Fringe candidates in Vancouver’s municipal election face an “uphill battle,” according to UBC political scientist Fred Cutler.
These candidates have a difficult time changing policy because it is hard for them to get their views on to the mainstream agenda, said Cutler, who studies elections.
An all-candidates debate on November 9th highlighted this problem when 12 independent and small party candidates squared off over issues ranging from the decriminalization of marijuana to banning the RCMP from Vancouver.
“They don’t get a lot of coverage,” said Cutler. “If they’re really extreme in some view, they might get some coverage but that probably won’t move it into the mainstream. And if they are not a whole lot different than what the major candidates are saying then they’re unlikely to get any coverage at all.”
Despite the challenge, Vancouver’s electoral system is unique because councillors are elected at-large, allowing for the formation of political parties – even small ones – and giving citizens the opportunity to vote along ideological lines. Although it can be even more difficult for independents at the municipal level because the stakes are a lot lower than in a federal or provincial election and the public is usually less engaged.
Related: Fringe party profiles
None of the small party candidates on the ballot were elected in the last civic election.
For example, marijuana activist and mayoral candidate Marc Emery, who has been in jail 17 times, said that small party candidates mean nothing to the political machine.
“No one attends the meetings we are invited to, the media ignores us, the developers give generously to the contenders [Vision/NPA] and buys them off, and we simply get no voice.”
Despite the struggle that these candidates face, Cutler said there is a benefit to having more viewpoints represented in the political system and it is possible for candidates to move fringe views into mainstream politics.
“Every once in awhile, at any level of government, you get a new candidate who does capture the attention of the public on some issue or position that the other guys have neglected,” said Cutler.
“If a candidate or a party gets about 10-per-cent support, say, they’ve broken in enough to be noticed and usually what happens is one of the other parties or candidates adopts a similar position. So they can have an effect that way even though they’re not that successful.”
RELATED: Fringe party profiles
In the November 9th debate, candidates’ platforms focused on dealing with social problems such as drug addiction and the sex trade, rather than more traditional areas such as law enforcement.
Opinions ranged from Emery’s call to legalize drugs to Steve Wansleeben’s suggestion that the city change its bylaws to make it easier for sex trade workers to move off the street and into safer locations.
“Anyone who persists in supporting [drug] prohibition is supporting organized crime, they’re thugs, they’re criminals, they’re usually in office and you usually vote for them,” said Emery.
“I think we need to stop demonizing the sex trade industry,” said Wansleeben, an independent candidate for city councillor, who works in credit and collections management.
The biggest difference between the independent and mainstream platforms, however, involved support for the Vancouver Police Department.
Ian Gregson, a candidate for city councillor said the Work Less Party would not approve an increase in police funding. “What we would suggest is that instead of putting that money into police officers, we put that into mental health workers that work on the Downtown Eastside and try and break that cycle of addiction.”
“Do not hire more police, they are the prime problem,” said Emery. “Don’t give them more money. Make sure they do better with the money you give them now and freeze their budget forever.”
In the 2005 election, small party and independent candidates for mayor received a combined total of 8.21 per cent of the vote. Candidates for council received a combined total of 9.84 per cent.
In the end, many people are reluctant to vote for independent candidates. Vancouver resident Ali Chernoff is among them: “Odds are they are not going to win so I would rather vote realistically.”