Times must really be good when even a job that starts at $115,000 a year with good benefits and an enviable pension plan attracts few applicants.
That’s what’s happened with the two British Columbia byelections to replace outgoing MLAs. So few people wanted the jobs that even the likely eventual winners were acclaimed by their party.
The vacancy in Langford-Juan de Fuca on Vancouver Island is due to the resignation of former premier John Horgan, while the one in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant is thanks to Melanie Mark’s dramatic departure.
On May 27, before boarding a plane for Asia, Premier David Eby called byelections in both ridings for June 24.
And while there will be a full slate of candidates on the ballots — the governing BC NDP, the official Opposition BC United, the BC Green Party and the Conservative Party of BC have all named candidates — there was minimal competition for any of those nominations.
It makes sense that BC United would acclaim candidates — businessperson Jackie Lee in Mount Pleasant and children’s autism advocate Elena Lawson in Langford-Juan de Fuca. The party wasn’t in control of when the byelections would get called, and needed to be ready to go.
The same goes for the BC Greens, who acclaimed health-care advocate Camille Currie on the Island, but did manage to have two contenders in Mount Pleasant who participated in an online debate before members voted to have emergency management expert Wendy Hayko carry the flag for them.
(On hearing about the Greens’ debate, an insider with one of the bigger parties commented “That’s cute.”)
And the Conservatives under new leader John Rustad are doing well just to have anyone on the ballot, though Mount Pleasant candidate Karin Litzcke’s focus on staking out anti-transgender positions seems calculated to keep the party on the far fringes of the public debate. She previously ran federally for Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada. Her colleague in Langford-Juan de Fuca, Mike Harris, is a grandfather who “enjoys gardening, camping and working on his collectible cars” according to the party.
But the lack of interest is more troubling when it comes to the NDP, which should win both seats. The only time the party has lost the Island seat was in 2001 when the BC Liberals under then-leader Gordon Campbell won the election in a 77-to-two seat landslide. Mount Pleasant is even safer, one of the two the party held onto in that rout.
Byelections may be more unpredictable than general elections and sometimes provide surprising results, but securing the NDP’s nomination is the main hurdle to getting the MLA job in those ridings, as long as the candidate doesn’t mess up the interview with voters too badly.
So were those NDP nomination battles hard fought? No.
In Vancouver-Mount Pleasant the party acclaimed Indigenous activist Joan Phillip. She has roots in the community but has long lived in the Okanagan where she served as lands manager for the Penticton Indian Band and twice ran federally for the NDP.
And in Langford-Juan de Fuca the party chose Ravi Parmar, a Sooke school district trustee, also by acclamation.
A party spokesperson took questions about the lack of competition and whether the lack of interest was worrisome for the party, but made no formal response by publication time. Party president Aaron Sumexheltza was unavailable for an interview.
Parties do have ways of discouraging competition even for nominations that are technically open to any member, including by asking an individual not to run, limiting who can compete or by charging entry fees, but the explanation for the recent acclamations is likely that the party carefully followed the rules for the process and they just shook out the way they did.
Both Parmar and Phillip are able candidates and it’s possible nobody wanted to challenge them.
In Phillip’s case, Mark had made clear that her hope was that a strong First Nations woman would step into the role and many potential candidates would have respected that. Parmar was widely seen as Horgan’s protege and the former premier remains influential in the riding.
Still, constituency associations belong to party members and it is up to them, not Horgan or Mark, who the candidates are. And a contested nomination provides a chance for members to assess their possible candidates and choose the one they think will do the best job.
Adding a layer for the NDP is that a little more than six months ago the party went through a messy leadership process that left some thinking the battle for control of the party would continue. Eby was acclaimed to lead only after the party’s executive disqualified his sole challenger, Anjali Appadurai.
Going into that leadership contest the party had only about 11,000 members and there were estimates that supporters of Appadurai, who wanted a stronger focus on climate and environmental concerns, had signed up many more than that. After the party disqualified Appadurai, some of those new members asked for their memberships to be cancelled and to get their $10 back, but many remained officially in the party.
Those rebels who stayed could have had significant influence on the nominations, perhaps picking one of their own to run, but instead of flexing that muscle they have gone quiet.
It is likely that the Appadurai organizers in fact have no way of contacting the people they encouraged to sign up. She was never officially a leadership candidate and therefore they never received the party’s membership list.
Or it may be that party stalwarts who saw the Appadurai campaign as a hostile takeover by people with little vested in the party were correct all along, which would be too bad.
Ultimately all political parties are better when there is broad participation and vigorous debate on policy questions. Without it, there’s a risk people who are acclaimed will feel entitled and act accordingly. The empty playing field is unhealthy both for the parties and our democracy.
Read more: BC Politics