General · 25th November 2011
We had all three over the last few weeks – in spades, some would say – and the word on the street has been variations on a theme of interesting!
Quadra’s recent election campaign was something of a game changer. Not that we haven’t had Regional District elections before, but the one prior was in 1993 and that’s almost enough to call it ancient island history.
Part of what made the recent election noteworthy was the impressive voter turn-out. With almost 60% of eligible voters casting a ballot, Quadra rang in at nearly double the provincial average. Apparently democracy is something that doesn’t capture BC’s municipal imagination – unless, of course, you try to take it away.
What made the last five weeks memorable for islanders was the intensity of the electoral battle that started at 2:55pm on October 14th. Four o’clock was the deadline for challenges to the incumbent Regional Director’s post. With an hour to spare, a new contender – Shawn O’Connor – stepped up to the plate. The Area C race was on.
The first week of the campaign was a bit like an iceberg: most of the action took place below the surface as campaign teams went into their respective huddles and emerged midweek with newly minted election signs. Jim Abram’s were the first on the scene, some of which were immediately spray bombed or hucked into the nearest ditch. As Shawn O’Connor’s signs started to populate the landscape, Jim’s continued to appear, disappear, and re-appear. Eventually signs of any stripe, political or otherwise, were being defaced and knocked over, with nothing but oversize tire tracks left as a signature.
It didn’t look promising for an election process that respected the rules.
Within the week both candidates’ websites were up and running and platforms were starting to circulate. Shawn’s campaign focussed on 'listening to the community', something his literature implied hadn’t happened on Quadra for most of his opponent’s career. To the promise of Shawn’s sympathetic civic ear was added more attention for would-be homeowners, the needs of seniors, and a commitment to enhance the community’s recreation facilities – but not by raising taxes. (We never did hear a real-world funding solution.) Shawn also vowed that the ‘boundaries’ of the Regional Director’s job description would be ‘understood’ – implying that they’d been ‘misunderstood’ and transgressed in years past.
By contrast incumbent Jim Abram’s website and campaign made use of his two decades of history as Regional Director, and the endorsement of countless islanders and groups who had received support from the Regional District.
The Discovery Islander hosted the first wave of both contenders’ print campaigns. Shawn’s tagline was ‘Let’s work together to make island life better’ while Jim campaigned on the strength of his 23 years as Area C’s RD (‘Jim Abram works... for all of us.’).
While going up against an incumbent with a long track record isn’t easy, the scale of the challenge – coupled with his lack of Regional District experience – may have pushed Shawn into a combative stance. By the time the first of two public meetings was underway at Cape Mudge, it was clear there was a long line in the sand. Shawn took aim at Jim’s performance as Regional Director, and by implication, his political motives as well. Jim didn't rise to the bait, however, preferring to address the issues rather than respond to attacks.
As a prospective Director, Shawn’s understanding of what would be required of him quickly fell shy of the mark. When asked at the first public meeting how he'd address the controversial scallop farm on Quadra, he said he’d “speak to the Band and then just issue a zoning amendment.” Interesting, perhaps – but not how governance is done at the Regional District.
Meanwhile the various players aligned themselves as players do. On one side certain business interests came alongside a community group with a simmering resentment over the Regional District's decision on the scallop farm. On the other side was the incumbent director and the many individuals and community groups he'd worked with over the years.
The week leading up to voting day saw a compelling performance in three parts. Act One was the All-Candidates Meeting on Sunday November 13th. Admirably moderated by Susan Wilson, the meeting opened with each candidate giving a statement of what their election would bring the residents of Quadra Island. A question period followed, and wrap-up statements by each candidate were delivered.
It was a revealing evening. Most queries were addressed to Shawn because, as one participant pointed out, islanders hadn’t seen him at public meetings or events and knew nothing about him as a presence in the community. As if to bring the point home, Shawn’s current employment by the Cape Mudge Band and his job as CEO of We Wai Kai Seafood (the company operating the controversial scallop farm) was publicly disclosed for the first time by a questioner that evening – despite insistence to the contrary by his campaigners. It was clear that either of Shawn’s employment interests would disqualify him from acting on Area C’s behalf at many Regional District meetings. When asked how he planned to deal with this, Shawn replied that he simply wouldn’t cast a vote for Area C on issues where a conflict was perceived. Many observers wondered why they should vote for a Regional Director who can’t represent his constituents because his other two jobs pose conflicts of interest. (His other two jobs? Where Shawn would find time for a third job as RD wasn’t made clear.)
On the day following the All-Candidates Meeting, a second mailer from Shawn’s campaign appeared in all island mailboxes: enter Act Two. Replaying the ‘honesty, integrity, transparency’ theme, the glossy card revved up its barrage of innuendo and accusations against Jim Abram’s political record, but delivered little else. The general response in the community was increasing annoyance mixed with incredulity – at the deep pockets behind Shawn’s campaign, and its resemblance to the attack-style smear campaigns so favoured by our neighbours to the south. The growing paradox of Shawn’s ‘honesty and transparency’ message wasn’t lost on many.
Jim’s supporters, meanwhile, took note and his campaign issued a final mailout – like its predecessor, a black and white flyer, printed locally on the island. It was the only time Jim responded directly to the claims made in Shawn’s campaign literature. Jim’s flyer was again respectful, on topic, and simply corrected factual errors – of which there were a growing number to choose from.
It might have ended there, but the finale was yet to come. Thursday morning, two days before the election: enter Act Three. Shawn and his campaigners arrived at island post offices with boxloads of ‘lovely newsletters’ as their website called them – but which were cleverly designed Discovery Islander knock-offs destined for yet another island-wide blitz. How convenient that the real DI wasn’t due out for another week! And how astute that island stores wouldn’t allow the ‘Discovery of Truth’ to be placed in the Discovery Islander’s display racks!
It was quite a piece of work. A newsletter? It was the size of a small magazine. It even had an issue number (101) up in the left hand corner – just like the DI. Never mind that issues 1 through 100 hadn’t been delivered; they of course didn’t exist. Islanders with busy lives and overstuffed mailboxes could be forgiven for thinking the DI had come out a week early. But those who bothered to read the faked publication encountered more of the same old spin they'd seen before. A letter had even been dug up from Regional District archives signed by a constituent advising Jim to keep the scallop issue from first and second readings at the RD. First and second readings did, of course, proceed; Jim had summarily dismissed the advice of the letter-writer. Yet this was overlooked in the so-called ‘Discovery of Truth’.
Voters didn’t miss it, though. Just like they didn’t miss the fact that everything in the ‘DOT’ blatantly plagiarized the DI. It was an infringement of copyright law, a punishable offense, and a disturbing insult to the people of Quadra Island.
His ambitious final act failed to bring the house down in favour of Shawn O'Connor.
On November 19th Quadra voters turned out in record numbers and said a resounding ‘Yes’ to Jim Abram’s track record and his decades of honest hard work for the community. Apparently islanders aren’t about to let him relax just yet.
Over three quarters of island voters said ‘No’ to Shawn O’Connor. They said ‘No’ to expensive attack ads and glossy smear campaigns. They said ‘No’ to free lunches. They said ‘No’ to corporate interests borrowing the voices of individuals. And they said ‘No’ to trickery and to the vested interests lining up in the wings.
The numbers, at least, don’t lie. The only genuine candidate for the job won a landslide victory, and Quadra has every reason to be both grateful and proud.