outcome of an election, and B is the perceived benefit of that person’s favored political party or candidate being elected. D originally stood for democracy or civic duty, but today represents any social or personal gratification an individual gets from voting. C is the time, effort, and financial cost involved in voting. Since P is virtually zero in most elections, PB is also near zero, and D is thus the most important element in motivating people to vote. For a person to vote, these factors must outweigh C. (Emphasis mine)

Whether or not the formula above is strictly true, it sure sums up the feeling for most people.

It takes creative thinking and an Annie-like sense of optimism to believe that your individual vote will impact the outcome of an election at the best of times. When you live in B.C. and CBC literally calls the outcome of the election the minute the polls close in your province, before any ballots in your province are counted, it’s almost impossible.

Add to this a growing cynicism about the political system and the politicians in general, and you get a populace who don’t feel their vote matters and doesn’t feel there’s much benefit in choosing one person or party over another (because “they’re all crooks”). That leaves only civic duty – or in today’s context, a sense of social or personal satisfaction in voting- to get you to the polling-place.

What does all this have to do with the civic election? Well having just gone through the rigamarole of a federal election that cost millions of dollars and changed virtually nothing, what little sense of ‘duty’ that still exists today has been spent.

For conscientious voters, it also means that having done the research to pick a federal candidate, you now have to start over and select not only one favourite, but a pack of them, including mayor, councillors and school board.

The time-pressed among us simply pick a party at the federal level rather than getting to know the local candidates, but that’s often not an option at the municipal level. Here in New West, party politics are only just beginning to infiltrate the local political scene, but it’s not really clear what policies really differentiate Voice New West from the current council other than a dislike of current mayor Wayne Wright (note to Wayne: time to update your site … it’s still plugging all-candidates’ meetings from 2005!).

To paraphrase Teen Talk Barbie, “Voting is hard!” By which I mean, yes there’s some work involved, but it’s time to suck it up buttercup. Your city council is guaranteed to make decisions that will impact your quality of life, from potentially increasing property taxes to supporting community gardens, to improving parks and rec facilities and shaping the character of your neighbourhood.

Will and I will blog the information and impressions we have regarding New Westminster politics leading up to and beyond V-day. We’re trying to line up some interviews with our local candidates, and we’ll also try to dig into some of the top issues we see here in New West.

Drop us a line in the comments if you’ve got a specific question or issue you want us to tackle before the election and we’ll do our best to accommodate.

Election 2008!

It is a great time to start a blog about New Westminster. Not only have we just completed a federal election cycle (where two incumbent New Democrat MPs Peter Julian and Dawn Black were returned to Ottawa to represent their ridings) but a municipal election is at hand as well. Hope for a warm, dry day for Saturday November 14th 15th! That is our day to go to the polls. The City web-page has information here and you can find links to many of the candidates running for Mayor, council or as a school trustee in the sidebar of this site.
In keeping with this blog’s mandate to be about all things New West, I will to my best to keep the site updated, add commentary and present some of the interesting personalities and highlights of the campaign. I have emails in
now with a number of candidates asking for interviews or statements and just this weekend I kicked things off with a visit to the official campaign launch events for both Mayoral candidates.

I have to say, this might be a confusing year for some New Westminster
voters. For the first time that I know of, there will be a slate of candidates known as Voice of New Westminster running as a team against all other candidates. The Mayoral candidate for Voice, Blair Armitage is one of the founding members on the slate and the current Chair for the VANOC (2010 Olympic games) steering committee for the athletes village. On Saturday, yesterday, Voice New Westminster opened their office at the base of Belmont towers (near the Hub Barbershop, across from Starbucks). The office was busy with lots of supporters and street traffic and they were serving coffee, tea and cookies.I have not really gotten to the bottom of the reason for the slate as it has been the usual practice to run as an individual candidate in New Westminster elections. With some luc

k, I hope to have some direct information from their campaign.

Today was the opening of the campaign office for the re-election of the incumbent candidate, Mayor Wayne Wright. Their office in the 600 block of 12th st was also busy as a number of supporters shared laughs, hot-dogs, empanadas, and refreshments. Mayor since 2002 and often cited as the driving force behind “The Worlds Largest Tin Soldier” Wayne Wright shared the day with other candidates, supporters, curious citizens and other notables like members of the city’s emergency services and recently re-elected MP, Peter Julian.
From my uninformed position, the voice group does seem motivated to change the landscape of New Westminster city politics but the folks at Mayor Wright’s campaign do not lack for a positive attitude. The atmosphere at the 12th street campaign office was upbeat and festive. I expect to see a lively contest between the Armitage/voice contingent and those supporting Wayne Wright’s bid for re-election. I hope to get into this more as the campaign goes on. Check back here for updates.