The B.C. Liberal Party is scrambling to find a new leader who will most likely drag Gordon Campbell’s rotten baggage into the next election. Issues like BC Rail and the HST, just to name a few, will be hard to avoid, and even harder to explain to a hostile public. The Liberal leadership race, however, is a sideshow compared to what is going on in the New Democrat Party.
People who understand effective leadership should be shocked and amazed at what has gone on in the NDP, and those that expect politicians and their advisors to act like adults should also be disturbed at some of the childishness being exhibited in Carole James’ fall.
The problem in the NDP can be traced back over two years to the ill-advised “Axe The Tax” campaign that was run in response to the Liberals carbon tax. Failing to adequately consult with their members and committees, the party launched a silly campaign that angered environmentalists, both those in the party and sympathetic to it, and created a backlash that undoubtedly cost support and votes in the 2009 election. The sad thing about this is that had they done adequate consulting they probably would have had a strong campaign against the tax based on environmental grounds and saved much of the environmental support.
Following the carbon tax fiasco the party ran an insipid campaign in the 2009 election, handing victory to a corrupt and disgraced party that had much of the public upset. In that campaign she failed to pay attention to the membership and incorporate Sustainable B.C. into her policies, even though it was passed overwhelmingly by the membership at the 2007 convention.
Supporters of Carole James like to claim that the election was not such a disaster, citing the fact that the party received a bigger percentage of the vote than in the 2005 election. That is a disingenuous claim. The real story in that election is not the miniscule increase from 41.52 per cent of the vote to 42.15 per cent, but the fact that the party received over forty thousand fewer votes than in 2005. The party failed to inspire a disgruntled electorate who stayed home in droves with barely over 50 per cent of eligible voters bothering to turn out and vote.
Much is also made by the supporters of James that she took the party from a couple of seats in 2001 to over thirty in the 2005 election. Again, a disingenuous claim. The reality of the 2005 election is that the public was already fed up with the Gordon Campbell regime, and any NDP leader would have taken the party back to around 30 seats or more. A more inspired campaign in 2005 may have given the party the seven more seats that it needed to be back in government. Five of those seven seats were lost by less than 500 votes.
Following the disastrous 2009 campaign Carole James, without formally consulting her caucus, declared that she would stay on as leader for the 2013 election. Two lost elections, failure to consult with the party or her caucus adequately, and the stage was set for disaster.
The train went off the tracks in early October when MLA Bob Simpson criticized Carole James and the political system in his weekly column. In retaliation James kicked him out of caucus without consulting caucus. Unfortunately for James, a large number of caucus members also shared Simpson’s concern about the political system and caucus procedures. Caucus chair Norm Macdonald was the next to go, resigning on Oct. 15 in protest of Simpson’s dismissal citing the leader’s “unilateralism and the lack of due process.”
Things continued to fester and on Nov. 19 caucus whip Katrine Conroy held a press conference and resigned her position saying: “To do this job effectively, I must have the trust, confidence and support of the leader and the caucus. Recent events have led me to conclude that the required support is no longer there.” Conroy was accompanied by MLAs Jenny Kwan, Lana Popham and Claire Trevena.
The following day the Provincial Council of the NDP held a meeting. On the agenda were motions to hold a leadership convention. The response to this by the leader and those behind her were to selectively hand out yellow scarves to supporters so that all of those challenging the leader would be marked. Again, another ill-considered move that pushed the opponents of the leader even farther away from peaceful reconciliation.
In an open letter published in early December former cabinet minister Corky Evans stated that a group of MLAs who believed that the party needed a leadership convention wrote a private letter to that effect and took it to James. He says that James choose to disclose it to other members of caucus and to isolate the writers and their supporters resulting in the yellow scarf maneuver. Evans had earlier made statements calling for a leadership convention.
Things got worse for James when MLA Jenny Kwan released a letter published on Dec. 1 calling for James to step down. “Under Carole James’ leadership, there has been a steady erosion of our democratic principles,” said Kwan. “Debate has been stifled, decision making centralized, and individual MLAs marginalized. Many are shocked at how some critical decisions are made or how caucus decisions have been later altered.”
The response to Kwan was James calling a caucus meeting for Dec. 5 to deal with the problem. The meeting was cancelled while negotiations took place between those involved. When it finally became evident that continuing a heavy-handed approach towards the unhappy MLAs would not bring peace, Carole James announced her resignation.
Her resignation speech was less than gracious, epitomizing the attitude that lay at the root of the problem from the beginning. Not content to say merely that things had reached an impasse and for the good of the party it was time to step aside, she had to stir the pot some more by not accepting any of the fault for what had happened, and calling those who were unhappy, “bullies.”
This attitude is not surprising given those around her who advised her on this situation, and those who are filling the media with her defence. Sour grapes, petulance and childishness characterize their response to the issue. There is little recognition that the MLAs who risked their careers to fix a problem in the party might have had a point. Instead, they are characterized as bullies, or people working for some hidden agenda, or betrayers, on and on. They are also accused of losing the next election for the party, which is somewhat disingenuous considering how badly James has managed her caucus, how low in the polls James herself had become, how many people in the party were upset with her response to the government and her failure to adequately incorporate Sustainable B.C., and how many people in the public have said that they would not want her for premier. In fact, one wonders if some of the old guard backing James really want to lose the next election just to prove a point.
James is a good person who has worked had for the NDP, but the bottom line is that she failed as a leader. She failed when she ignored her caucus and made unilateral decisions when she should have been consulting, she failed when she did not develop election policy more in line with the wishes of the membership, and she failed when she mishandled Bob Simpson and compounded that failure every step of the way to her final resignation.
What can we take from these events in the NDP? The MLAs and their supporters who spoke up when all other options seemed blocked have spoken in terms of more accountability by politicians and a more open form of doing politics.
Bob Simpson said: “I have been a harsh critic of a political system that forces us into perpetual negative partisan politics and constant electioneering. Politics should be about governance with an election every four years that is fought on competing visions, not negative ads and sound bites. I’ve made those views plain in many Caucus meetings, speeches, and columns. I believe the electorate has made it plain that they too want something different, as we see fewer and fewer people show up to vote each election.”
“I guess I was mistaken in my belief that the NDP was a progressive organization which valued free speech and honest critique as a means to create a better society for everyone.”
In her recent report to her constituency Claire Trevena said:
“As I have mentioned in the past, I am often frustrated by the tight control of MLAs and MPs within the B.C. and Canadian party systems. This frustration was a core reason for my opposition to our party leader. It is neither good politics nor good for our parliamentary democracy to swear absolute loyalty to a leader. That is done in totalitarian states; it should not in democracies. Politicians are members of political parties because they share the common principles and beliefs but we also are representatives of our constituents. At Westminster in Britain, the ‘Mother of Parliaments,’ MPs have much more freedom to both speak and vote against their party and their party leader This does not just happen in confidential caucus meetings, it happens on the floor of the House of Commons and in the media. This is not regarded as infighting or as backbiting but rather as a central and
essential part of democracy.”
Some time in the new year the NDP will choose a new leader, and perhaps new officers to support that leader. Who is chosen could change the face of politics in British Columbia. In both the United States and Canada there seems to be disillusionment with politics and demands for change. Old power structures and ways of doing business are being threatened. A party that incorporates the thinking of the Simpsons, Trevenas and others, a party that pays more attention to its members and works better together would be a departure from politics as usual and could bring more of the disaffected electorate back into the process, not to mention provide better government and opposition.
Jerry West is the publisher, editor and janitor for The Record, an independent, progressive regional publication for Nootka Sound and Canada’s West Coast.
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