Thursday, April 29, 2010

The NPA AGM: My Dinner With Andre

Last night, Sally and I attended the Annual Meeting of the NPA. I am a member; but Sally isn't because she does not support the idea of 'party politics' at the municipal level. However, after last night, she is thinking of becoming a member since she discovered, along with over 100 people in a beautiful room in the Vancouver Museum, that the NPA is not a party!

That's right. Based on its founding principles, the NPA is not a the extent that a party has policies and platforms, etc. etc. Rather, it is an ASSOCIATION with the mandate (according to the NPA website):
  • To strive to improve civic government in Vancouver.
  • To support the election of the most suitable candidates for civic office.
  • To oppose the introduction of party politics into the elected boards of the city.
In other words, the role of the NPA is to recruit good candidates, regardless of any other party affiliations, and to help get them elected.

Over the years these basic themes have been expanded to include the following principles (again, according to the NPA website):

  • Municipal levels of government should act for the benefit of the people and should allow every individual the freedom of worship, assembly, opportunity and initiative.
  • Individuals have the right to enjoy the fruits of their labour, and to own private property, and individual enterprise is generally preferable to government intervention.
  • Civic progress and stability can only be achieved by upholding the law, accepting social responsibilities, and accomplishing change by intelligent planning.
  • Elected civic representatives should make decisions based on the viewpoint of many individuals and organizations, and not be under obligation to policies or platforms of political parties.
So what went wrong? As Peter Ladner articulately pointed out, this is not how most Vancouverites view the 'association'. They view the NPA as a party, a party they don't generally like....a party they have soundly rejected in two recent elections.

To be honest, I didn't fully appreciate that the NPA is not a party. While I was never told what to do or say during the last election, and often thought that I had little in common with some of the other candidates, I still came to think of the NPA as a party...a party which many people thought of as Vancouver's 'Republican Party'. I tried to deflect this criticism by suggesting that the NPA I belonged to was 'not your father's NPA", but I failed, and so did the party...or rather the association.

That's why last night's meeting was so interesting, and in many respects, so productive.

There were two motions on the floor. Both were initiated by Bill McCreery, a Vancouver architect who was part of TEAM in the early 70's, but someone who has generally been on the sidelines of Vancouver politics in recent decades. In the last year, McCreery has become increasingly concerned with the behaviour and decisions of Vision Vancouver, and the lack of action by the NPA, and decided to do something about it.

He felt the NPA needed to be renewed...or more accurately, resurrected or re-branded, in the truest sense of the word. To make this happen he suggested two things: consideration of a change in name; and the development of clear policies that would let voters know where the party stood on key issues.

McCreery's motions were apparently discussed with the NPA Executive and somewhat modified before presentation last night. However, as soon as they were presented, a series of amendments were proposed. The first ensured that the old name could remain an option; other amendments attempted to address the association's constitution. Boring?

On the contrary, the discussion was fascinating...and oftentimes illuminating. Some speakers argued that THE NPA IS NOT A PARTY...and as such cannot have policies! Others echoed Peter Ladner's position that whether we like it or not, the NPA is perceived to be a party and should therefore begin a process of community engagement, to develop policies that help define where it stands. And to help voters understand what it is, and isn't.

As I listened to the arguments on both sides, I was reminded of the movie 'My Dinner With Andre'. If you haven't seen it, the movie is essentially a discussion between two New Yorkers who offer contrary viewpoints on a variety of issues. However, each articulates his position so well it is often hard to disagree with anything either of them says. That's how I felt during much of last night's discussion. I agreed with both sides.

I liked the idea that the NPA was not a party, and therefore did not develop policies to guide the candidates. On the other hand, I agreed that no one sees the NPA that way, and so it might as well develop policies, if only to let people know we are not Vancouver's Republican Party!

In the end, the motion to consider a name change was passed, but only after it was made very clear that most people preferred to keep the old name, and redefine it, rather than change the name.

The motion to develop 'policies', which was amended to the development of 'principles' was defeated, since most people were swayed by the argument that the association (I keep wanting to call it a party!) already has guiding principles...they just need to be updated and communicated. There was also agreement that there needs to be a better program of neighbourhood and community outreach and discussion, if only to help people understand what we are, and what we're not.

While I appreciated this may all sound very dull, it wasn't. In fact, Sally and I left the meeting feeling somewhat invigorated. Unlike Groucho Marx, who once quibbed he would never join a club that would have people like him as members, I discovered I HAVE JOINED A CLUB THAT IS ALLOWED TO HAVE PEOPLE LIKE ME AS MEMBERS! We are allowed to be independent, free thinking individuals, with a variety of viewpoints that may encompass the extreme left to yes, the extreme right.

I realize this may not necessarily be a good thing. As Bill McCreery pointed out, one of the reasons that TEAM disintegrated in the 70's was its inability to accommodate people as diverse as Mike Harcourt and Jack Volrich. Now that Vision Vancouver has tried to take over the centre of the political spectrum, some people may have difficulty positioning the NPA, especially if it has no position!

But we'll see. As for me, while I am daily asked whether I will run in the next municipal election, as readers of this blog well know, I am fortunate to be involved in an interesting variety of private projects and public activities. It would be hard to give this all up. (Especially to sit in endless meetings, should I be elected.) However, I am not happy with many of the recent decisions that have been made by the current council, and worry about the economic future of the say nothing of our planning future. So we'll see.

But as for the NPA, I think many people left the meeting like Sally, encouraged by the number and quality of people who showed up, and the high level of discussion. Now the association just has to figure out how it can effectively reposition itself so that it can select good candidates for the November 2011 election, and help get them elected. It certainly has to do a better job than it did in 2008!


Brenton said...

Interesting thoughts, Michael. I would be interested to know the general demographics of the room, and how exactly the NPA crowd determine who is and isn't a suitable candidate if they aren't at all partisan and not interested in policy. I have yet to see anything that would suggest that this is true. And I would argue that big-tent parties (like Vision, the federal Liberals for years, etc) are usually more open to a variety of ideas than smaller parties such as the NPA.

Michael Geller said...

Brenton, as Frances Bula notes on her blog, there were significantly more men than women...she counted, I didn't...and there were certainly many white guys in suits. But there were also gays, orientals, browns, jews and other 'minorities'.

While there is a popular notion that the NPA is essentially a small group of blue-bloods, I think any blue-bloods were very much in the minority.

But I accept the criticism that the NPA needs to further broaden its selection of candidates if it wants to demonstrate it isn't just a centre-right party of like minded people. (Although you would probably have a difficult time finding many similarities between Sophia Woo, Sean Bickerton and me!)

Brenton said...

What do you think is the purpose of the NPA? If it's not a party of like-minded activists, is it simply a fundraising tool? I don't buy the pragmatic policy angle that is often espoused.

Why would you (and indeed why should anyone) run as an NPA candidate, if the party (group, association, whatever) doesn't stand for anything? Can you effectively sell your individual viewpoints if the question is "what would an NPA council do?"

michael geller said...

Brenton, I don't think it is correct to say the association doesn't stand for anything...the four principles set out in my post, which were set out in the earliest incorporation documents, do set out a direction that I personally subscribe to.

However, I also subscribe to the notion that city councillors and other municipal politicians should not be required to vote 'en bloc' as is the case in most parties.

As to what would an NPA Council do...I would like to think the better question is what would NPA councillors do. While I suspect we would be guided by the founding principles, I would like to think we would bring our various perspectives.

What I can say is that I would have supported the Burrard Bridge Bike Trial...I would have supported the Greenest City Task Force initiatives, provided clear performance benchmarks were put in place, but I would not have supported allocating $20,000 for a facility for abandoned chickens, and I would have sold the SEFC social housing units to generate money to be spent more effectively on social housing around the city.

Brenton said...

Fair enough, though I would argue that the four principles are sufficiently vague as to make them quite impossible to criticize.

As I wrote to Sean Bickerton on FB's blog, I don't think the Vision councillors vote together all the time. I wonder if the NPA councillors in the last administration did.

If it's just about what the individual councillors would do, I fail to see the purpose of the association. I should add that I mean this on a theoretical level; in practice it makes sense.

Brenton said...

And thank you for your prompt and thoughtful replies.

Dave Pasin said...

I read Your post with interest and found your comments interesting. With respect however,I beg to differ on a few fronts.

The NPA is indeed a de fecto party (yes its called an association lgeally)but in the eyes of the voters it exsists as a politcal party.

The NPA is a living breathing organism that like it or not has indeed formulated policy in the past ie: the ecodensity concept for one.

Like you I see the NPA as having principals that need updating to be more reflective of our current City and one of them is developing an ongoing dialogue with the voters of the City.

However, unless you get out to the coummunity and find out whats actually happening, its hard to come up with ideas or principals that voters can relate to and feel are relevant to them.

Great ideas arise out of cognitive dissonance and the NPA has a unique opportunity to make it itself relevant not only for the next election but for the foreseeable future by re-inventing itself to be more than just a nominating committee.

Michael Geller said...

Dave, I really don't disagree with anything you have written...although we could debate whether EcoDensity was really a NPA led policy, or a Sam Sullivan initiative. I spoke at the launch, and I don't recall any councillors present. For that matter, there weren't many staff present either!

As I tried to say on my blog, I can accept both positions...we are not a party; we are a party. Regardless, I do hope that come the next election, the NPA does field a variety of candidates, who can speak from a variety of perspectives...not just the 'centre-right' or right.

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