Fighting to Join Layton's Army

How much fresh blood does B.C.'s NDP really want? On a wild and wooly night in Victoria, members voted their answer by a razor thin margin.

By Tom Hawthorn 1 Mar 2004 |
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John Shields stepped to the microphone declaring, "I'm the union guy." He then unleashed a stink-bomb of a speech.

At one point, Shields was booed into silence with a serenade of jeers. He had not only lost the audience but enraged several of them, which was an accomplishment considering he was speaking to a roomful of fellow New Democrats.

Shields was seconding the nomination of Charley Beresford as NDP candidate in Victoria. She's the chair of the local school board, a bright and affable politico blessed with charm. She was up against David Turner, who, too, had once headed the school board, had been dubbed Mayor Moonbeam during his stint at City Hall, and had been drubbed as the NDP candidate in the last federal election.

The nomination battle lured 500 champions of the working class away from CBC television's "Hockey Day in Canada" for some Saturday night politicking. The opening act was Jack Layton, the federal leader whose manic schedule had seen him perform his softshoe act in Campbell River, Vancouver and the capital city within 24 hours.

Layton has fired up the faithful, his elixir-salesman disposition reigniting belief in the party of old-age pensions, medicare and Tommy Douglas. Just three years ago, being an NDP candidate was like being an innocent man on death row in Texas - whatever the merits of your case you were doomed.

First-timers take on veterans

These days, people fight for the nomination. Even musty old Ed Broadbent has been taken from academe's shelf, dusted off, and put on display in the nation's capital. On this day alone, two British Columbia ridings which the party once held were entertaining contested nominations. Both races featured federal first-timers taking on veterans.

In Vancouver Kingsway, former B.C. human rights commissioner Mary-Woo Sims was challenging Ian Waddell, a perennial candidate who has sat in both Parliament and the Legislature in Victoria, and wants a return ticket to Ottawa.

In Victoria, the battle pitted Turner, the working-class warrior, versus Beresford, the middle-class conciliator. The winner takes on Liberal Cabinet minister David Anderson.

The eager crowd at the Da Vinci Centre, warmed up by Layton's barnburning speech, had no idea they would not find out the winner for many more hours. The diehards stayed for four tedious hours of boilerplate rhetoric and pass-the-plastic-bucket fundraising, only to be told to go away. The result would not be known for 48 hours.

Before that unsatisfactory end to the day, both candidates were given a modest 15 minutes to speak.

Not your usual bandwagon

Turner entered the hall behind a child's wooden wagon to which a pair of bongo drums had been lashed. A man in a black beret pulled the wagon while another thumped a cool daddy-o rhythm, thus sewing up the NDP's all-important beatnik vote. The candidate was trailed by a bunch of black and white balloons, which happen to be colours associated with death in at least two cultures.

This oddball procession had barely begun its circuit of the room when the initial applause died out. Rhythmic handclapping at last heralded his arrival at the stage.

That kind of low-tech razzmatazz helps explain why the NDP sometimes seems like an old-fashioned overhead projector in a PowerPoint world. Another reason: the bowling-alley technology was used to display a photograph of Turner posing in front of Anderson's constituency office. A hand with a black felt marker reached over the light to cross out Anderson's name and replace it with Turner's.

Turner, a 59-year-old professor of social work at the University of Victoria, reminded the audience he had been born in Nottingham, taking as one of his heroes Robin Hood, an early champion of wealth redistribution. He grew up poor as the son of a painter, his parents sacrificing their own material comfort to send their two sons to university.

After presenting himself as ideologically determined and urging members not to vote solely based on gender, Turner slipped in the best line of the night. "David Anderson is the only person who could stand at the bottom of a mine shaft," he said, "and still look down on people." With his speech delivered in a staccato race against the time limit, Turner presented a pugnacious presence eager to take on the federal Liberals, corporations, the provincial Liberals and George W. Bush. He's the guy you'd want next to you on the barricades of the Paris Commune.

Beresford's political narrative is different. She's from rural Saskatchewan (Neilburg, pop. 400), where her father ran a garage and was the volunteer fire chief. (He once was called to his own house after his young son and playmates set some hay bales afire.) Her maternal grandfather, Max Campbell, was three times elected to represent The Battlefords in Ottawa for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, predecessor to the NDP. Her politics are those of co-operation over confrontation, evolution over revolution, coalition building (the positive) over class war (the negative). "I think the message is one of hope," she would say after the meeting.

Her prepared speech at the Da Vinci Centre was overshadowed by remarks made on her behalf by Shields, the former head of the B.C. Government Employees Union.

A painful introduction

Shields was to second a nomination by former Victoria mayor Gretchen Brewin. Easy assignment: Speak a few platitudes singing Beresford's praises before delivering a rousing introduction.

Instead, Shields compared Turner with Anderson as perhaps indistinguishable men of a certain age speaking with similar English accents. Considering the animosity most Turner supporters hold for the imperious Anderson, Shields may as well have been comparing the Baby Jesus with Beelzebub.

"That's appalling!" a woman shouted from the audience.

Sitting on stage, Beresford smiled wanly. Shields ploughed on.

He described his candidate as "a young, attractive, articulate woman" before the rest of his comments were lost to shouts.


"Stop now while you're ahead, Shields!"

"That's sexist!"

In the pandemonium, a local party official took the microphone from Shields and reminded the audience to be civil.

He finally finished, saying, "David Anderson's worst political nightmare is Charley Beresford."

For one night, Charley Beresford's worst nightmare was her ally John Shields.

She'd have been wise to interrupt his speech by shaking his hand while standing on his toes. Instead, she was paralyzed by her own surprise.

"I had been anticipating the kind of introduction that John can do and that John has done for me before," Beresford said afterwards.

"I was embarrassed for Charley," Turner said. "I thought it was uncalled for and I thought it got worse as it went on."

And the winners are...

The party was unable to declare a winner after voting that night, as about a dozen ballots were in dispute. (Numbers have never been an NDP strong suit.) Two days later, the results were announced: Turner 184, Beresford 181.

Meanwhile, in Vancouver Kingsway, Ian Waddell triumphed over Mary-Woo Sims. Party die-hards in both ridings opted for former candidates over newcomers.

The NDP has some interesting new faces competing in ridings where the party has a chance of winning. (Much will depend on whether British Columbians' traditional up-yours vote goes to the opposition Conservatives or the recharged New Democrats.) In Nanaimo-Alberni, the NDP is running former Tofino mayor Scott Fraser. In neighbouring Nanaimo-Cowichan, the NDP standard-bearer is North Cowichan councillor Jean Crowder.

Another dozen constituency associations will select their candidates in March.

In Victoria, Turner celebrated his narrow victory by once again posing at Anderson's constituency office, this time while holding a slice of burnt toast, a not-so-subtle metaphor for his rival's political chances. Turner is eager to exploit recent revelations connecting Anderson's office with the Liberals' advertising-funds scandal.

"David has tried to present himself as an ethical politician," Turner said. "Already there're cracks appearing in the non-stick Teflon coating."

Tom Hawthorn is a widely published Victoria writer. Visit his site at  [Tyee]

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