BCA's repeat sweep 'unprecedented': Smith

Simon Fraser University political science professor Patrick Smith wasn't entirely surprised by the Burnaby Citizens' Association's (BCA) repeat sweep in last Saturday's civic election.

But, he said, "In a sense I think it's the missed story of the election in the Lower Mainland."

The Burnaby resident said of the media interviews he did, "I probably had 10 calls on [Surrey Mayor] Dianne Watts and I say, 'yeah, that's interesting.' She got 81 per cent, a low [voter] turnout and she managed to sweep the council.

"If you look next door, [Burnaby Mayor Derek] Corrigan did that too with a paltry 77 per cent and something that is actually unprecedented."

Smith can think of a few cases of political parties winning every seat in an election, but never one that's done the same thing twice in a row, at least in Canada.

"I haven't been able to find anything that replicates it."

British Columbia is somewhat different from other provinces in that political parties are such a fixture in civic politics.

"It's partly because we have a kind of ridiculous electoral system–at large," he said. "We're the odd one out in lots of ways."

Those include the fact B.C. doesn't limit campaign spending, contributions or third-party spending.

"I make an absurd statement which kind of summarizes it for me. It would be possible for Kim Jong Il, the president for life of North Korea, to give a mayoral candidate anywhere in the Lower Mainland $5 million and we would find out about it next May," Smith said.

"We are the most unregulated local election finance system in the country."

As for the BCA, Smith believes the key to its success is that, despite being left-of-centre, it's not exclusively so. "BCA has developed, it seems to me, a fairly inclusive kind of tent."

He suggested that broader appeal and acceptance is also what won elections for mayors Dianne Watts in Surrey and Gregor Robertson in Vancouver.

The BCA has also managed to address questions of transparency during its monopoly by being attentive to its constituents, Smith said.

"The mayor doesn't just talk to three union leaders and that's the end of his  conversation, and I think council's very much the same."

The low voter turnout, of 23.3 per cent, also helped shape the result. "One of the features of a small turnout is you can get three per cent more of the vote and suddenly take all of the seats ... There are big rewards for getting a bit more than the other guy in our system."

While a "substantial majority" of voters are happy, how the silence of the three-quarters of the electorate who didn't vote should be interpreted is another matter.

That silence could be interpreted as anything from perfectly content, not even knowing what's going on, to something in the middle, or discontent.

Smith noted that the BCA's track record, about 25 years in power through three mayors, would indicate that the local electorate is pleased with how it runs the city.

He said that after COPE-Vision Vancouver got a majority on Vancouver council in 2002, those parties saw it as a groundbreaking result for the left-of-centre parties.

"I told them, you've actually missed the point. If you want a model of a progressive kind of left-centre administration, you shouldn't be looking at yourself, you should be looking at Burnaby. Because they've actually had success and more importantly, they repeat success."

This time around in Burnaby, "I think the result reflects a fairly high degree of satisfaction [among voters] and the challenge will be not to get complacent about it."

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