Vote for Community, Provincial Edition

Ontario is on the cusp of a provincial election.  It is one of a number of provincial and territorial elections that will be happening before the end of 2011, including Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Yukon, and Northwest Territories.  In Ontario the Liberal party has had a majority in the province for the last 8 years.  Before that the Conservative Party was in charge for just over 8 years and before that the NDP for just under 5.  Polling for this election indicates a close race between the Liberals and Conservatives, with the possibility of a minority government.

Similar to my previous post on the federal election I feel that these elections will have an impact on your community.  Provincial governments provide, support or influence a number of services including health care, education, welfare and intra-provincial transportation.  The government will make important decisions about things like how electricity is generated, how our cities grow, how much university costs, and how our healthcare system works.  They also have a lot of influence on municipal governments, deciding their areas of jurisdictions and which services or powers will be “uploaded” (responsibility shifted from municipal to provincial jurisdiction) or “downloaded” (responsibility shifted from provincial to municipal jurisdiction).

The Association of Municipalities of Ontario has been lobbying all parties to consider the current division of service delivery and seeking a funding model to make it easier for municipal governments to deliver front-line community services.  In particular AMO determined a top 12 list of priorities and provides assessments of each of the mainstream parties’ platforms against these 12 priorities.  This allows voters to assess where the parties stand on the services and investments that are made into their local government. 

But municipalities are not the only part of our community that will be impacted by the election.  A number of organizations aiming to improve the sustainability of our communities have launched campaigns to inform voters and garner the support of politicians.  My two favourites are Sustain Ontario’s “Vote ON Food & Farming” and the Heart & Stoke Foundation’s “Healthy Candidates”.  The Sustain Ontario campaign is to raise awareness around food and farming among both candidates and voters.  It is focused on the positive impacts that a sustainable food system can have on the economic, health, environment, education and community well-being of Ontario.  As well, it offers questions to ask candidates to find out more on where they stand on food and farming issues.  The Heart & Stroke Foundation’s Health Candidate Campaign is focused on getting every candidate in Ontario to pledge to invest in health promotion.  It makes it really easy to see which of your candidates has made the pledge (as seen below for my riding).  As well as offers a tool on their website to encourage your candidates to sign up.

The point of this post is not to promote a particular party, but to encourage everyone heading to a provincial election this year to consider how that election will impact what is important to them in their community.

 

Remembering Jack Layton

[Editor's Note: in 2006 I hosted an event that was playfully called "Mervillemania" - in a nutshell, a few dozen friends camped-out on my parents' estate/compound in Merville, British Columbia during the August Long Weekend. One of my friends brought an orange tent to the celebration. He borrowed it from, as he called them, "Jack and Olivia" - they were his neighbours at the time - who happily offered up the shelter for their, and my, very urban friend. This simple, thoughtful and necessary gesture provides, I think, a wonderful window into Mr. Layton's sense of community. Speaking of community, his letter below offers some prompts and encouragement regarding how we can work together to make Canada's better].

August 20, 2011
Toronto, Ontario

Dear Friends,

Tens of thousands of Canadians have written to me in recent weeks to wish me well. I want to thank each and every one of you for your thoughtful, inspiring and often beautiful notes, cards and gifts. Your spirit and love have lit up my home, my spirit, and my determination.

Unfortunately my treatment has not worked out as I hoped. So I am giving this letter to my partner Olivia to share with you in the circumstance in which I cannot continue.

I recommend that Hull-Aylmer MP Nycole Turmel continue her work as our interim leader until a permanent successor is elected.

I recommend the party hold a leadership vote as early as possible in the New Year, on approximately the same timelines as in 2003, so that our new leader has ample time to reconsolidate our team, renew our party and our program, and move forward towards the next election.

A few additional thoughts:

To other Canadians who are on journeys to defeat cancer and to live their lives, I say this: please don’t be discouraged that my own journey hasn’t gone as well as I had hoped. You must not lose your own hope. Treatments and therapies have never been better in the face of this disease. You have every reason to be optimistic, determined, and focused on the future. My only other advice is to cherish every moment with those you love at every stage of your journey, as I have done this summer.

To the members of my party: we’ve done remarkable things together in the past eight years. It has been a privilege to lead the New Democratic Party and I am most grateful for your confidence, your support, and the endless hours of volunteer commitment you have devoted to our cause. There will be those who will try to persuade you to give up our cause. But that cause is much bigger than any one leader. Answer them by recommitting with energy and determination to our work. Remember our proud history of social justice, universal health care, public pensions and making sure no one is left behind. Let’s continue to move forward. Let’s demonstrate in everything we do in the four years before us that we are ready to serve our beloved Canada as its next government.

To the members of our parliamentary caucus: I have been privileged to work with each and every one of you. Our caucus meetings were always the highlight of my week. It has been my role to ask a great deal from you. And now I am going to do so again. Canadians will be closely watching you in the months to come. Colleagues, I know you will make the tens of thousands of members of our party proud of you by demonstrating the same seamless teamwork and solidarity that has earned us the confidence of millions of Canadians in the recent election.

To my fellow Quebecers: On May 2nd, you made an historic decision. You decided that the way to replace Canada’s Conservative federal government with something better was by working together in partnership with progressive-minded Canadians across the country. You made the right decision then; it is still the right decision today; and it will be the right decision right through to the next election, when we will succeed, together. You have elected a superb team of New Democrats to Parliament. They are going to be doing remarkable things in the years to come to make this country better for us all.

To young Canadians: All my life I have worked to make things better. Hope and optimism have defined my political career, and I continue to be hopeful and optimistic about Canada. Young people have been a great source of inspiration for me. I have met and talked with so many of you about your dreams, your frustrations, and your ideas for change. More and more, you are engaging in politics because you want to change things for the better. Many of you have placed your trust in our party. As my time in political life draws to a close I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. There are great challenges before you, from the overwhelming nature of climate change to the unfairness of an economy that excludes so many from our collective wealth, and the changes necessary to build a more inclusive and generous Canada. I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today. You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future.

And finally, to all Canadians: Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world’s environment. We can restore our good name in the world. We can do all of these things because we finally have a party system at the national level where there are real choices; where your vote matters; where working for change can actually bring about change. In the months and years to come, New Democrats will put a compelling new alternative to you. My colleagues in our party are an impressive, committed team. Give them a careful hearing; consider the alternatives; and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

All my very best,

Jack Layton.

Jack Layton

Orange wave in Quebec

Wow, the NDP swept Quebec and nobody saw it coming, at least not to that extent. In my opinion, these huge gains by the NDP say more about Quebec’s relationship with the other parties than with Layton’s. Since “les commandites”, or sponsorship scandal Liberals are a no factor in Quebec Politics. Until now, they have been surviving because of strong support by some ethnic minorities and Anglophones in Montreal. Within francophone media and regions, they were still associated with corruption and intents of crushing Quebec’s right to self determination (law on clarity, sponsorship scandals). Bringing Jean Chrétien in the campaign was not very constructive either, just reinforcing a more of the same image.

Harper’s conservatives have tried to “win” Quebec during last two elections, but let that strategy go this time around to focus on Ontario, which worked well for him. Since Lévesque’s “Beau Risque” with Mulroney in the 80s, Conservatives never had any real support in Quebec. Basically, Conservatives clash with most social democrat consensus established in the province: a soft approach on crime, critical view of military actions, commitment to social justice and limited inequalities, support for culture as in crucial element of identity, progressive taxation. Even though, these general political values have been challenged by a right wing minority, especially in the Quebec City region, they still form core values of Quebec society. Furthermore, Conservative undemocratic tendencies have been widely covered by Quebec media. At the end of the day, they only got 16% of the vote in the province.

The Bloc is clearly the biggest loser. Most NDP votes came from Duceppe’s party. I believe most people who switched to NDP did not see it coming either. Duceppe has been in Ottawa forever, his party is now perceived as an old party, just like the liberals. A kind of “malaise” was always associated with the Bloc, even in sovereignist circles, since if independence was to happen one day, it will happen in Quebec City, not in Ottawa. For many elections, people voted Bloc lacking option more than out of conviction.  Seeing that the NDP could actually win a few seats, many (a mean many) voters abandoned the Bloc. Duceppe and his MPs did not have a great campaign either, they were perceived as tired, “bitchy” and quite negative.

So why vote for the NDP then? In my humble opinion, most people just gave it a shot. In the last decade, cynicism has dominated politics. The provincial government (liberal) is mediocre, seen as incompetent, if not corrupted. At the federal level, Quebecois have been voting for the Bloc for 20 years without any concrete change in Quebec status within Confederation, nor did it stop right wing conservatives to take power. So the NDP seems like the only change available. They made a positive campaign, differentiating themselves for bickering and personal attacks widespread with Bloc and Conservative strategies.  Jack Layton is perceived as “un bon jack”, an expression meaning that some one is a good, pleasant person. The same can be said about Thomas Mulcair (NDP’s only MP until yesterday), who is highly respected, notably for renouncing a minister position to protest some of Premier Charest’s politics. Joined all this to the fact that NDP’s values tend to fit Quebec’s social democratic tendency and you get part of the explanation for the orange wave. In a few words, a vast number of Quebecois voted primarily for change and new faces. Even though the NDP is an old party, it is not perceived as such in Quebec.

What now? Traditionally, the NDP has had hard time in Quebec for its failure to accommodate Quebec’s demands for autonomy, clearly conflicting with NDP’s centralizing tendency. It still seems to be NDP’s biggest challenge, along the fact that many of MPs are inexperienced. Now with its majority of MPs from Quebec, Layton will have the obligation to precise his vision of Quebec-Ottawa relations. It will be very interesting to see how he will attempt to negotiate this tension between respecting Quebec desire for provincial autonomy and NDP internal culture. The latter will have to change and adapt, or this whole wave will disappeared as fast as it came. Remember that a significant portion of the vote came from electors that had previously voted for the Bloc, defending independence and Quebec’s autonomy at all cost.

What about the Bloc? For now, it seems it had disappeared from the map. Its survival will probably depend on the NDP’s performance. If they convince Quebecois they can defend their interests in Ottawa, the Bloc will not come back. The real issue however, is what does it mean for the separatist movement? As many times before, many already announced the death of separatism. I strongly disagree with this widespread position. Quite the contrary, I believe the next four years could see separatism return to Quebec politics. First of all, we have a majority conservative government, with extremely little representation in Quebec. If Harper decides to radically reform our country under right wing principles, this could create a huge backlash in Quebec. Harper could become the best thing that ever happened to separatism. Secondly, the PQ is likely to form the next provincial government, considering how unpopular Liberals are and it will benefit from militants and resources until now used by the Bloc. This could engender even more conflict with Harper. Thirdly voting massively for the NDP could be interpreted as giving another chance to the Canadian experience. For most Quebecois (even federalists), Canada as it is does not work. Quebec has not signed the 1982 constitution, money is in Ottawa while needs are in the provinces (education, health care), and Trudeau’s dream of a bilingual country was a total failure. So, if Layton and his party come to be perceived as inadequate, just are Liberals and Conservatives, then what hope Quebecois will have for their place in Canada? As we say “ça passe ou ça casse”.

 

Dix vs Clark and the new BC NDP

On Sunday, April 17, Adrian Dix won the NDP leadership race, edging out Mike Farnworth by around 700 votes: 9,772 votes to Farnworth’s 9,095. His win prompted excitement from some and groans from many other. The Province newspaper labelled it a “a hard turn to the Left” for the provincial NDP. The photo featured Dix wooping it up in a less-than-flattering pose. The headline contrasted with the paper’s earlier cover of Christy Clark decked out in Canucks gear and a hockey stick, smiling broadly cheek to luminous cheek. The contrast couldn’t be more telling.

Some NDP insiders are already blaming a skewed media for fawning over Clark’s style while ignoring Dix’s substance. While almost everyone I’ve talked to lauds Dix for his work ethic, intelligence and scrappiness, that may not be enough. Unfortunately, often what matters most in politics it seems is a strong blend of both style and substance. Often (like it or lump it) the mix is 2 parts style for 1 part substance.

Since policy so often takes the back seat to politics and perceptions, it will be interesting to see if Dix can avoid the “left wing radical”-branding, though recent actions in the past week do not bode well.  During his convention speech, he talked at length about 1.5 million mystery voters he intends to reach out to. The plan of attack? Introduce more aggressive government redistribution programs. Roll back corporate tax cuts. Ruthlessly attack the HST. Focus more money on childcare programs and advocacy.

This strategy is not focussed on the moderate “progressives” that vote federal Liberal and could be swayed to support a centrist NDP. Rather, it targets British Columbians who are politically disengaged because the major political parties haven’t been aggressive enough with instituting big changes in provincial economics. This presumption ignores another explanation for low voter turnout. That people who don’t vote are apathetic cynical and generally disinterested in who rules the province as long as grocery prices stay reasonable, jobs remain (relatively) plentiful and gas doesn’t get too expensive. I suppose we’ll soon see if Dix is right on this front.

Regardless, it seems likely his agenda will appeal the union movement which strongly supported Dix in his leadership race. It will also ring true to many community activists and more “left-wing” organizers who’ve long been frustrated with Carole James’ perceived outreach to big business and the “powers-that-be” in Vancouver. It may not have the same resonance among the progressive business and green-oriented supporters drawn to the Farnworth camp. Meanwhile, outside the party sphere, it’s unlikely we will see Dix making any forays to the BC Chamber of Commerce, UDI luncheons or Board of Trade Meetings. While such outreach may be painful (and perhaps useless) it does represent a first step to making an NDP government more palatable to the progressive business community and young professionals whom the party must attract for both funding and support. Ultimately, the province’s political sphere has progressed beyond the polarized workers on one side and bosses on the other.

Clark also has some significant hurdles to clear in the coming months. The Premier’s first challenge will be to first sell and then survive the upcoming HST-vote. Added to that is the (possibly) resurgent right wing BC Conservative party led by former MP John Cummins. With a realistic alternative, word among many BC Liberals in the lead up to the leadership race was that a Clark victory would lead to a split of the party’s right wing. Apparently, people have already started to walk and while power is a strong magnet for people to stick around, it only works if the leader can win and is willing to placate the defeated with political/policy nuggets they can call their own. Expect some right-wing appetizers to compliment the Premier’s more liberal “Families First” main course in the coming year. Despite these challenges, Clark will remain in the eyes of many voters (and thanks chiefly to the leadership race coverage)  firmly ensconced in the centre of the BC political spectrum.

With a provincial election predicted Spring of next year, it’s likely we won’t have to wait long to see how these new leaders will reshape the political landscape. If Clark is dragged to the right of the “free-market coalition” to keep the BC Liberals together and if Dix does end up taking his party more to the left of the political spectrum though, there could be room for a new force. In such a case, a provincial version of Vision Vancouver, a progressive party that has made itself sufficiently palatable to the Vancouver business community and the unions could fill the void. Or even more likely, it might be a perfect environment for Gregor Robertson – Vancouver’s popular Mayor – to jump back into the NDP fray. In any case, it could be a new era of BC politics and would certainly be exciting times.

 

 

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.

Rachel Marcuse

Rachel Marcuse - ED COPE.

Rachel Marcuse - ED COPE.

Who are you?

My name’s Rachel. I’m the Executive Director of the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE). I co-managed COPE’s 2008 campaign and managed Jenny Kwan’s NDP campaign in April. I also work as a facilitator around youth engagement, group dynamics, facilitation skills and more. My background is non-profit heavy. I’ve managed training programs, worked at the Fringe Fest and coordinated a series of youth health fairs.

What do you do for fun?

I love films, music, dance and eating good food with good people. I seem to have the travel bug again — maybe it’s the impending rain! — but when I’m in the city (my home town) I try and cycle almost everywhere. Yesterday, though, I think I became the poster child for wearing a helmet….

What is your favorite community and why?

I live on Fraser now which is pretty awesome. It’s right between Main and Commercial Drive, so you get easy access to both communities. There are plenty of groceries in walking distance and lots of good sushi.

I’ve also lived in Montreal which has some pretty amazing, very walkable communities and in Buenos Aires where distinctive “barrio” neighbourhoods almost feel like separate cities — all with excellent public transportation!

What is your superpower?

I like navigating between different groups of people with different priorities but who are all working for a better world.

How do you use it to build community?

I was heavily involved in the COPE-Vision coalition building process before the last election and always like to find similarities between progressive folks. I find the interaction between “in the system” and “outside the system” activism a really interesting one and try not to rank different kinds of activism. I like walking that line and engaging people, using inclusive processes as much as possible.

My three favourite things about Rachel are…

1. Her commitment to community. Like many politically motivated people, Rachel is constantly in motion and spends hours and hours working to organize, engage and connect with thousands of people from all over the city. That commitment is radical.

2. She’s a committed progressive. Rachel’s mom is a progressive. Her friends are progressives. She is a strong champion of the underdog and pushes for positive change in communities across the city. For many young people, the older they get, the more conservative they become. Not the case with Rachel. At least I don’t think so…

3. She was involved in the making of a hilarious video. COPE and Rachel have made a point of working towards engaging youth. To do this, they moved away from the old school flyer drops and into the realm of social media. The result was this video, broadcast widely during the 2008 election. Take a look-see and watch humor and politics unite in a terrific way.

As told by Kurt Heinrich…