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.