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Vancouver by-election gives likely sign of things to come in city politics

A sign directing voters to the advance voting place for a by-election at City Hall in Vancouver on Oct. 10, 2017.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

The new four-party mix on Vancouver's school board likely is a picture of the future of city politics, several campaigners from different parties assert.

While the centre-right Non-Partisan Association is exulting in the win by its candidate, Hector Bremner, for the one seat open on council in Saturday's by-election, that likely doesn't tell the story of what would happen in a full election, they say.

Instead, the election of three trustees from the Green Party, three from Vision Vancouver, two from the NPA and one from the relatively new OneCity shows the mood, they note.

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"Voters decided to elect a balance. That is what I think is the picture. Voters are trying out new things," Green Party Leader Adriane Carr said.

No party has a majority, meaning they will need to co-operate – something that could easily happen with Vancouver city council after next October's civic election, Ms. Carr said.

"If the parties don't choose to run full slates and they get their numbers right, you could see an interesting split" of elected councillors, she said.

That would make sense, given that progressive parties got 72 per cent of the votes in the council by-election, she said.

NPA president Sarah Weddell agreed that the next council election is likely to produce a mix of parties. And OneCity co-chair Alison Atkinson said it's likely the various non-NPA parties will have discussions before the October, 2018, election to talk about what's common in their platforms. "Our bottom line is we want a progressive city council," she said.

Mr. Bremner won his council seat with only 28-per-cent support because of vote splitting among the other main parties and candidates.

But voters won't have to choose just one candidate in the 2018 civic election. Instead, they'll be voting for 10, which would mean they could choose candidates from different left or centre-left parties without splitting votes.

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The Saturday by-election has sparked discussion by the parties involved because of the startling results, even though it only attracted 48,000 voters, or just less than 11 per cent of those eligible to cast a ballot.

Diego Cardona, the 21-year-old rookie candidate for Mayor Gregor Robertson's party, came in a dismal fifth, as voters appeared to be voting for change from the near decade of Vision Vancouver rule.

It was clear going into the campaign that many residents were impatient with Vision over such issues as homelessness, escalating rents, rising house prices and more.

Instead, poverty advocate Jean Swanson outdid all the other left-wing "alternative to Vision" candidates, including strong favourite Pete Fry of the Green Party, with her simple but memorable campaign slogans calling for a rent freeze and a mansion tax.

The results leave Vision in a weak position to bargain with other parties for co-operation or a coalition or in the 2018 election – something it acknowledges it now needs to do – while emboldening those other parties to run even more aggressive campaigns next time.

"Jean coming in a close second is going to galvanize a lot of people," said Daniel Tseghay, who was on Ms. Swanson's campaign committee. "This is incredibly promising. People want really bold policies."

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He said he and others on the campaign are now pondering whether to run a team of people for the 2018 election.

Vision Vancouver co-chair Sheena Sargeant said the results sent a strong message to the party.

"It is a call for us to work very closely with other progressives," she said. "We have to look at our platforms and look at where we can work together."

Mr. Robertson issued a statement late on Saturday by e-mail, acknowledging the party's defeat.

"Vancouverites are frustrated – particularly around housing affordability – and they expect more from us," he said. "We're working hard to deliver solutions, but tonight's results show us there's much more work to do."

Vision, apparently expecting bad results, did not have a public postelection gathering or make anyone available in person on election night, unlike all the other campaigns.

For new NPA councillor Mr. Bremner, the results tell him that Vancouver is ready for a new kind of approach to housing.

"Our platform was radically different. I think our win was quite significant," he said.

Mr. Bremner had advocated for different kinds of housing to be allowed in Vancouver's single-family neighbourhoods and for a no-barrier approach to housing the homeless, so that they weren't barred from places because they have pets or use drugs.

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