A commentary by Bruce Williams, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.
I’ve covered my share of elections over the years but I don’t know if any of them have been quite like the by-election being held in Victoria on Dec. 12. The city needs to fill a seat on council that has been vacant since the writ dropped on the last federal election. That was back in September 2019.
That’s when rookie Coun. Laurel Collins took leave to run for the federal NDP after serving less than one year on council. Collins won, succeeding longtime MP Murray Rankin, and is now in Ottawa representing the Victoria riding. Since then, we’ve had a provincial election, which saw Rankin return to politics and win a seat for the BC NDP in Oak Bay-Gordon Head. We’ve also had more than 12 months of city council operating with a short bench. That normally would be a huge concern, but, nine months into a global pandemic, there have been plenty of other priorities that needed the public’s attention.
The business community’s biggest priority right now is surviving the dramatic disruption in revenue and the profound uncertainty we all share. I’m part of a group of committees that meet regularly with Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and municipal staff to offer advice and direction on public safety and wellness, as well as support for small business. We discuss and plan strategies to get through this crisis together. During an emergency, it’s good to know so many people truly have the best interests of the city at heart. It’s been a long road for everyone, but there is reason for optimism. Vaccines have started to roll out and businesses finally have a sense of certainty around federal relief programs. I’m optimistic that spring will be a time of renewal and summer will be phenomenal.
It’s time to fill that vacant seat on Victoria council. Other municipalities in B.C. have safely held their own by-elections, and, of course, we’ve been through high-profile elections in BC and south of the border. Victoria isn’t the largest municipality in our region, but it is the hub of business and commerce, and for that reason the city is at the centre of much media and public scrutiny. That’s what makes this outcome important and impacting.
Over the last few years, we’ve heard from many Chamber members who are concerned about some of the decision-making that was coming out of council. We have a diverse business community made up of many sectors of the economy, but the questions were often similar — is this council interested in representing people who own and operate businesses in the city?
It’s also troubling that we seem to be moving away from how municipal councils traditionally function in B.C. Unlike the provincial and federal party systems, which elect many dozens of representatives, municipal councillors are traditionally non-partisan. With only a handful of people on a council representing an entire community, there is value in having a mayor and councillors who vote as individuals. That has changed in Victoria and created confusion and alarm among many people. With four of eight members of council connected to the political organization Together Victoria, we have a situation where one ideological point of view can effectively speak over the voice of individual councillors and even the mayor. To put it bluntly, the candidate who wins Dec. 12 will decide if the majority of council is made up of independents or is affiliated with a single political organization.
So, for everyone who has said they want business to have more of a voice on Victoria council, now is your time. If you live within the City of Victoria or own property, you can vote. And because there are no other civic elections happening at the same time in our region, this is a rare opportunity for businesspeople who own property in the city but live outside its borders. There are no long lists of school trustee candidates, no high-profile mayoral races and no rosters of council hopefuls to pore over. There is one vote, one seat and the winner could potentially set the tone for Victoria for the next two years. This is how democracy works.
As a non-partisan organization that truly believes good business is vital for a great community, we reached out with questions to the 11 candidates hoping to fill the vacant seat on council. Not all of them responded. You can find out which ones did, and where they stand on issues our members have identified as important, at victoriachamber.ca/vicbyelection. We also held a virtual discussion with five candidates who have experience as entrepreneurs or work extensively with businesses. You can check the video out on our Facebook page or our website.
This column originally appeared in the Times Colonist on Dec. 9, 2020.