Let the Voting Begin!

By Stanley Tromp, Vancouver Courier, 19 Feb 2003

As Saturday's plebiscite nears the finish line, both sides of the Olympic debate feel good about their chances

††††††††††† ________________

"Give me one of those! Let me see what lies you're spreading!"

So barks a large, middle-aged Yes supporter of Vancouverís 2010 Winter Olympic Games bid to 62-year-old Ann Grant. In the lobby of the Kerrisdale Community Centre, she is handing out leaflets to oppose the bid. The man rushes up to Grant and tries to pull a leaflet from her hand. A tussle ensues for the leaflet, but she prevails.

Nearby, the private sector 2010 Bid Corporation is hosting one of its pro-Games "information sessions" in a rented room. Grant assumes that since the Yes side is posting signs in the public lobby outside that room, the No side should be able to do likewise. Pro-Olympic material produced by the city is also stacked in the lobby. What happens next surprises her.

Two male staffers approach and tell Grant that no politicking is allowed in the lobby, asking her to leave the building.

She complies, moving outside the Centre's doors, where she continues handing out material. Then told she can't campaign outside the door, she moves to the Centre's parking lot to resume her work. Eventually, she ends up on the sidewalk after management requests that she leave the parking lot. (At one point, she says, a staffer whispered unhappily, "I agree with your view.")

Grant then tries to take her leaflets into the Kerrisdale public library branch, to be left on the desk. A female librarian, along with the same Centre staff, approach to say that too is forbidden.

Grant complained to the Vancouver parks board. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association drafted a letter to the city stating that every citizen has the right to campaign in a public area. In response to the Jan. 21 incident in the Kerrisdale Centre, the parks board changed its policy. Diane Murphy, parks board coordinator for West Side community centres, says the No side is now allowed to have a literature table in the lobby outside the Yes side room in the Centres. The Kitsilano and East Hastings community centres also offered Grant free rooms to promote her viewpoint.

But in the Kitsilano location and elsewhere, Yes supporters tore down No side posters, claims Grant. (Bid Corporation spokespeople say they have never heard of these cases and assert that all their members campaign by the high road.) People distributing No campaign leaflets say that on Jan. 1 security guards ordered them to leave Granville Island, which is owned by the federal government, as well as the Vancouver Public Library central branch concourse.

Ray Koehler, a No Games 2010 Coalition member, likens Grant to the Chinese man who stood in the path of a row of rolling tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989. As for Grant, she's happy she's finally allowed to distribute leaflets, but regrets it took so long. "We have to struggle to get our side heard," she says. "Why do we have to rent a room in a public area? We already pay taxes. I was there because we should be spending that Olympic money on more important things, health care and education. The Olympics mean private profit at public expense. I believe that these Games are a terrible gamble that might fail."

Few other issues in recent civic memory have raised such high levels of hope and fear as Vancouver's bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. This Saturday, Vancouverites will vote in a special plebiscite to see if we want them or not, and the city clerk is predicting a 30 per cent voter turnout, double that of an average byelection. The already converted are dug into their positions, but a feverish propaganda war is raging for the hearts and minds of the large undecided pool. The two opposing volunteer groups--the affluent Team Yes 2010 led by Concert Properties president David Podmore and the tiny No Games 2010 Coalition steered by Chris Shaw-- are driven by passionate true believers. But when it comes to resources and influence, the No side is grossly outmatched.

Chuckling ruefully, Shaw pegs his No Games campaign's budget-- scratched together from individual donors--at about $5,000. That's about 140 times smaller than Team Yes 2010's $700,000 budget, cited by Podmore. (Both figures include in-kind services.) Shaw asserts the Yes side's total plebiscite budget could be as high as $4 million when the pro-Olympic promotions by the three levels of government are included. The No side is especially embittered about donations to the Bid Corporation by Crown corporations such as the B.C. Lottery Corporation ($1.5 million), B.C. Hydro ($1.1 million), ICBC ($1.8 million, while raising driver premiums), and Canada Post (between $150,000 and $500,000). Shaw filed a lawsuit against ICBC, arguing that the donations violate its charter. He also objects to the fact that, unlike in a general civic election, there are no spending limits or legal requirement to disclose donations to a plebiscite campaign.

"It's like David and Goliath," says Shaw. "But I might point out that David did beat Goliath, and the Chinese man did stop the tanks."

The Team Yes 2010 campaign office on the tenth floor of 1130 West Pender is a busy place. In a crowded five-room office, a dozen volunteers are working the phones and folding papers. (Many more volunteers are working at a Team Yes storefront office at 1357 West Broadway.) Barb Jaako, a marketing consultant for 17 years who was invited by Podmore to manage the campaign last December, says the campaign is going well. "We have 300 active volunteers on our Yes campaign and 2,000 have given their names as supporters." She adds Team Yes 2010 has not directly placed many media ads leading up to the plebiscite, although other supporters have.

Asked why she joined, Jaako replies, "When I see young Olympic athletes, I wish I was that age again, and I wish I could have done that. I live vicariously through them." The Team Yes 2010 campaign (http://www.voteyesfebruary22.com/) is funded by the private sector, although it won't reveal a full list of its funders until after the Feb. 22 vote, and claims to be too busy to provide an interim list now. Despite assertions by Shaw to the contrary, Podmore says the group is distinct from the Bid Corporation, which is chaired by Concert Properties chairman Jack Poole, although Poole's organization does provide advice and information. Concert Properties also donated $500,000 to the Bid Corporation.

"If we are awarded the Games, there will suddenly be a whole new level of pride in our city," says Poole, "and the Games could be a catalyst for building new infrastructure, fixing our streets, things that needed to be done anyways. But that's nothing to do with us. We [the Bid Corp.] are going to build the venues and run the Games and that's all. If the governments want to do those other things--well, as a taxpayer, I'm delighted."

Team Yes 2010 does its own polling, which many regard as a far more accurate measure of public opinion than an election, because the respondents are randomly chosen, not self-selected, as voters are. Like Poole, however, Podmore declines to release any figures from the polls.

Podmore stiffens when asked if the results are generally good. "I have no comment on that."

Across the water is the hub of the No Games 2010 Coalition: the kitchen table in Shaw's green and white two-storey house on Deep Cove Road in North Vancouver. Six months ago, a few individuals and groups gathered to form the coalition (http://www.nogames 2010.org), whose chief spokespeople are Shaw, a UBC assistant professor in opthomology, and Phil Le Good, a construction consultant. A fair match for Podmore in the endurance department (both work on four hours sleep a night), Shaw is a captain in the 6 Field Engineer Squadron reserves and credits the army for his strategy. "I learned manoeuvre warfare, which means striking your opponent's vulnerabilities instead of going head to head. For instance, we can't afford to fight them in an ad campaign." It helped, too, in dealing with the media that the defense ministry trained him to be a public relations officer. On Shaw Cablevision's show Voice of B.C., hosted by Vaughn Palmer (who predicts a 60 per cent Yes vote), one notes a striking contrast between Podmore's apparent suave confidence and Shaw's tense, tired visage. The former is more given to general reassurances, the latter to detailed statistics. Yet Shaw jokes that they know each other's arguments so well by now that they could switch roles.

The 140-to-one funding imbalance compelled Shaw to be creative

in getting his message out. Most of the local mainstream media promote the Games bid. The newspaper branch of CanWest Global-- which owns the Vancouver Sun and Province, the National Post, the Vancouver Courier and other VanNet papers--is an official sponsor and donated $1 million worth of free advertising for the Games. As well, Poole added, "those in charge at the Vancouver Sun thought the news coverage was too unbalanced against the Games, too negative, so they let me run a column." TV and radio station members of the B.C. Association of Broadcasters, a bid sponsor, provide free Olympic "public service announcements." Even movie houses run pro-Olympic trailers, and some Robson Street stores insert Vote Yes flyers in their shopping bags. The No Side receives no such benefits. Le Good complains that city clerk Judy Rogers gave the bid committee's opening statement to council in a 90-minute Powerpoint show, with no rebuttal allowed, and that city staff are in conflict-of-interest by promoting the bid at the same time as they're managing the plebiscite vote.

On the other hand, Le Good warns the "saturation marketing" of pro-Olympic flags and billboards might be too successful and backfire if the public resents the Olympic campaign as pushy or even bullying. "If the Yes side really has such a great product, why do they need to sell it so hard? It looks desperate."

Passions on both sides run so high that allegations of campaign hardball are inevitable. Le Good likens the Yes campaign to a religious cult promoting a mass public hypnosis. "Their campaign is blood-doped and on steroids. It's like a righteous crusade where you must vote Yes as your patriotic duty. We don't heckle the Yes side at meetings or tear down their posters, like they do to us.

"They can't stand anyone having a different viewpoint. At Granville Island, they were branding children with little Olympic stick-on tattoos. Larry Campbell holds Olympic 'Mayor's forums' in high schools, and we weren't allowed in to respond. They want the kids to go home and get their parents to vote Yes. I've never seen such dirty tricks before."

"In terms of No side tactics there really isn't anything for us to comment on," says Bid Corp. spokesman Sam Corea, "except the fact that it appears that some on the No side misrepresent the information in the bid book."

Poole laments that "it's so easy to be negative, you don't have to produce anything," and challenges the No side to come up with positive alternatives. Shaw argues it has.

Some radical No siders aren't immune to games of their own. The Oust the Olympics Coalition, part of Shaw's umbrella group, plans to blockade the IOC's visit to Whistler, and last month faxed a photo of Premier Campbell's police mug shot for drunk driving with satirical comments to IOC headquarters in Switzerland (two actions that Shaw approves). While the No Games coalition protests that the Mayor's forum panels are heavily stacked against them, the Yes side objects that most of the No coalition lives outside Vancouver.

"I think that despite their huge difference in funding, the No Side is very effective in getting its message out," says Kevin Shoesmith, a computer technician and leader of an interested group that tries to stay neutral and study all sides of the issue--the Impact of the Olympics on Community Coalition (IOCC), formed in October 2001. "I see much more of Shaw than Podmore in the press. And there are three Sun columnists who are very critical of the games." (The IOCC is praised by the Yes side and generally distrusted by the

No side--especially since one of its founders, Jim Green, switched to the Yes side.)

In the last month of the campaign, both sides focused more on getting their identified supporters to the polls on Feb. 22 than winning new converts. The dozen groups that make up the No Games coalition, mainly unions and anti-poverty organizations, have about 350,000 contact names and are urging their Vancouver

members and relatives to vote No. The B.C. Hospital Employees Union has phone banks set up to call its 8,000 Vancouver members, urging them to vote however they wish on Feb. 22.

Although it's been officially endorsed by every major political party across the spectrum, the bid has caused a deep rift in the ruling civic COPE party.

Most construction and trade unions support the bid, expecting Olympic jobs. Shaw believes the Olympic 2010 bid has already transformed the province. "What we are seeing emerging is a very different kind of politics in B.C.," he reflects. "The left and right wing boundaries were getting frayed, and I think this bid finally opened them up. It split the union movement, Jim Green got into bed with the Liberals, and some very right-wing folk work with me. I think we are the seed crystal of grassroots groups that are civil-society based, that don't answer to any special interests."

Bob Rennie, one of Vancouver's top realtors, paid over $40,000 to publish his full page Vote Yes letter eight times in the Sun and Province. "I was worried that the Yes voters are apathetic, and they might vacation in Whistler on the Feb. 22 weekend," he says, adding that he got 245 positive and six negative calls in response to his ad.

The first advance vote was held at city hall on Feb. 12, and city staff had to call up Sport BC, which had planned a march on the building that day, to inform it that campaigning within 100 metres of a polling station is illegal. (Sport BC, a non-profit society formerly co-chaired by Bid Corporation president John Furlong, pleaded ignorance of the law and cancelled the march.) A day before the vote, staff also took down city Olympic banners that were hanging too close by. Informal media exit polls found the vast majority (8-1) voted Yes, and the city clerk says that advance poll results have historically matched those of the general vote. Le Good counters that the Yes side heavily mobilized Yes voters to go to that poll to make them appear more numerous than they are, to create a bandwagon effect. Shaw says the 8-1 support image could even backfire, because it may lull Yes supporters into neglecting to vote on Feb. 22, and energize the No side to work harder.

Mayor Campbell says if it's a No vote in the plebiscite he'll still press on to bring the Games here, but Yes campaigners are grimly aware that every previous city that has held an Olympic plebiscite vote has failed to reach 50 per cent Yes, and the ICO awarded the Games to No voting cities in only two cases. What if more than half vote No, and the IOC rejects Vancouver? Poole looks truly dismayed at the thought. "It would be an international disgrace. This is the biggest project of my life," he says, adding that he would be crushed, and might retire. Jaako dismisses the idea: "I don't want to think of losing, and I've no time to."

But will the public vote Yes in a big way? "It's doesn't matter," says Shaw. "If we win, we'll have a beer, if not, then two beers. On February 23, the sun will still come up, and it's another working day for us.

"It's been a means to educate the public, but the IOC will be the ultimate arbiter. If the Bid Corp. has managed to buy this vote, we'll keep fighting til July and beyond."

††††††††††††† ____________________________