Occupy Vancouver is giving city voters a rare opportunity: the chance to consider leadership that transcends the typical minute drudgery of municipal election campaigns.
Instead of having to try to wade through policy announcements about economic development or affordable housing, voters are now watching Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Non-Partisan Association challenger, Suzanne Anton, demonstrate their thinking on how to handle a truly messy situation.
"It's an aspect of leadership called line-drawing or boundary-setting," says Simon Fraser University management professor Mark Wexler, as he watches the two grapple with what to do about a tent encampment in the city's main downtown square that is part of a worldwide protest over economic injustice.
"That idea of line-drawing is usually an important event."
Leaders can take two stances when it comes to line-drawing, he says. They can be regulatory leaders, those who offer black-white approaches. Or they can be what Mr. Wexler calls communitarian leaders, who talk about conflict and protest as a learning opportunity.
The more perfect experiment would be to let both Mr. Robertson and Ms. Anton each have a go at dismantling the protest in his own way, with the campers split between the two of them.
Failing that, Vancouver citizens get to watch the two try their different approaches and adjust them on a daily basis as events evolve. It's a process that is derailing the Vision Vancouver plans for its campaign and giving the NPA a campaign gift wrapped with bows.
But it's also giving voters an opportunity to assess each, which might not always be to Ms. Anton's advantage.
She has opted for a get-tough approach – sort of. She's said the mayor should give a one-week ultimatum for the tents to go, demanding that "you end the structures."
But she refused consistently in a Globe editorial meeting Wednesday to say whether she would be prepared to ask police to clear out the protesters. Instead, she insists city staff are capable of going in and convincing people to pack up their tents, if the mayor would give them that direction.
She rejected the idea of having protesters charged with trespassing. "That is not the choice route."
Mr. Robertson has opted for the more patient approach – sort of.
He's also morphed his position. He started by saying the camp could stay indefinitely, as long as it was peaceful. On Tuesday, in a heated exchange with Occupy Vancouver protesters at the Vancouver Board of Trade debate, he said they have a right to protest but not to a permanent encampment.
On Wednesday, he told reporters, who only have one question about the election campaign these days, that leadership isn't necessarily about charging in.
"I think it takes just as much leadership and fibre to do the right thing here, be sensible and patient and prevent violence from afflicting our city," said Mr. Robertson, as he tried in vain to get reporters interested in his party's new policies on culture. "The decisive action is not to let this descend into violence. Councillor Anton seems intent to turn this into a violent situation. I'm not going there."
According to Vision Vancouver sources, Mr. Robertson's approach is resonating more with voters than Ms. Anton's. They say polling questions from the last couple of days show that only about 30 per cent agree with her get-tough stand and 60 per cent think she's just politicizing the whole thing for her own benefit. (The NPA says it has done no polling on the issue.)
Mr. Wexler said that, inevitably, different groups will be drawn to the different approaches used by the two leaders, and circumstances play a part.
In tough, anxious times, people are drawn to leaders who offer more black-white positions that talk about "cleaning out" interlopers. In more affluent times, leaders who use the communitarian approach are more popular.
The Nov. 19 election may not just be about choosing a mayor. It could also be an indicator of how we feel about life in general.