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Booting Simpson sign of weak, scared NDP leadership: Corky Evans

Garlic and turkey farmer Corky Evans said he's been tempted to cancel his membership in the British Columbia New Democratic Party that he once wanted to lead, but is keeping it so he can vote against leader Carole James in a coming review of her leadership.

“Just to piss them off I'm staying in the party so I can be in the room,” said the former health and forests minister. The NDP are to have such a review at their 2011 convention. “She wants the job, she can run for it.”

Reached at his home in Winlaw, in the Kootenay's Slocan Valley, Evans said he'd spent the day planting garlic and thinking about what was happening to his party. That morning it had emerged that leader Carole James had booted Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson out of the opposition caucus. He'd written a column published on a website that included two sentences saying James' speech last week to the Union of B.C. Municipalities lacked concrete details and specifics.

“When I heard about that this morning I thought that's about the dumbest thing that's happened in many years,” said Evans. Simpson was right that James' speech, like those of other leaders, said little, Evans said. “What's scary about that? Everybody over 14 knows that. That's been going on for years.”

The incident is indicative of a shift both in the politics of the province in general and the NDP in particular, he said.

“Spin has apparently replaced substance and fear has apparently replaced bravery,” he said.

People want their representatives to have a voice and say what they think, he said. “When their elected person behaves like a trained seal, they become cyncial.”

Cracking down on someone like Simpson implies either weakness in the leadership or terror, he said. “That's either Carole or whoever advises Carole.”

Simpson said earlier in the day that James seems to be taking most of her advice from party president and former cabinet minister Moe Sihota, a perception echoed by other party members.

A good leader requires discipline from caucus members at the few times when it's needed, but in between allows independent thought, Evans said. He recalled coming to office in former Premier Mike Harcourt's NDP government in 1991. Harcourt, he said, “almost encouraged” MLAs to speak their minds and Evans saw that as a measure of Harcourt's strength.

There was lots of room for independence under former Premiers Glen Clark and Ujjal Dosanjh as well, he said. “What Bob said in the history of the NDP, at least the part I know of, is nothing.”

He noted that Simpson had represented a rural constituency and his departure leaves a gap. “It feels like rural voice is passing away,” said Evans. “It occurred to me that if the party doesn't want Bob it doesn't want me.”

Simpson was also one of the first two MLAs to say the party needed to start addressing energy and climate change. The other was one term MLA Gregor Robertson, now mayor of Vancouver. “The people who wanted us to evolve into the era we're living in . . . are neither part of our caucus,” Evans said. “That strikes me as leadership that fails to encourage the thought of its members.”

On a personal note, Evans said he appreciated Simpson's willingness to take a chance. “I like the guy. He had the balls to talk about tenure out loud. He was the first forest critic in 20 years to do that.”

James was unavailable for an interview with The Tyee yesterday. She returned one call, left a voice message, but was available at no other time.

“The party I belong to is shrinking,” Evans said. “You know what party's growing in British Columbia? Vicki Huntington's party.”

Huntington was elected as an independent in Delta South, narrowly defeating former Liberal Attorney General Wally Oppal. In June she was joined by former Liberal cabinet minister Blair Lekstrom, and may soon be joined by Simpson, though it is so far unclear whether he'll sit as an independent NDP MLA or as an independent.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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