Opinion

What Now?

After bringing the NDP far in 2005, this time Carole James couldn't seal the deal.

By David Beers and Crawford Kilian, 13 May 2009, TheTyee.ca

Carole James, No Nonsense

NDP ad featuring Leader James.

She narrowed the gap in the popular vote.

She squandered a chance against tarnished opponents.

She won the debate.

She lost the election.

She needs to stay on.

She has to go.

Now begins the contentious conversation within the New Democrats over whether leader Carole James is the key to their ongoing revival, or the obstacle to any eventual victory.

She struck gracious notes in her concession speech: "By working together I know we're all going to get through this challenging recession... We cannot go forward as a people if we are divided... We must reconcile differences, find common purpose... We need to create opportunities for everyone..." And NDP party honchos Gerry Scott and Jeff Fox voiced their unequivocal support for James whenever microphones were thrust their way as the grim results rolled in last night.

And then the cameras would cut away to three-peater Gordon Campbell, celebrating at Vancouver's new convention centre, a brazen choice given that the opulent project ran almost $400 million over budget during harsh economic times for many working people in the province.

The NDP's message that the convention centre was a boondoggle to eclipse Glen Clark's fast ferries never landed hard enough to swing the election their way. Eight years of scandalous murk arising from the legislature raids never combusted. Other scandals -- and the Campbell government has had a bunch -- seemed to combust too early to be front of mind for voters on voting day.

The NDP had all this and a plummeting economy to campaign on -- historically a powerful disadvantage for the governing party, as Will McMartin elucidated early in the campaign.

Tyee Dissects the Results

Read short, sharp reports and analysis from all over the province by Tyee reporters here on The Hook.

But as Tom Barrett tallied, far too many key ridings the NDP had to win went to the Liberals. Each riding had its own issues, its own dynamics, but if you are looking for an NDP casualty of the party's high-risk, polarizing "axe the gas tax" strategy, consider Jenn McGinn. In the Vancouver-Fairview riding, incumbent McGinn was wiped out by over 1000 votes last night in a riding that is home to many educated, urban, white and green-collar types. The riding used to belong to organic juice king Gregor Robertson before he left the NDP and became mayor of Vancouver, but the winner last night was the person McGinn beat last time, Liberal Margaret MacDiarmid, former president of the B.C. Medical Association.

McGinn's loss marked just one of many NDP shortfalls in key ridings across Metro Vancouver, as Garrett Zehr laid out last night on The Hook in one of many election-night dispatches from Tyee reporters around the province).

More bad news for the New Democrats: Of six new seats in British Columbia created to accommodate growing populations, the Liberals won Surrey-Green Timbers and four more while the NDP grabbed just one.

Was the media to blame for muffling the NDP's message? John Horgan thinks so. As Andrew MacLeod reported last night, NDP MLA Horgan, re-elected in Juan de Fuca, said his party will have trouble winning in some areas of British Columbia until it gets fairer treatment from the mainstream media.

"The challenge is in the suburbs of Vancouver and in the Okanagan," he said. "If you look at the amount of media exposure NDP ideas are getting in those locations, that's the problem... Global, Canwest Global, in my opinion was absolutely appalling. They hounded our leader and let Gordon Campbell off scot free. He has an eight-year record he should have been accountable for but not according to Canwest Global and that's unfortunate. We don't get our message out because in my opinion the dominant media player doesn't listen to what we have to say."

But for what turned out to be one of the most talked about issues of the campaign, climate change and the environment, the NDP was slow to roll out its plans, waiting until its anti-carbon tax crusade had played for months against no backdrop of other, progressive eco-ideas by the party. Then, when it came time to roll out its $10 billion green bond centerpiece, the NDP leaked it first to the Canwest-owned Vancouver Sun, which the day after that devoted a chunk of its front page to bashing the idea.

"The question everyone's going to ask is whether it was wise to take the stand on the carbon tax," David Cubberley, one New Democratic Party MLA who chose not to run in this election, told Andrew MacLeod last night. "I'll be one of those who'll be saying that was a strategy that should have been thought through a lot more."

Which goes back the question: What now for Carole James and the NDP leadership who framed the strategy for the campaign just finished? How will they play the results?

At the end of the evening, the ratios in the legislature looked a lot like they did at the beginning of the day. If independent Vicki Huntington is denied a chance to make history because BC Liberal Attorney-General Wally Oppal's two-vote lead holds in angry Delta South, the last four years have reproduced, basically, the status quo ratio of seats in the legislature: 49 seats for the Liberals, 36 for the NDP and none for the Greens.

Big challenges loom for government

The returned Campbell government faces some disturbing challenges—especially in the first year or two of its mandate.

The continuing recession will likely drive the government into unpopular measures: either to increase the deficit to support industries and social services, or to cut spending and shrink programs. In which case the opposition will pronounce itself vindicated in its dire campaign warnings.

Railgate may well go to trial sometime soon, with unpredictable consequences for the government and for the opposition. An NDP government might take flak for its failure to push harder on the issue while in opposition. A Liberal government might lose some major figures.

Gang wars will doubtless continue, and the government will endure criticism for tolerating them. The Braidwood inquiry into the death of Robert Dziekanski will wrap up. The Mounties will probably emerge intact except for their reputation. Other cases of police misbehaviour will put still more pressure on the government to control the cops.

The NDP launched the proposal for the 2010 Olympics; the Liberals turned the games into a reason for B.C.'s existence. The government will catch hell for any more cost overruns revealed on the eve of the games -- or after them.

Education will be a headache at all levels, from the new "early learning" for four-year-olds to graduate school. Structural shortfalls will mean more school closures and less help for special-needs students.

Post-secondaries will battle one another for warm bodies, knowing that falling enrolments will mean more program cuts (SFU has just terminated its Canadian Studies program). Students, in turn, will wonder how to pay for the fall term if their summer jobs have fallen through.

And the Campbell government has yet to truly test public popularity of its carbon tax, given that it is due to triple in size in the next two years. Will there be a backlash when the tax begins to really pinch? And if so, that will test the BC Liberals' current alliance with major environmental groups like the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation, who threw their support to the Liberals because of the carbon tax this time around. The fierce debate over run-of-river private power projects in the province won't subside, and foretells a series of similar arguments that may test the effectiveness and cohesion of B.C.'s environmental movement.

A shrinking megaphone

As the province grapples with such major issues, the need for diverse, solid and in-depth journalism increases -- just at a time when most of the news media is cutting back. The Victoria Times-Colonist is already dropping its Monday edition and the CBC is looking at another $50 million cut in its funding.

So, the morning after, a re-elected government and the citizens of British Columbia face huge challenges.

The way we conduct our political conversation in B.C. is fast changing, as social media and independent sources are playing a larger role.

But there will be fewer ears in Big Media to hear and translate what alternative vision the opposition may have to offer.

The case that Carole James will need to make to her party now is that when she speaks, more citizens will lean in her direction to listen.

Related Tyee stories:

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