NDP candidates for the B.C. leadership want to fight issues, not each other

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The B.C. NDP leadership race is a marathon, ending April 17. It is arguable that it has been under way since early October when Carole James kicked Bob Simpson out of caucus, although most candidates did not formally declare until January. The Simpson incident led to a bitter public fight between members of caucus that came close to seeing 13 members (the Baker's Dozen) leave before the situation was chilled with the announcement from James on Dec. 6 that she would step down.

Six candidates declared that they would run for leader; however, Harry Lali withdrew, saying that the cost of continuing his campaign was too great. As of Feb. 14, the party's executive had approved the candidacy of Adrian Dix, Mike Farnworth and John Horgan. Dana Larsen and Nicholas Simons submitted their nomination documents on the Feb. 28 deadline -- processing of their applications to run were approved the following week.

Larsen, a former leader of the B.C. Marijuana Party, began a run for the NDP in the last federal election, only to withdraw as a candidate when video footage showing him allegedly high on drugs emerged early in the campaign. He was the first to announce that he would seek the provincial party's leadership, thereby drawing comments that in view of his record his nomination might not be accepted.

Simons, two term MLA for Powell River -- Sunshine Coast, refused to comply with the party's requirement to submit passwords for social media accounts. As a result of his public statements about the requirement being a breach of his privacy rights, B.C.'s privacy commissioner announced she would do an investigation with respect to the requirement. On March 7 the party backed down and accepted his nomination documents without any passwords.

All of the candidates have been doing their own tours of British Columbia and they have appeared together in various all-candidate panels arranged by labour councils and business organizations. Appearing before the Chamber of Commerce and BC Business Council earned high praise for all of the candidates; Dix challenged the Liberals to appear in a panel before the BC Federation of Labour. The party has a series of all-candidate meetings around the province beginning March 21.

The party's constitution requires that in order to vote a member must be in good standing for at least 90 days prior to the vote, which made January 17 the cutoff for joining and being able to vote. Campaigns brought membership applications in at the last minute before the 5 p.m. deadline, and a dispute arose over whether all of the clerical requirements had been met by Dix supporters. Lali was outspoken on the matter; Farnworth's campaign manager also objected. Provincial secretary Jan O'Brian, chief electoral officer, ruled that all applications would be processed and the clerical issue was not grounds by itself for rejecting any applications. Applications are still being verified so a precise figure on the number eligible to vote is not yet available, but it is believed that there were approximately 13,000 members before the race began; the party signed up approximately 7,000 lapsed members and the campaigns brought in another 10,000 for a rough total of 30,000.

The party set a spending limit of $175,000 per candidate, but to spend that much $350,000 needs to be raised because half of all money raised by leadership campaigns must be turned over to the central party to help finance its costs for running a one-member-one-vote leadership race. Candidates were also required to pay a $15,000 nomination fee, submit 250 signatures collected from at least six of eight regions, and submit a confidential disclosure statement. The BC Election Act requires leadership candidates for any registered political party to file disclosure of income and expenses no later than 90 days after a leadership vote. Before the April 17th vote, the NDP is requiring candidates to disclose on the party's website the names of all those who donate $250 or more. No more than $2,500 can be accepted by any candidate from any single donor.

Political historians can't recall another time when the two major parties held overlapping leadership races. The B.C. Liberals voted on Feb. 26 using the same company to conduct its vote as the NDP will use. The Liberals encountered embarrassing problems with personal identification numbers (PINs) not being delivered in time. A rescue mission had to be launched with the provision of substitute PINs for those who didn't receive their balloting package by mail. Part of their problem was created by having a window of just three weeks between membership cutoff and the vote. The NDP hopes to avoid those problems with a 90 day period between membership cutoff and the vote, and a six-day advance poll before the April 17 vote. Those voting by phone or computer in the advance poll will use a preferential ballot, but those voting on April 17 must be available all day to vote in each round. It is hoped that many members will show-up at the Vancouver Convention Centre and various regional centres on voting day.

It is not going to be easy for members to choose between Dix, Farnworth and Horgan; Larsen and Simons will get marks for trying. Dix and Horgan were both first elected in 2005 and are now in the middle of their second term as MLA. Farnworth was first elected in 1991, re-elected in 1996 and appointed to cabinet, defeated in the near wipe-out of the NDP in 2001, and re-elected in 2005 and 2009. Balanced against Farnworth's cabinet experience, Dix and Horgan both served as principle secretary to premiers, Dix to Glen Clark and Horgan to Dan Miller.

Leadership races can be divisive, which is the last thing the NDP needs after the messy ouster of Carole James. That is probably a major reason why the campaign is being conducted with the utmost of civility. The three major candidates have been friends for over 20 years. They genuinely like and respect each other, and when tempted to gain advantage at the expense of a colleague, they only need to consider whether there will be a party left to lead if they play too rough. In light of the infighting that preceded the race, the new leader will be challenged to convince British Columbians that a party which had trouble staying united as an opposition can be viewed as a government in waiting.

Dix, age 47, distinguished himself as critic for the Ministry of Children and Family Development, and later as health critic. As principle secretary to Premier Glen Clark, Dix backdated a memo when Clark was involved in a casino controversy. He describes that as a mistake from which he has learned and moved on, subsequently winning two elections, but some, including Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer, harshly characterize the mistake as a character flaw. Over five years working for Glen Clark no doubt resulted in Dix accumulating both valuable experience and some political enemies. Watching Dix in interviews and on the leadership panels, no one questions his command of the facts and his effective debating style.

Mike Farnworth, age 52, was elected to Port Coquitlam City Council when he was just 24. Polls by Ipsos-Reid, conducted before the conclusion of the Liberal leadership race, asked respondents about positive and negative impressions of the candidates. Farnworth's 36 per cent positive rating among the 800 respondents was higher than his nearest NDP rival, Dix at 17 per cent, and higher than now premier, then candidate, Christy Clark at 32 per cent. Farnworth's negatives were 13 per cent, compared to Clark's 32 per cent. There are certain to be more polls before the April 17 vote. As opposition house leader, Farnworth got more media exposure than Carole James. That is no doubt a big factor in the polling.

When Farnworth declared his candidacy, his background statement noted that he has lived 22 years with his partner Doug. The Globe and Mail characterized his statement as coming-out, but his friends and colleagues know that he has always been open about his partner.

John Horgan, age 51, has earned praise for his knowledge and hard work as critic for energy, mines and petroleum resources. On the day Carole James said she would resign, the Vancouver Sun ran a story about possible successors and quoted columnist Vaughn Palmer saying: "One of the hardest-nosed and best informed members of caucus on policy matters, would eat dissidents for breakfast. Probably front-runner, if he runs." In retrospect, Palmer may have underestimated the difference between close legislative observers and the general public. While Horgan is admired by those who follow the legislature, he doesn't enjoy the name recognition of Dix or Farnworth. The Ipsos-Reid poll reported Feb. 23 that 48 per cent of all respondents and 46 per cent of previous NDP voters had never heard of Horgan. If he is going to stand a chance against Dix and Farnworth, he will have to become recognized by party members through his tour of the province and the all-candidate events. While slightly better known than Larsen or Simons, Horgan has a big hill to climb when it comes to name recognition.

A March 7 Tweet from a Dix supporter said: "Adrian Dix is setting the pace in #leadbcndp, with policy proposals that offer compelling alternatives to same old, same old BCLibs." You won't hear the candidates making claims about who is setting the pace on policy, especially since they recognize how jealously party members defend their role in setting policy. The three leading candidates have put out a barrage of news releases, covering all major policy areas. In the Liberal leadership campaign announcements with respect to election timing, health funding, the carbon tax and how to handle a necessary vote on the HST, resulted in some sniping between candidates, but that hasn't been seen in the NDP campaign. Short of setting out a spreadsheet comparing announcements by topic, a way to get a sense of the campaigns is to look at some of the major positions in different areas. It is arguable that any of the announcements could have come from any of the candidates; the race is unlikely to be determined by policy differences.

On Feb. 2, Dix called for B.C.'s corporate income tax rate to July 2008 levels, canceling three rounds of Liberal tax cuts. That prompted journalist Paul Willcocks to write: "Dix took one of the bolder positions of both campaigns so far by saying he would raise corporate taxes to fund needed services. Its striking how little real discussion there has been of the dramatic business tax cuts over the last decade and the resulting service cuts and much higher taxes and fees paid by individuals and families. It's been a big shift."

One of Farnworth's major announcements was his call for a provincial education commission to address: funding, fees, and affordability; class size, class composition, and the role of assessment; changing technology and its role in learning; connecting early learning to the K-12 system; ensuring young graduates can access the post-secondary, skills, or training program of their choice; and, preparing students for the realities of modern life and careers. The last time B.C. had an education commission was 1988.

Early in his campaign Horgan said he would immediately put a moratorium on new run-of-river power projects and review existing power purchase agreements to determine if they are in the public interest. Several of the NDP television ads in the 2009 campaign focused on independent power producers, but the ads seemed to lack a consistent message that could form a ballot box question. The Liberals appear weakest on the question of trust; the issues around independent power producers can be used as verifiers on lost trust since BC Hydro announced it was seeking 33 per cent in rate increases over the next four years; some say 50 per cent over five years. Horgan said: "The buy-high and sell-low mentality under the current energy scheme has to end before our crown jewel BC Hydro is bankrupted. We pay sky high prices for power we don't need, and then it is dumped on the export market for a fraction of the price."

In the short term what a new NDP leader might do as premier is probably not as important as what the leader will do to heal divisions in the party. As of March 16, Farnworth has nine endorsements from the 33 member caucus; five from members of the Baker's Dozen. Dix has four caucus endorsements, and Horgan has five; Clare Trevena, North Island MLA and one of the dissidents, joined Horgan's campaign on March 11, and Harry Lali, another dissident, joined his campaign on March 16. Eliminating those who must remain neutral due to their positions, there are eight MLAs yet to declare who they support. Christy Clark won the Liberal leadership race with the support of only one member of the Liberal caucus; it is hard to determine how endorsements will affect the NDP race. A one-member-one-vote election is very different from a convention where bandwagon effects can result from shifts on the convention floor.

By the time of the April 17th vote, the candidates will have participated in a half dozen party sponsored all-candidates meetings, a CKNW radio debate and a separate Shaw TV debate. It is likely there will be two or more significant polls. Just as important, members will receive numerous phone calls and emails from each of the campaigns. It is not possible to predict who will win, and it is challenging to say what difference it will make whether Dix, Farnworth or Horgan emerges as leader.

David Schreck is a former NDP MLA and political consultant. He writes about politics on his blog, Strategic Thoughts.

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