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Vision, NPA in free-for-all for crucial votes

Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and NPA candidate Suzanne Anton participate in a homelessness and affordable housing debate at St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church in Vancouver on Monday, Nov. 7.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver's civic election campaign has turned into an all-out scrap for the crucial 5,000 voters who could ultimately decide which party will get a council majority.

The unusually aggressive final week has included complaints from parents that their children's images were used in Non-Partisan Association campaign material, accusations from the NPA that the Vision mayor is a "puppet" of U.S. interests, and charges from Vision that the NPA's campaign promises would cost $500-million.

Vision spent tens of thousands of dollars on heavy advertising in television, radio and Chinese media, many of the ads warning voters not to "gamble" on the NPA, which they say is inexperienced.

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The NPA launched a new website – accompanied by flyer so negative that some people complained about it – called Take Back Vancouver that encourages people to post video and written opinions about what they think is wrong at city hall.

Polls indicate that the NPA endeavours are unlikely to dent Mayor Gregor Robertson's lead, which pollsters have put at between six and 20 percentage points ahead of NPA challenger Suzanne Anton. But it could make a difference to whether Saturday's election results yield the minimum five Vision councillors he would need for a majority in the Vancouver system, in which voters choose a mayor and 10 councillors at large.

In the 2008 election, while Mr. Robertson was almost 20,000 votes ahead of his NPA challenger, Peter Ladner, one NPA council candidate missed by only 1,500 votes, and another three were less than 5,000 votes behind.

Political observers say the last-minute frenzy of nastiness is unusual and a sign that both sides are fighting to persuade voters to put a majority of their candidates among the top 10 vote getters.

"The one issue that started to have some traction for the NPA, Occupy Vancouver, got put on pause. That explains the slightly more desperate response," Simon Fraser University political-science professor Patrick Smith said at the close of two weeks in which Ms. Anton attacked Mr. Robertson for not moving to shut the protest camp down more quickly. The city eventually started the process of getting an injunction, and was in court this week.

"As for Vision, I think they feel they probably lost some ground on that," Mr. Smith said.

For civic-election campaigners, the last week can be important because, unlike federal and provincial campaigns, that is when most voters are likely to finalize their decisions because municipal candidates get less media coverage, and the choices are more confusing.

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Since only about 125,000 people in Vancouver are likely to vote – 30 per cent of those registered – "even a small swing in the vote can make a pretty important difference on council," Mr. Smith said.

Both campaigns claim to see signs that the other side is struggling to get its message out.

"I think they thought they would have an easier time of it," said NPA campaign manager Norman Stowe. "And their ads saying, 'If you're thinking of voting NPA, don't gamble,' that tells me they're seeing numbers they don't like."

Vision's communications director Marcella Munro acknowledges that Vision hasn't been able to get its core message out – a focus on homelessness, affordable housing for working Vancouverites, and transit – because of the focus on Occupy Vancouver.

But, she said, the NPA campaign seems to be falling apart.

"They were so negative at the beginning, but they've surpassed themselves this week. And at least when they started, they were trying to define themselves. I've been feeling like they've kind of had the wheels come off."

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Ms. Munro said Vision Vancouver has identified more committed supporters this time than it did in 2008, so "we're feeling pretty good."

But pollster Mario Canseco of Angus Reid, said that he doubts either party has gained supporters.

"I don't think either have done a fantastic job of trying to grow the base or improve turnout," he said. That's more crucial for the opposition, because it needs to attract new voters to win.

"A low turnout" – which Vancouver is likely to see once again – "benefits the incumbents all the time."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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