Guest Post from Damien Gillis
City Hall Leak Ignited Anti-Olympic Powder Keg
The Real Political Lessons From Vancouver’s Leakgate, Election
by Damien Gillis
November 16, 2008
I’m getting more than a little tired of being told by the likes of his Highness Larry Campbell (or is it SirLarry?) and, today, columnist Miro Cernetig in the Vancouver Sun’s lead post-election story, just how awful the recent leaking of secret loan documents was and how the leakers should be hunted down and “hung out to dry.” I’m not debating the legality of stealing government documents. What I do question is that they had to be stolen and leaked to the media just for the public to be aware of an important civic detail, like the fact I’m on the hook for $100 million loan to prop up a privatedevelopment that will have a very brief use as the Olympic Athletes’ Village. If the business fundamentals of the development make sense, then the market can finance it, credit crunch or not. Any takers? No? Okay, but I’m supposed to feel secure about lending Millennium Developments my money, even though not one bank would go near the deal? And my political representatives don’t even have to ask me for it? They just take it and give it away? Yesterday, when I voted, I had three ballot measures before me (each in the region of $50 -100 million) for civic improvements to our parks, libraries and infrastructure. I was asked for the money, and I said, “okay.” Now, see how that works?
I won’t deny the leak was a masterstroke of dirty politics. Whoever procured and leaked the documents really screwed Peter Ladner, and I get that – I’m not defending the actions taken by Vancouver’s own “deepthroat” as legal or entirely ethical (by the way, it was illegal for Mark Felt, the original deepthroat, as Deputy Director of the FBI, to leak sensitive information to the Washington Post in what became Watergate; years later he’s viewed as a hero, not a criminal, because the information he brought to light was of vital public interest). Miro Cernetig says Vancouver’s leakgate has made us a “national laughingstock.” Au contraire – the thing that has made us a national laughingstock is an Olympic Games that has seen a few wealthy developers get even wealthier, in a virtually risk-free environment, while budgets spiral out of control, homelessness escalates to unfathomable levels (not unrelated to the Olympics in the least), the environment suffers incredibly, and the cost burden falls on the backs of taxpayers – often without our knowledge. Mr. Cernetig has completely missed the point. The leaked documents and deal are the embarrassment, not the leaking of these. The reason this story caught fire is because it struck a nerve with the people of this city who are already disgusted with – and embarrassed by - the Olympics and the financial and political corruption that surrounds them.
I was disappointed to learn that not only NPA but Vision and COPE councillors signed off on this thing, in a unanimous vote (it must be noted that Vision Councillor Tim Stevenson tabled a motion to make the deal public, which was dismissed by then-Mayor Sam Sullivan). I don’t understand the political reasoning of the Vision and COPE councillors who supported the plan. Even if they thought, based on the information they had, the loan was necessary, they could have voted against it and been secure that the NPA majority would see it through. They should have been more on guard, realizing the dicey optics of the deal were it to leak, say, two weeks before the election (never heard of “hope for the best, plan for the worst?”). But, since all three parties’ councillors had mud on their hands form the loan, it doesn’t appear to have had a noticeable effect on their reelection bids. Where it did make a difference was in the position of mayor, since Gregor was not involved in the in-camera meeting or vote, and Ladner, by contrast, not only voted for the loan, as head of the city’s budget committee he really “had to wear this,” in the words of Charlie Smith. So, it would appear the leak was a ballsy, shrewd, albeit perhaps unethical, political tactic that enormously benefited Gregor Robertson, reversing what had been his weeks-long slide in the polls. And though it would be difficult to dispute these facts, it’s even more difficult to ignore what the leak revealed.
Rather than focusing on catchin’ that rascally leaker, before we put this thing to bed once and for all, here are the most important questions that still need to be answered:
1. Did Estelle Lo, the city’s Chief Financial Officer, indeed quit out of protest of this decision by council? If so – and it certainly looks that way now - doesn’t that severely undermine the notion presented by Ladner, Larry Campbell, et-al, that this was a routine, necessary procedure, with nothing untoward about it? People don’t leave $200,000-plus/year jobs, weeks before an election because of routine procedures.
2. If this is as routine as it’s being presented, then we have a major problem here in our municipal democratic process. So, just how “routine” is this sort of secret deal using my tax dollars, and how do we make sure it becomes very un-routine?
3. How much more money are we, the taxpayers, expected to shell out on Olympic (and Olympic-related) venues and infrastructure – from the costly repair of the roof on the Richmond Skating Oval, to the overruns on the Convention Centre (that absolutely dwarf the fast ferries), to the Sea to Sky Highway, to the RAV line and all its unanticipated economic impacts, to exploding security budgets, to this Athletes’ Village debacle, to increasing homelessness and policing costs, to an ever-ballooning environmental footprint…in other words, where does it end?!
That the city must move on, and our new mayor and council need to buckle down and deal with the many pressing challenges Vancouver faces is undeniable. And don’t get me wrong, I’m deeply honoured that Sir Larry would deign to grace us with his presence all the way from the hallowed chambers of the Senate in Ottawa, where he has no doubt spent many a late night toiling away for the good of the Canadian people in that high-stress, hard-work-for-low-pay-and-bad-pension senate seat. I just don’t give two hoots what he has to say about my municipal government and my tax dollars. It is unconscionably condescending to suggest that a $100 million public loan, amidst a deepening financial crisis, for an already controversial Olympics is not the business of the very tax payers underwriting the loan. So let me say to Miro Cernetig, Larry Campbell, the (ex-)mayor and council who signed this deal, and anyone else who sees this as business-as-usual: If that’s really the case, then the first priority of our new mayor and council is changing business-as-usual and focusing on transparency in government from here on out. And don’t tell me what’s my business and what’s not. It took a leaker to alert me to my own affairs, and, right or wrong, I was happy to have this information in time to factor it into my decision at the polls yesterday.
If you don’t want leaks, it’s simple: don’t habour secrets from the people you owe your jobs and your allegiance to, and whose money you’re intent on splashing about!
Much has been and will be said about Peter Ladner’s failure to read and tap Vancouver’s ever-diversifying socio-political landscape. Perhaps one of the biggest elements he missed was the strong and growing undercurrent of anti-Olympic sentiment in Vancouver. I am always amused at the mock shock evinced by the media and politicians when hundreds of protesters crash an Olympic dignitary event, or the like. Do they seriously not understand just how much frustration and disdain there are in this city for the Olympics? Can they really not see that this is no marginal or radical block of the population, but rather a growing tide of anger across political, cultural, and socio-economic lines (did they not hear the call of National Grand Chief Phil Fontaine, for all indigenous peoples in Canada to make this an Olympics of protest, to take the message of their plight to the world…or Naomi Klein when she spoke before a crowded room of 600 in Vancouver this past year, surrounded by indigenous leaders from all over the Americas to urge the same thing?) Though the activities of the Anti-Poverty Coalition and certain indigenous protesters may seem extreme and can be easily pigeon-holed and dismissed as such, they are but the most extreme edge of a broadening wedge, an intensified representation of the growing mainstream upset with an Olympic deal that years ago had tepid support at best…before all the shenanigans and overruns. the trampling on the environment and citizens’ rights.
And on the subject of public disclosure, let’s not forget that VANOC already angered people when it too shut its doors to the media and quit taking minutes, refusing to allow the public in on decisions, again, hinging on their money and their city. An excellent article entitled “Developers are the Games’ Real Winners,” in the Georgia Straight last year by Donald Gutstein summed it all up. He described a meeting way back in 2002 when 2010 bid architect Jack Poole, a major developer, was pitching a room full of other major developers on why they should get with the Olympic bid program. Gutstein wrote, “Western Investor editor Frank O’Brien sat in on the talk and later editorialized that, according to Poole, ‘the real purpose of the 2010 Olympic bid is to seduce the provincial and federal governments and long-suffering taxpayers into footing a billion-dollar bill to pave the path for future real estate sales.’ Indeed this was Poole’s opinion. ‘If the Olympic bid wasn’t happening,’ he told the developers, ‘we would have to invent something.’ Long-time developer Poole had it right. The Olympics are about real estate.”
The secretive loan was significant in that specific context. It served as a symbol, a catalyst to ignite pre-exisiting Olympic angst amongst voters – and the mystery leaker was obviously keenly aware of that, where Peter Ladner apparently was not. Ladner may have paid the ultimate price for the leak – but he also walked right into this one. Whether he believed in the necessity and fundamentals of the deal, surely he should have recognized he was sitting on a political powder keg right before an election. Sometimes powder kegs don’t ignite…But, then, sometimes accidents happen – like “classified” documents disappearing from your desk and ending up in the Globe & Mail. Then it’s in the people’s hands to decide what they make of it. And decide they did.
Let’s hope this new mayor and council usher in an era of heightened transparency and public involvement in the democratic process – especially where the Olympics are involved. Expect to hear more of these issues as the provincial election of May 12, 2009 approaches.
Larry Campbell butts into leakgate controversy: http://www.canada.com/story.html?id=954564
Miro Cernetig – Catch those rascally leakers! http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/features/civicvote/story.html?id=01bed8d3-01d8-4d7f-97d6-f276667e09f7
Donald Gutstein – “Developers are the Games’ Big Winners”: http://www.straight.com/article-93176/developers-are-the-games-real-winners
Charlie Smith – “It Goes From Bad to Worse for Ladner”: http://www.straight.com/article-169720/it-goes-bad-worse-npa-mayoral-candidate-peter-ladner