‘Moonshot politics’ may help Vancouver council in next election

Vancouver council does a great job of doing a job other than its own.

The road ahead and the jurisdiction it holds do not seem interesting enough. It seeks and needs detours and diversions.

And, hate to admit: It works politically.

At times in recent years, it has filled its head with pretensions that it could end homelessness or stop an oil pipeline.

More recently it believes it is obliged to spend time and money to pursue behavioural change on environmental and human rights issues.

These seem like overreaches to me, among others, but the voters of Vancouver are mesmerized by the extraterritoriality. It makes them feel good to have politicians fighting Quebec language law or blocking national energy infrastructure, even if it’s not their business.

On Wednesday, in the latest leaving of its lane, council voted 6-5 to set aside about $700,000 in next year’s budget to support a prospective class action lawsuit against Big Oil companies and their climate damage. The encouragement for this comes from the activist West Coast Environmental Law organization.

About the only good news is that the election is in October, before the budget is approved, and the next council can overturn it. But it serves as the kind of issue that mobilizes both sides of it.

The conceit in this is that some councillors believe that Vancouver will qualify for massive restitution if the suit succeeds. They view this suit as no different than the one that clobbered Purdue Pharmaceuticals for foisting OxyContin and that provided reparations.

It’s a moonshot, but then again, this is a council all about them.

In the grand scheme of spending attached to decarbonization – about $50 million a year municipally – the dollar-a-resident set-aside doesn’t seem much. It was described at council as costing less than a cup of coffee per voter, but an opposing councillor (Sarah Kirby-Yung, who gets snappier with the one-liners every time) noted we are consuming a lot of these cups of coffee lately, when many can’t afford beans.

A much larger brew involves the city’s bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics and how to finance and stage them. There are more logistical and economic issues to settle than can be itemized in any column (basic indemnity being one). Regardless of what anyone says they will not be squared away by the October election.

But council is nevertheless not worrying about that quite yet – it loves the idea of making us feel good about pursuing the Games, even if city staff thinks we are taking the ski jump off a cliff. And making people feel good as an election approaches is good business if you’re a politician.

There is a method in this council madness that strangely works, mostly because many people neither know nor care about quibbling things like who is responsible to govern what, as if a politician anywhere ought to speak out and influence anything political.

The cliché description of this as virtue signalling doesn’t do justice, but it’s close enough. Financing fantasy lawsuits and pursuing Olympic bids without understanding liability worries not the typical voter. They’re being offered an aspirational opportunity, a sense that their city is doing something – even when it’s really affecting nothing. To those people, that still seems like a wonderful thing worth supporting, even perhaps re-electing.

Oppose those things as a politician and you are denying climate change, Indigenous business development, economic benefits, civic pride and the consequential place of Vancouver in the wider world.

All of this might be acceptable if, for instance, the streets were clean and safe, the transit system were advanced, and there was a strategy on economic development. The sort of thing that councils are paid to do. 

In politics, where most think only as far as the next election, it’s a lot easier to be on the side that votes to proceed today to make people happy and worry about how to pay the bills way later – at least, after the next vote.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.