“Splitting the Free Enterprise Vote” and the By-Elections

Photo courtesy of World Economic Forum

The dust is finally starting to settle after two controversial (and some might say prophetic) by-elections in the valley yesterday. In both elections, the NDP’s candidate triumphed over their liberal and conservative opposition.

In the case of Port Moody-Coquitlam, the NDP’s Joe Trasolini captured about 54 per cent of the vote pushing him far ahead of BC Liberal Dennis Marsden and the Conservatives’ Christine Clarke who combined only took 45 per cent of the vote. It was a decisive (though not overly uprising win) for Trasolini who was a well known former mayor. He was also formally a liberal.

More controversial was the NDP’s win in Chilliwack-Hope. Gwen O’Mahony, who had twice run unsuccessfully, took 41 per cent of the popular vote. Meanwhile, Laurie Throness from the Liberals and John Martin of the B.C. Conservative Party shared about 58 per cent.

Throughout the afternoon, BC Liberal politicians and their allies repeated ad nauseam how the Chilliwack-Hope by-election was going to be the perfect case of splitting the “free enterprise” vote. They pointed to this polling as the reason anyone right of centre should be voting for the BC Liberals.

What’s not acknowledged in these tactics is the genuine difference in all matter of things between the BC Conservative and BC Liberal parties (and their supporters). While many BC Liberals seem to hope these differences could be smoothed under a single economic banner, the fractures are much deeper and more socially driven than they give credit. Whether its the HST, environmentalism or social beliefs, the reality is that there are many British Columbians (especially in rural BC) who believe the BC Liberal party is not sufficiently socially or fiscally conservative. They look east to Alberta’s Wildrose (a party vying to be more conservative than the progressive conservatives) in envy. These voters should not be seen as simply “free enterprise” voters as BC Liberal party strategists would hope, but rather fundamentally as “conservative” voters. No one should mistake them for anything else.

When one looks at federal or municipal politics, no one complains about vote-splitting the “free enterprise vote” in either of those arenas. It’s clear that 3-4 parties legitimately represent the political spectrum and that if I vote for Prime Minister Harper’s party, I’m not called out as a closet Liberal who should vote for that party instead to avoid a vote split. People acknowledge that the different parties stand for different things and everyone moves on trying to convince their opponents swing voters to come over to their side.

Right now we’re witnessing a titanic shift in provincial politics similar to what we saw the last federal election and earlier in the 2002 (with the ascendency of COPE) and again in 2005 (with the rise of Vision Vancouver). Whether you support this change or not, one should at the very least acknowledge it.

 

Bob Simpson – Independent Legislator / Democratic Reformer

Who are you?

I’m a Scottish immigrant from a blue collar family who pursues his passions because life is too short to do anything else. I’ve been in the Navy; travelled extensively throughout North America, Europe and Africa; taught High School; experimented (unsuccessfully) in Retail; run a successful consulting and training business; been a corporate manager in forest products company; and am now an Independent ”legislator” in BC advocating for radical democratic reform.

What do you do for fun?

Bike, hike, kayak, sail, play guitar, soak in hot baths. Hanging with my apolitical friends is also a great way to chill. Better yet, time with my wife and two kids is the ultimate way for me to have fun; especially when we get to travel together.

What is your favourite community and why?

I love rural communities. The smaller the better. There’s a sense of belonging in smaller communities, walking into the local coffee shop is like walking onto a Cheers set where “everyone knows your name.” When I first moved to Quesnel and the Cariboo I didn’t like being known by so many people and never having a sense of privacy in public spaces — anonymity is probably a better term. Now I don’t like the anonymity of larger cities and love walking down the street saying hello to the majority of people I see. Belonging builds pride of place, which can help us create stronger community responses to challenges, including global ones.

What is your superpower?

The faces of my children and my nieces and nephews and their children. In fact, children in general. I hate the phrase: “the children are our future.” It’s absolutely false: we are our children’s future! The decisions we make determine their fate, not the other way around.

How do you use this power to build community?

I strive to involve young people in everything I do as their presence in a room or at an event forces a reality check on decision-makers. Cross-generational decision-making will lead to a more sustainable society faster than our current approach. Involving young people also vests them in their community and empowers them to address the issues that concern them rather than having them choose to opt out because they believe they don’t have a legitimate voice.

My three favorite things about Bob Simpson are…

1. He isn’t afraid stand up for what he believes in. In October of 2010, Simpson was kicked out of the NDP caucus for daring to question the leadership of then BCNDP leader Carole James. His transgression? Two sentences that were vaguely critical of James’ address at the UBCM in an online magazine. James demanded an apology and Simpson stuck to his guns. Things weren’t right in the BCNDP and hadn’t been for quite some time. Simpson knew this and many other BCNDP members and electeds also seemed to be aware of this. And deep down, maybe James knew this too. Perhaps sensing the end was near, she decided to make an example of dissenters by tossing Simpson out of caucus with little discussion from caucus or supporters. Months later the quiet resistance to the negative campaign style epitomized by Simpson’s critique exploded into a full blown revolt with outing of the baker’s dozen MLAs and a highly critical open letter from longtime MLA Jenny Kwan. Eventually James, the unity of her party shattered, was forced out. Now new voices are coming to the forefront with new visions for the BC NDP. Simpson’s actions were a catalyst to change and might not have happened had he not been willing to put his career on the line for what he believed was right.

2. His drive to make our political system better. Since he was elected Simpson has been a tireless advocate for electoral reform. His issue: the negative and antagonistic nature of our political system is turning voters off. Pitting one party against one another in such a hyper-partisan way puts primacy on negative sound bites and ads rather than vision and solutions. Sometimes the other side has good ideas that you agree with. Where’s the political mechanism to publicly support those measures? What if you don’t agree with what your party has to say about a certain issue? Simpson’s commitment to electoral reform and a better system for all of is thoughtful and should be supported.

3. He’s a champion of small rural communities. We Vancouverites are often too focussed on our big city affairs. We forget that there is a whole province out there. It is a beautiful province that many of us rarely get a chance to visit. In many cases, that province has dramatically different priorities and perspectives (on issues ranging from climate change to transit to taxes) than big city folks do. It’s easy for those ideas to be subsumed by the louder Metro Vancouver voice. That’s why its critical that rural communities have the leadership of a leader capable of representing their interests at a provincial level and someone who will not be stifled by the “power’s that be” down south. Considering his popularity up north, Simpson certainly seems to be that man.

…as told by Kurt Heinrich

Gender equity in the BC NDP rears its head again!

At the annual convention in November 2008, NDP members passed a motion requiring the party to nominate women in 30 per cent of seats not currently held by the party. It was a controversial decision. Proponents argued this would be the only way to increase female representation, an important goal for a party that claimed to be more diverse and representative than the BC Liberals. Opponents felt such a structured approach would lead to the disqualification of qualified male candidates in some ridings in order to meet the “gender quota”, leading to a longterm electoral handicap. In the 2009 election, the NDP surpassed their 30 percent goal; 42 of its 85 candidates were women. Despite this boost in female candidates, the NDP lost the general election.

Now an obscure rule in the NDP’s constitution, which mandates both genders be represented in the party’s top-three positions (leader, president and treasurer), could disqualify some of the top brass including either Moe Sihota (party president) or Bob Smits (party treasurer) should a male candidate win the upcoming leadership race scheduled for this April.

To date the only people who’ve publicly expressed interest are guys making it likely the party will be forced to sacrifice one of its executives on the altar of gender equity.

According to a CKNW interview, Sihota says the executive is well aware of this issue and says it will make a recommendation to the party’s Provincial Council, which will decide the issue in February.

Dana Larsen

With only a few men having publicly expressed interest (namely Dana Larsen and MP Peter Julian) and a bunch of men “seriously considering their options” (namely MLA Mike Farnworth, MLA Bruce Ralston and MLA Adrian Dix)  it is increasingly likely that either Sihota or Smits will be forced to resign. Who’s going to get the boot – Sihota or Smits? Smits has for the most part escaped controversy and media coverage up till now. A Google search turns up very little about him unconnected to this current controversy. The complete opposite could be said for Moe Sihota.

The NDP president has been front and centre of a number of controversies recently. First it was his little earmarked stipend funded by Big Labour, which was embarrassing for a party desperate to show it was a broad progressive tent rather than just the “union party”. Indeed, it was one of the reasons former dissident NDP MLA Jenny Kwan mentioned for her scathing letter that started a rebellion of the baker’s dozen that eventually pushed Carole James out of her position as leader. More recently, Sihota found himself again in hot water when he dismissed the candidacy of Dana Larsen, a  marijuana activist he declared ineligible to run due to his lack membership. Larsen, who ran  federally for the New Democrats, resigned voluntarily as a federal candidate in 2008 after he made headlines for a series of YouTube videos showing him taking LSD and smoking dozens of marijuana cigarettes.

The decision to block Larsen was good policy, but bad politics. No one thinks Larsen is a legitimate candidate for the NDP leadership (with the exception of perhaps Larsen), but to have him parading around and intermingling his brand with the NDP’s for a week or two before more serious candidates came to the fore was a nightmare for the NDP brass. Comparisons to the current BC Liberal race and their high quality candidates no doubt added to the embarrassments. But Sihota’s unilateral attempt to block Larsen  added fuel to the fire of a candidate who was already a radical outsider. Sure enough, within a few days of Larsen complaining the “NDP brasses’ heavy handed moves” he was forced to back off. According to a recent CTV story, Larsen says Sihota recently apologized to him for claiming he was not eligible to seek the NDP’s top job.

But does he want to stay on as president or will Bob Smits be forced to resign. According to Sihota, “that decision will be discussed between myself and the rest of the executive and we’ll let you guys know.”

BC’s Political Twilight Zone

Dramatic events of yore

It has been a whirlwind ride here in the BC political world. In the past month, both major parties have seen their foundations’ shaken, first by open and often embarrassing dissent and then with the resignation of their leaders after years of service.

For Gordon Campbell, resignation came only after a last ditch significant tax cut he announced on Global TV at vast public expense. A week later, his final gambit having failed to put any dent in his rock bottom popularity (around 12% according to a Angus Reid poll), he called a surprise press conference and announced he was quitting. Then Bill Bennett happened. The Liberal Mining Minister was furious the departing Premier wouldn’t be going anywhere until a future undetermined leadership convention could be called. For Bennett (and truth be told many other party members), a lingering Campbell wasn’t going to help anyone – especially considering his toxic approval rating. Each time he’d show up, it was another reminder of the hated HST, the legacy of which the BC Liberals were forced to carry around like a political Bubonic Plague.

Never one to be pushed around, Campbell made an example of the dissident. Through cabinet, he arranged to have him tossed out. His Deputy Minister Colin Hanson swore it was caucus solidarity that got Bennett ejected. But the writing was on the wall; and so was Campbell’s signature on Bennett`s cabinet decapitation. Incensed, Bennett headed to the steps of the legislature and unleashed a tirade that left even longtime government watchers like Vaughn Palmer aghast.

He’s a bully who’s left spittle on my face because he was yelling so loudly at me, he said. The liberal caucus suffers from “battered wife syndrome”, he complained. For 40 minutes he ranted and raved. It was manna from heaven for political reporters.

As the BC Liberals continued to implode, something strange was happening on the other side of the political river. Polling told a story that everyone watching BC politics knew. Carole James and the BC NDP’s popularity seemed contingent only on the ill-will the public held towards the Premier. With Campbell promising to make himself disappear, suddenly, approval ratings for the NDP started to slip. Soon there was not nearly the same approval gap that was the signature of the Premier’s nightmarish HST-days (though the NDP was still ahead at the time). A dissident group of MLAs, who had only uttered a peep (or three) of protest after MLA Bob Simpson was booted for not apologizing for a mild criticism of the fearless leader in a small online publication a month or so earlier, began to organize and vent. Blood was in the water and the party was struck by a series of high profile resignations – first caucus chair Norm MacDonald and then caucus whip Katrina Conroy. Standing mutely by and refusing to answer any questions of whether she supported James or not was Jenny Kwan – legendary MLA of Mt Pleasant and one of the two survivors of the NDP electoral bloodbath following the deeply troubled  2001 provincial election. Kwan wasn’t a happy camper and neither were 12 other dissident MLAs who felt Jame’s style was divisive. As always in politics, you can be as abrasive and egotistical as you want if you’re winning. However if you aren’t – watch out.

By November, polling showed James’ own personal approval at only 25 per cent, despite her party being favoured by 47 per cent of voters — leaving a massive 22 per cent credibility gap. It was becoming increasingly obvious to many watchers that James wasn’t going to be able to carry them to victory in the next election. Add to that the disaffection many of the party’s staunch left wingers felt for James’ efforts to move the party away from labour activism and towards the business community leanings and you had a recipe for mutiny.

Following the round of resignations by Conroy and MacDonald and the growing rumblings among a number of constituency associations calling for a leadership convention and/or her head, James used the year’s provincial council meeting (which brings together local riding delegates from around the province) to try to somehow shore up support. Pro-Carole forces were handed out yellow scarfs (left over symbols from her leadership battle many eons ago) to differentiate them from the dissidents. The grassroots delegates overwhelmingly endorsed James, who summarily turned around, called for unity and denounced any future mutinous rumblings. Time to come together as New Democrats and show the people of BC we’re fit to govern, she said.

Unity? Not for long. A few days later, not content to let sleeping dogs lie, Kwan released a statement to the press that was 10 times more critical than Simpson’s. She attacked James’ leadership, her style and her methods. Ironically, it had been Kwan who had first nominated James to be leader. Brutus stuck the knife in deep and many people frustrated with James’ leadership silently cheered.

Rallying support, James took a weekend to consider what to do with the Kwan and the rest of her Baker’s Dozen rebels (as they had been labeled). She was between a rock and hard place. Boot Kwan and it was apparent 1/3 of her caucus could walk to, crippling the NDP and the leader. If she let Kwan stay, her power and authority would be hobbled like never before. In the final hours of labour initiated  negotiation with the dissidents proved unfruitful.  Her ultimate decision to resign as leader nevertheless was even more shocking than Campbell’s decision to quit.

In her wake, she left her party divided and bitter, without any potential high-profile actors ready to step into the fray. Meanwhile the BC Liberal race was kicking into high gear as Kevin Falcon and talk show host Christy Clark jumped into the fray to compete with Moira Stillwell, George Abbott and Mike de Jong.

What does the future hold?

On the right side of the spectrum, Kevin Falcon has come out as the apparent front runner, sowing up a large number of BC Liberal MLAs and organizers – many of whom he’s worked with for much of the past decade. In addition to a hefty profile as Health Minister (and before that Transportation Minister), he’s got significant backing from the rural elements (note his dual announcement in Vancouver and then Prince George) of the BC Liberal party – that and lots of money from mid-sized BC business and certain big development groups. The heir apparent of the right’s main competitor is Christy Clark, who probably has an equal level of profile and the prowess of operatives like her ex-husband Mark Marissen, brother Bruce Clark (both of whom are well known federal Liberal organizers) as well as Patrick Kinsella, a well known federal Conservative strategist. Abbott, Stillwell and de Jong fall on the fringes, though Abbott has managed to snag a significant number of supporters early on before Clark entered the race.

Should Clark prevail it’s speculated many conservative members of the BC Liberals may walk over to the BC Conservative party. Bad news for the BC Liberals, but good news for the province’s political landscape if you ask me. If Falcon wins, it will only reaffirm what many progressives already know, that the BC Liberal party is a right of centre party (not a middle of the road one).

On the left side of the spectrum the lines are yet drawn. Some people are whispering the name of NDP MP Peter Julian as a future leadership contender. Mike Farnworth – a moderate middle of the road dipper hasn’t ruled it out. Spencer Herbert who represents the NDP stronghold in the West End has also said he’s considering a run. And then there is Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who despite being an excellent candidate for the job (if only because he’s distanced from the whole James mess) isn’t likely to jump in. Another couple years it would be a distinct possibility, but the timing just doesn’t seem right.

And what of Vision BC that people talk about moving into the vacuume that is BC progressive provincial politics? Don’t hold your breath. Vision’s appeal (and issues) – while powerful in Vancouver – does not necessarily translate outside of the Lower Mainland. More importantly in order to win in elections parties fundamentally need both money and organizers. Ideas are important, but they are often secondary. The challenge for any Vision BC wouldn’t be money – there’s a whole raft of business interests that could supplement the dip in labour funding the party would surely face should it have to take on both the NDP and Liberals provincially. The biggest issue would be organizers. While Vision has in the past relied heavily on the green/bike riding/eco-business/progressive professional crowd – outside of the Lower Mainland, there are far fewer of these individuals to draw on. These forces have traditionally been strongly augmented by labour organizers who are often seconded to a campaign. Most, if not all, are strongly connected to the NDP and do the same thing provincially and federally as they do in municipal elections. To effectively organize outside the Lower Mainland, a Vision BC would be strongly reliant on these skilled workers, many of whom are lifer New Democrats. Splitting them away from the mother-ship would be very difficult.

Ultimately, there are many big questions that should become more clear in the coming months. As the BC Liberal leadership race heats up, so to will the pressure on the NDP to get a new leader – and quick. Who that’ll be, and how that will effect the political landscape is anyone’s guess. But I for one am looking forward to seeing it all unfold.

Bob Simpson and the NDP

Last week Bob Simpson, a veteran MLA for Cariboo North, got the boot from the NDP’s opposition caucus. His crime: writing a online editorial criticizing NDP leader Carol James’ recent speech to delegates of the Union of BC Municipalities Conference where he complained his leader was offering nothing substantive to delegates short of being more consultative than the current government and promising to explore the possibility of revenue sharing with local governments. James asked Simpson to apologize. He refused. And so he was tossed from caucus. The next day, the exiled MLA elaborated on his frustrations.

He lamented the NDP for its rudderless direction, dwindling membership and most controversially, its “weak leader”. Simpson criticized his party for its inability to develop a positive vision for the province and castigated James and her advisors for focusing on the negatives surrounding the BC Liberal record rather than offering a positive alternative platform to voters. Be it the party’s inability to outline a coherent environmental policy (remember Axe the Tax?) or its more recent befuddled/non-committal treatment of the HST uproar (blame Campbell for the tax, but don’t think we’ll get rid of it if you elect us), few British Columbians outside the party’s own policy think tank seem to have a clue of the policy pillars and initiatives of a province led by the BCNDP.

These criticism aren’t all that new. Over a year ago, following the last uninspiring election performance by the party in 2009, several groups formed who were focussed on reforming the party. One group was composed of ex-NDP staffers, sitting MLAs and moderate party supporters who were interested in dragging the rhetoric and policies towards the centre and making the election more winnable by recasting it as a progressive umbrella focus (read Vision Vancouver) as opposed to its current union/class basis. This strategy also involved a leadership review. The other group, composed of radicals and militant union organizers came at the issue from a far more polarized perspective. In their minds the NDP’s 2009 defeat was caused not by being too “working class”  but rather not enough. Both groups soon faded back into the woodwork as James and her supporters remained in firm control of the party machinery. There would be no immediate leadership review that year and the agitating for a changing of the guards subsided. But the low level discontent with the party’s leadership didn’t disappear.

Now, over a year later, Bob Simpson’s come out swinging and after getting the boot, the mainstream of the party’s MLA’s are turning their backs on him pledging (at least publicly) their allegiance to Queen and party. There are, of course, voices of discontent. But as Vaughn Palmer pointed out this Friday, the majority of these voices hark from the hardened (and extreme) left of the NDP. Look at the line up. You’ve got Corky Evans and ex-ministers Helmut Giesbrecht and Tom Perry. Then there’s the cautious uncommitted “tut-tuts” directed at the leader from her former leadership opponent along with several recently disciplined MLAs. No love lost there no doubt.

The reason for this underwhelming uproar seems to have less to do with the real and strong support of the leader among the party’s MLAs, supporters and apparatus, and more to do with the fact there’s a distinct lack of any white knights on the horizon. According to Vaughn Palmer recent column:

There is no obvious, appealing candidate who could necessarily overcome the concerns that have been expressed about James.

Second, given the NDP’s activist base, any serious leadership contender would have to track well to the left in order to win the party, then spend many months revising his or her way back to the political centre in order to win over the electorate.

Such a leadership competition, especially one that spawned a new more extreme leader would be a godsend to Campbell, whose brutally low polling numbers (some say he’s personally down around 10-12% approval – Yikes!) could use a boost from any comparisons to a potentially radical NDP leader (ie. Vote for them and send BC’s economy back 1950s Soviet Russia). While many people feel James’ rhetoric around working families and the ever present class-based language is tiresome, word on the street is she’s also made significant overtures to a suspicious business community. Especially in the wake of the Campbell’s HST debacle, corporate money and meetings have been pouring in (much to the chagrin of the party’s left wing) thanks to the apparent changing of the electoral tides. The “Decade of the BC Liberals” is soon coming to an end, and the Vancouver Board of Trade crowd would have to be blind not to see this.

And so, perhaps mediocrity will be electable the next time around. As the saying goes, governments tend to defeat themselves and that seems precisely what the BC Liberals have done. Whether or not the BCNDP has someone in charge who has a vision for BC seems almost secondary in this equation. Not ideal, but perhaps not that bad after all – despite what Bob Simpson may think.