Can the Greens Win Vancouver East? Wes Regan Talks Issues
Wes Regan doesn’t want to talk “politics.”
All the more surprising since Vancouver East might turn into a nail-biter, despite nobody previously expecting the electoral district to be close. A progressive riding, the New Democratic Party (NDP) has represented it for nearly two decades.
But now without an incumbent, the race is competitive. And the Green Party candidate wants to make headway by discussing the issues affecting his community: housing affordability, poverty, the startup-technology industry, and concerns facing small businesses.
A former executive director of the Hastings Crossing Business Improvement Association, saying these topics constitute his comfort zone might even be an understatement.
Take his humour as a sign of confidence. “They stole my name,” he kids of Wesgroup Properties, responding to the Vancouver-based real-estate developer injecting themselves into the #DontHaveOneMillion campaign for affordable housing with their counter-hashtag, #DontNeedOneMillion.
“But they’re missing the point,” contends Regan, also one of the founding advocates of #DontHaveOneMillion. “Young people aren’t insisting on huge homes with massive yards—we just want the opportunity to invest and live in the city.”
Regan proceeds to outline the complexities of the debate for over ten minutes, highlighting the Green Party’s commitment to a National Housing Strategy while darting between specifics as varied as localized finance allocation and a community infrastructure bank for low interest rates.
He almost reminds you of a younger, more progressive version of the fictional West Wing presidential candidate Arnold Vinick. “Ever see Arnie Vinick campaign?” a high-ranking rival cautions his colleagues. “He’ll go into those high-school gymnasiums and blow everyone away.”
Indeed, Vinick’s late-campaign, near-triumphant moment was a stump speech defending his convictions; he exhausted reporters’ questions with a lengthy and brutally genuine explanation of “the big picture,” impressing even his opponents.
With the election now less than a week away, Regan won’t hesitate wading into partisanship or diverting from the issues when necessary.
He’s argued that his main challenger, the NDP’s Jenny Kwan, has been silent on the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal during the campaign. He’s also gone public with his take on “strategic voting” to oust Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservative Party, demonstrating that their candidate statistically has almost no chance of winning.
But he remains committed to staying on topic, resisting attacks despite an affluence of talking points (NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s refusal to raise taxes on the wealthy coupled with his commitment to balanced budgets has puzzled many on the left; meanwhile, the median individual annual income among working people in Vancouver East of $24,374 falls well below the minimum cutoff of $44,701 to qualify for a tax cut under the Liberal plan).
That the Greens are the only major party not in the practice of whipping their Members of Parliament is one of Regan’s primary motivations for running.
“As a Member of Parliament, you want to hear from communities about the ways in which they think resources should be allocated and where the needs are,” he says.
And Vancouver East certainly has diverse needs. It is home to the trendy Gastown, which Canadian Business claims “has displaced Waterloo, Ont., as the country’s innovation hub”; the Downtown Eastside, Canada’s poorest urban neighbourhood; and Grandview-Woodland, currently in a heated debate with the city over a large-scale condominium-building proposal.
“I certainly respect people’s concerns about the Grandview-Woodland project,” says Regan, adding that the issue falls under the purview of the municipal government. “But it also speaks to larger issues, because the growing need for increased densification is not going away.
“Federally, I can advocate on behalf of the city to relieve the pressure. Cities rely too heavily on the private sector to meet densification needs because their share of federal tax revenues, at about 8%, is embarrassingly small.”
Regan rejoices in the little details of urban affairs, adroitly pivoting to gentrification and the city’s tax challenges.
“Canadian cities have few revenue streams except for mostly property taxes, and this has an entropic process, because as property values and taxes increase, businesses and residents are priced out of their neighbourhoods.”
For Regan, the solution isn’t for the lower and middle classes to fight each other for housing spaces, but to bring municipalities on board with federal decisions.
“Right now the needs of one group are being sacrificed for the needs of another, and that’s immoral,” Regan continues. “With the Green Party, I want to help institute a Council of Canadian Governments, which will bring municipalities and First Nations to the table with provinces and the federal government, so cities can have a stronger voice.”
The bind that communities face with taxes are especially damaging to small businesses in Vancouver, who suffer from a higher-than-average business-to-residential tax gap across the Lower Mainland. The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses is advocating for a maximum two-to-one ratio.
“It’s not just enough to shift the ratio,” Regan explains. “Businesses are paying taxes on the speculative values of their properties based on hypothetical condominium units that could one day be built above them.
“It’s an absolutely, completely absurd model.”
He says the issue reiterates the tough circumstances municipalities encounter. “We need to start connecting land use and planning to economic development to protect the future of the business culture we want in Vancouver, and that’s where the federal government can play a role.”
Certainly Gastown is enduring the hardships of lackluster government support. Vancouver’s world ranking for startups has fallen from ninth to 18th in just three years. Insufficient public funding and money tied-up in real estate are the cited culprits.
“Studies show that if Canada just invested in Gastown’s tech industry at the same levels as what Silicon Valley gets, we would be outperforming California,” Regan asserts. “But senior levels of government are not embracing startups, and now both businesses and employees are finding it difficult to stay.”
The Green Party plans to advocate for returning corporate tax rates to where they were in 2008 (Harper’s Conservatives have slashed them by an astounding 21% since taking office in 2006), to help pay for a Generations Fund that will invest in emerging sectors and tech startups, among other areas of the economy.
“We need to attract talent and companies to Vancouver. If we don’t”—Regan here begins to search for the right words, his verbosity out of gas after roughly a half-hour of exposition—“the general crappiness of the economy will prevail.”
An unashamed smile graces his face. He’s hit what in politics is known as his “ten-word answer”; Bill Clinton’s was “the economy, stupid!”
Just like Arnie Vinick, Wes Regan knows how to “blow everyone away.”