There is a distinct smell emanating from the headquarters of Vision Vancouver and the NPA that is getting stronger as election day approaches in November.
It’s the smell of money.
Money from companies, unions and individuals whose contributions will likely give the city’s two mainstream parties about $2 million each to spend on their campaigns.
Maybe it will be more.
With no limits on donations or the amount of money a party can spend, contributors are free to empty their wallets or write big cheques in the name of civic politics.
Each party spent more than $2 million in the 2011 race and in excess of $1 million each in the 2008 campaign. Both parties surpassed the $1 million mark in 2005, too.
This time around, Vision is seeking a third majority and, if successful, will continue its reign over city hall until 2018. The NPA, meanwhile, is desperately trying to regain the power it lost in 2008.
As that battle plays out, many city hall watchers question whether multi-million dollar campaigns are truly representative of so-called democratic elections.
Ironically, the current council says they aren’t. So did the council before them and the council before them. Vision, the NPA and COPE are all on record for wanting the big money out of civic politics.
To make that happen, however, the provincial government must change the rules that apply to how civic campaigns are financed.
The minister in charge of the municipal government portfolio, Coralee Oakes, has promised some form of expense limits will be in place for the 2018 election.
So far, the government hasn’t committed to Vancouver’s wish to impose a ban on corporate and union donations or a cap on contribution amounts.
In the meantime, the money rolls in.
And as it does, there is a perception out there that politicians favour the very people who finance their campaigns. Not true, say the politicians, including Mayor Gregor Robertson.
“I don’t ask for money,” the mayor told the Courier at a Vision fundraiser earlier this year. “That process goes through the political party. Everyone gets a fair shake at council. It’s a very public process, transparent and consistent with what it’s been for many years.”
If that’s true, then what compels people to donate?
It’s a question the Courier put to three prominent businessmen and a union leader who, as individuals or through their companies and organizations, have given generously to Vision and the NPA.
At the top of the list of NPA contributors has been Robert Macdonald, the party’s former vice-president and head of Macdonald Development Corporation.
His company’s $960,000 in donations to the NPA in the 2011 campaign, which is believed to be the single biggest total contribution to a civic party in Canadian history, shocked many involved in municipal politics.
At the time, Macdonald was the party’s chief fundraiser and donated a large office space inside The Hudson building on Granville Street — one of his projects — to serve as the NPA’s headquarters.
His explanation for the $960,000 in donations is this: He committed to raise money for the party. Then a friend who runs a large company fell sick and needed Macdonald to manage his affairs. It left Macdonald little time to hound people for money.
“When you make a commitment to get a job done, you’ve got to get it done,” said Macdonald, noting his promise to the NPA’s then-mayoral candidate and longtime friend, Suzanne Anton. “We raised a lot of money from third parties in the campaign but not enough. So I wrote the cheques for the difference.”
Macdonald said he would have obviously preferred to have spent a lesser sum on the campaign. Though he is opposed to a ban on corporate and union donations, Macdonald favours some form of restraint on contributions and spending.
“I’m completely of the view that that should happen.”
Macdonald’s generosity has not solely benefited the NPA. He has given money to the campaigns of Vision Coun. Geoff Meggs (“He’s a good guy, very level-headed.”) and the late Jim Green, who was Vision’s mayoral candidate in 2005.
“I become very close with Jim,” he said. “He learned a lot from me and I did from him, too. I loved Jim Green.”
Macdonald even supported the late Harry Rankin, the longtime irascible COPE councillor, who died in 2002, and was a thorn in the NPA’s side.
“You support people that you think are good for the political process, overall. I haven’t donated to the federal NDP but I’ve certainly donated an immense amount of money to the Liberals over the years, as well as the Conservatives.”
On the question of whether there is an expectation of favours in return for a donation, Macdonald believes some of that quid pro quo occurs at city hall.
“Without question, there’s a significant amount of what I call crony capitalism going on in the City of Vancouver today,” he said. “Everybody in the development industry knows who’s getting favoured treatment.
We don’t talk about it much but it’s crystal clear and that’s the way it is.”
That said, he denies receiving preferential treatment in the years the NPA held power and said his philosophy when donating money is simply to “support the political process.”
“There’s probably nothing more important in our society than who’s running the government,” he said. “We can only support everybody in society, if we have good government.”
It’s a philosophy shared by big-time condo marketer, art enthusiast and political junkie, Bob Rennie, who earlier this year accepted the role as chairperson of the B.C. Liberals’ fundraising team.
“I believe that if you’re doing business in the city, you have to give back and you have to participate,” said Rennie, who made headlines in March for a $25,000-a-plate lunch he organized for Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver at the Hotel Georgia.
Rennie said he was disappointed by the criticism he received for hosting the lunch. He declined to reveal the number of guests or say how much money was raised.
“In any other city in the world, people would be wanting to debate policy between Vision and another party with me,” he said. “Here, they just want to pick on the act. So when people just pick on the low hanging fruit, I have no respect on where it’s coming from.”
When asked whether he thought his own $25,000 lunch donation and his work on behalf of Vision Vancouver bought influence at city hall, Rennie laughed and said, “If it was that easy to get favouritism for $25,000 ... oh my God, I could retire.”
Like Macdonald, Rennie spreads his money around the political field. In 2005, when Christy Clark challenged Sam Sullivan in an NPA mayoral race, Rennie backed Sullivan.
That same year, he donated money to Vision mayoral candidate Jim Green’s campaign and has since raised funds for Clark and the B.C. Liberals.
An Olympics booster, Rennie bought 16 full-page ads in newspapers in 2003 to urge people to vote yes in the referendum that asked residents whether they supported hosting the 2010 Winter Games.
Earlier this year, he donated $25,000 to help pay for Vision Coun. Tim Stevenson and former VANOC staffer Maureen Douglas to counter global homophobia in a mission to Sochi, Russia.
Outside of politics, Rennie donated $2 million last year to help with the construction of the $82 million Rosalie and Joseph Segal Family Health Centre at Vancouver General Hospital. He did it to honour his mother’s struggle with dementia.
A patron of the arts, Rennie also operates his own private art gallery in Chinatown and has been critical of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s need for a new, larger facility downtown.
Relentlessly outspoken on many topics, Rennie agrees Victoria has to amend the rules on how campaigns are financed and welcomes specific limits on contributions and spending. Rennie Marketing Systems donated $15,000 to Vision in the 2011 campaign.
“I think a lot of donors would love to see a cap and make sure the rules are the same for everybody,” he said.
But Rennie believes the bigger concern in civic politics is the lack of participation from the public, which is evident in the chronic low turnout of voters.
“The people that are complaining about what the Rob Macdonalds or the Bob Rennies of the world do, they should do what they can do,” he said. “We all should participate — and that doesn’t mean just giving money. It means being out there volunteering and going door to door for people who you believe in.”
Vision Vancouver’s links to wealthy businessmen such as Rennie also extends to other big players in the development industry and union circles.
That mix was on display at a party fundraiser in May.
About 500 guests, who spent $150 each on a ticket, turned up to the Coast Plaza Hotel in the West End on a warm Wednesday night to support Vision.
The mayor and Vision politicians welcomed guests in what resembled a receiving line at a wedding. A choir sang during the handshakes and hellos.
What wasn’t visible was a private cocktail reception held upstairs prior to the event for some of Vision’s regular donors.
They included Chuck Keeling of Great Canadian Casino, Concord Pacific’s Matt Meehan, Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, CUPE B.C. secretary-treasurer Paul Faoro and Jon Stovell of Reliance Properties, who had just a few days earlier donated $7 million to Emily Carr University of Art and Design to launch the institution’s capital campaign for a new campus.
The day after the fundraiser, Stovell spoke to the Courier and clarified that he doesn’t belong to any political parties. Also, he said, his company has historically donated money to both Vision and the NPA.
Financial disclosure documents filed at city hall show Reliance Properties gave $25,475 to Vision in the 2011 campaign and $10,000 to the NPA.
“We believe that across more than one party, we need good people running for municipal government,” he said, emphasizing the need to have competent politicians and bureaucrats at city hall.
With the multi-billion dollar real estate industry in Vancouver being heavily regulated, Stovell said “it’s very important that that industry be well thought of in terms of the way it’s dealt with through the regulatory process.”
He doesn’t buy the allegations that developers are in the pockets of Vision Vancouver and says “the real money” his company and others give is in the form of multi-million dollar community amenity contributions used to build community centres, parks and childcare facilities.
“The idea that the development industry is somehow calling the shots in Vancouver is preposterous,” he said. “Year in, year out, the amount of public consultation and engagement that needs to occur in development does nothing but go up, and transparency does nothing but go up.”
Like Macdonald and Rennie, Stovell believes more people should participate in local politics and stop complaining when he and others donate money.
“Whether it’s funding or volunteering or participating as a citizen in forums and the development of policy, those people should never be criticized for what they do,” said Stovell, who is a former member of the city’s development permit board and holds positions on the heritage commission and Gastown historic area advisory committee. “The people who should be questioned are the people who are opting out and then complaining about the outcome.”
Stovell wouldn’t say whether he favoured limits on campaign donations and spending. That issue, he said, is best sorted out by government.
“If government thinks that corporate and union donations should be curtailed or cut or limited, then fine we’ll just comply with whatever the will of the people is.”
Various studies and commentary over the years have concluded expensive campaigns are necessary to boost candidates’ profiles in Vancouver’s at-large electoral system.
In 2004, the report of the Vancouver Electoral Reform Commission authored by Thomas Berger recommended a ward electoral system would not only decrease the cost of campaigns but give rise to independent candidates; Vancouver hasn’t elected an independent candidate since Carole Taylor in 1988.
The thinking of Berger was that a candidate would only have to campaign in a small section, or ward, in the city and not need big money to mount a run for office. A plebiscite on a ward system in 2004 ultimately failed.
The Courier’s discussion with Stovell on the topic left him siding with the current party machine system, which he said has existed for decades at all levels of government.
“I’m not so sure that I’m interested in fragmented government just for the sake of the perception of the ability for independents to succeed, if it doesn’t result in good government,” Stovell said. “Good government is what matters in the end. Is the city well run? Is the money well spent? Are decisions made promptly and on a timely basis? Is the city healthy, financially, culturally? I don’t think there’s evidence that a whole bunch of independents is necessarily going to present a better result there.”
As a longtime union leader in Vancouver, Paul Faoro cites two main reasons why his money and that of CUPE B.C. is best spent on supporting Vision Vancouver over the NPA.
First, he points to the civic strike in 2007 that saw the city’s inside, outside and library workers on the picket lines for more than 80 days.
The NPA’s Sam Sullivan was mayor at the time and Vision Vancouver quickly dubbed the dispute “Sam’s strike,” alleging it was the politician’s refusal to bargain that prolonged the shutdown of city services.
Second, the current president of the NPA, Peter Armstrong, is also the CEO of Rocky Mountaineer Vacations and locked out 108 of his workers in a dispute in 2011. Replacement workers were hired.
The dispute lasted more than 400 days before workers accepted a three-year deal that is believed to have included a 10 per cent wage rollback.
“I don’t think CUPE members are going to want Mr. Armstrong in the third floor at city hall,” said Faoro, who last year became CUPE B.C.’s secretary-treasurer after leaving his longtime post as head of CUPE Local 15 in Vancouver. “If that’s the way he views frontline workers, locking them out in an ugly dispute...well, that sums it up right there.”
Relationships between CUPE and city hall are much better under Vision, he said, but emphasized the union’s donations have not influenced that.
“It’s not, ‘We’ll give you this money and you’ve got to do this.’ It doesn’t work like that, it’s never worked like that. It’s about investing in someone who we think is going to do the right things for the city and for public services in Vancouver.”
Vision’s pro-union stance was certainly evident in 2011 when six of its councillors sent a letter to the NPA’s Armstrong, urging him to stop using replacement workers at Rocky Mountaineer and return to the bargaining table.
CUPE B.C. donated $155,300 to Vision in the 2011 election. The union’s locals, including Vancouver locals 1004 and 15, donated a total of $89,200.
Just last week, Courier contributor Bob Mackin obtained a leaked recording of a recent meeting CUPE Local 1004 held with Vision candidates and others including COPE about funding for campaigns.
Vision Councillor Geoff Meggs, who is seeking re-election, is heard on the recording praising the union, saying “we know that without your contribution, the city would function very poorly, if at all.”
Added Meggs: “Gregor Robertson, our mayor, has again recommitted to not expand contracting out, to make sure that wherever we can bring in new processes, that members of 1004 will be there delivering those services.”
CUPE has a longtime allegiance with the provincial NDP and continues to ramp up its political action among its union locals in municipalities around the province.
Back in May, CUPE hosted what Faoro called a “political action conference” that featured keynote speaker Jeremy Bird, one of U.S. President Barack Obama’s senior campaigners.
Dubbed the “field general” by Rolling Stone magazine, Bird “shared examples of how the Obama campaigns combined ‘old school’ traditional organizing with modern technology but stressed that no technology can replace hard work and old-fashioned door-to-door campaigning,” according to a post on CUPE’s website.
Faoro doubts the provincial government will ever ban corporate and union donations from civic campaigns. He doesn’t see how it would level the playing field.
“You still have the Rob Macdonalds of the world able to write a personal cheque for one million bucks,” he said, referring to Macdonald’s $960,000 in donations to the NPA in the 2011 campaign.
Rules of the game
As long as the debate has raged in the city about campaigns being the Wild West when it comes to spending, politicians of all stripes have denied treating donors any more favourably than those who haven’t given a dime.
In fact, at a council meeting earlier this year in which Green Party Coun. Adriane Carr failed to have her colleagues buy in to a voluntary campaign limits scheme, Vision Coun. Tim Stevenson confessed, “I don’t even know what people donate.”
NPA Councillor Elizabeth Ball made the same claim, saying “most of us don’t have a clue who donated money to either our party or to ourselves because that is not interesting. What’s interesting is the work we do.”
The mayor missed that meeting but at Vision’s fundraiser in May, Robertson reiterated the need for Victoria to change rules to get big money out of civic politics.
For now, he said, Vision is playing by the current rules.
Still: Is there an expectation that if a person or business or union gives you a pile of money, that you’re going to do something for them?
“No, absolutely not.”
You’ve never had a situation like that?
The election is November 15.