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The Lonely Life of the Independent MLA

What can Elayne Brenzinger expect after her bolt from the Liberals? Ask the last guy to do it, Paul Nettleton.

Chris Tenove 11 Mar

Chris Tenove is a journalist and broadcaster based in Vancouver. He writes for magazines such as The Walrus, Canadian Geographic, Reader’s Digest, and Maclean’s, and produces radio documentaries for CBC and the Radio Netherlands World Service. He is a contributing editor for The Tyee. For more information, see

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Not to say that British Columbia's Liberal caucus is cartoonish, but I'm sure I've seen this sketch before. We see a closed door and hear, coming from behind it, the muted sounds of blows, broken chairs, and shrieks. From time to time the door opens to disgorge either: A) a character who, while smoothing tussled hair, says "No worries, nothing's going on in there;" or B) a bruised and limp body, followed by insults and spit. In both cases, the door quickly slams shut again.On Monday, Elayne Brenzinger, MLA for the Surrey-Whalley riding, sent out a press release announcing her decision to quit caucus and sit as an independent. She accused Premier Gordon Campbell of pursuing a secretive mandate, of stifling the thoughts and actions of MLAs, and of employing an administrative style that is "chaotic, haphazard, and destructive to British Columbia."She followed this zinger with an unusual public relations strategy. While Liberal faithfuls stood in front of TV cameras and accused her of emotional instability, overweening ambition, and a minor assault on an aide, Brenzinger pulled a Houdini. According to Paul Nettleton, the independent MLA and recent confidante of Brenzinger, she has gone on a trip with her husband and won't address the media for at least a week.So we don't know what finally drove her to jump. Maybe it was getting passed over in the latest cabinet shuffle. Or maybe it was getting told to f*** off by Campbell in a caucus meeting. And we don't know whether, as an independent, she plans to champion a particular issue - such as education and services for the handicapped, her field before entering politics - or slink into obscurity. But we can sense what she has in store, based on the experiences of other Liberals who have left caucus.Conveniently, this reporter visited the provincial legislature last week to see what life is like for the one sitting independent MLA, Paul Nettleton.Shunned and frustratedThe dining room in the bowels of the Legislature has been a lonely place for the MLA from Prince George-Omineca. Relations with fellow MLA's have thawed a little, but Nettleton says that he has been "generally shunned" by former colleagues since November, 2002, when he sent journalists a 4,000-word email alleging that his party planned to break-up BC Hydro."I've gotten used to eating alone," he admits, before ordering a steak sandwich, medium rare. (Fittingly, Nettleton's main interest of late has been the threat of "mad cow disease" to B.C.'s beef industry.)Between bites he trashes Shirley Bond, a fellow Prince George MLA. She is, he says, too much associated with Doug Walls - the discredited former head of Community Living B.C. - and a sure loser in the next election. He delivers the appraisal in a loud voice, and I look around for the reaction of other diners. No one seems to be listening. Besides, Nettleton clearly doesn't care what they think.Some civility remains. The slick Barry Penner, deputy house leader, stops by our table and quite cordially runs through the afternoon's agenda. And when the third Prince George MLA arrives, the cowboy boot-clad Pat Bell, he gives Nettleton a hearty greeting. When I comment that he and Bell seem quite cordial, Nettleton says, "He doesn't know the question I've got him lined up for this afternoon."Ready to deal out punishmentsDespite being one of just two Liberal MLAs elected in 1996, Nettleton has never had a high profile in the party. He claims that he won the Liberal nomination in his riding despite Gordon Campbell's preference for another candidate. And when he talks about his reasons for leaving caucus, Nettleton directs all his resentment and frustration at the party leader."This a top-down administration with a premier who micro-manages every important file in every ministry," he says. "Gordon Campbell and [Chief of Staff] Martyn Brown have created a culture of fear and intimidation and back-stabbing that has created an environment that is quite intolerable for members who want to work and think and reason and debate."Allan Warnke, a former Liberal MLA who messily split with the party in 1996, says that Campbell has demanded absolute loyalty from MLAs ever since he became leader in 1993. "If you showed any independent thought or critiqued a policy," says Warnke, "you got into trouble right away."Warnke, who is now a professor of political science at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, broke with the Liberals when he learned that Campbell wanted Geoff Plant to run in Warnke's Richmond-Steveston riding in the 1996 election. The feud became heated, public, and personal."The character assassination happened quickly," Warnke remembers, and adds that when Liberal MLA Bob Chisholm fought a contentious battle over his own nomination (which he lost to Barry Penner), the party went after both him and his wife. "I swear that guys like [Finance Minister] Gary Collins have dossiers on everybody, so they're ready to trash you if you become independent or cross the floor."Shortly after Elayne Brenzinger sent out her press release, Liberal whip Kevin Krueger denounced her as a "high-maintenance" MLA whose ambitions outstripped her abilities. The party revealed that in December she was suspended from caucus for two weeks, after an incident in which she grabbed the neck of a staff member who was shredding documents.Brenzinger warned of Liberal tacticsBrenzinger knew this was coming, says Nettleton. In December she confided to him that she was thinking of leaving caucus. He warned her that the "strangling" incident and any other missteps would be trumpeted by the party. He thought he might have dissuaded her, but this past Sunday afternoon she phoned him and said, "I'm going to take the plunge."Norman Ruff, a political scientist at the University of Victoria, says that the quick attacks on Brenzinger were intended as a "clear warning to anyone else contemplating a similar act." Some backbenchers might be getting itchy feet, now that Gordon Campbell has chosen the cabinet that he will take into next year's election. Given that the Liberals have the largest caucus in B.C. history, he says, you're going to have a lot ofambitious people consigned to the back benches.On this day at the B.C. legislature, the question period's screaming ritual has begun, and the NDP tag team is up. While NDP MLA Jenny Kwan strikes out on her line of questioning, Joy MacPhail shouts out words of emphasis.Kwan: "It has come to light that the government has two agreements--"MacPhail: "Two!" (Angry stare around room.)Kwan: "--with the Nanaimo doctors. One agreement."This continues. Paul Nettleton looks very tiny and rather washed-out in the Legislative Assembly. When a Liberal speaks the rest of caucus pound their desks like a walrus orchestra. Kwan and MacPhail sit with arms resolutely crossed and wait for the next round of attacks. Nettleton, in his distant corner near the fire escape, claps along listlessly or gazes off in reverie.Finally his moment comes to question Pat Bell. He asks the Minister of Energy and Mines why he seems to be ignoring the recommendations of a task force on mining in the province, a report that was completed in the fall and kept secret until a copy was leaked to Vaughn Palmer of the Vancouver Sun. Bell gives a cheerful non-response, and the Speaker denies Nettleton a follow-up question. That's it for the day.Why Campbell's ouster is long oddsIt's not easy being an independent MLA, and in Victoria Nettleton has a reputation of accomplishing very little in the way private member bills or sustained, substantive critiques of the government. People still talk about the discovery, in 1998, that he slept in his Legislature officeand pocketed his $150 daily allowance for accommodations. At the time he claimed that he was living "paycheque to paycheque" and had a youngfamily to support. (He apologized, and when now in Victoria, stays in a fifthwheel in a local RV Park.)Back in Prince George, Nettleton frequently appears in the local media and tries to help constituents. Ben Meisner, a political commentator on FM 99.3 and a columnist for the Prince George Citizen, says "He hasn't done anything wrong, or terribly right, but in politics that can be a good thing. Is he a little strange? Yes. Is he off the wall? Probably. But there's no love affair with the Liberals right now, after the sale of BC Rail."He adds that Gordon Campbell, or other MLAs, "always get in a shot against Nettleton if they can." All the same, Meisner thinks that Nettleton could possibly get re-elected if he ran as an independent, if only because of antipathy in the riding towards both the Liberals and the NDP.But, says Norman Ruff, it's nearly impossible these days for independent candidates to win elections. "Who's going to give them money to run a campaign?" he asks. "You can't even get a tax receipt for that."Allan Warnke thought he had a decent chance to win as an independent in 1996, but he got murdered by Geoff Plant. For Nettleton and Brenzinger, there's a good chance that going independent means that they'll be out of office come May 18, 2005.Nettleton maintains that there is only one way that his political career might be resuscitated. "We need a new leader, a moderate and compassionate leader," he says. "That would be good for the party, good for the province, and, to be frank, good for me."He's not the first to suggest Campbell's ouster. Ever since he became leader, Campbell has trailed his party in opinion polls. People who dislike him really dislike him.But, says Warnke: "Gordon Campbell has tight control over the party and the party machinery in every riding. You can't get rid of him, because the Campbellites have consolidated control over the party. The MLAs recruited since 1993 have been screened and selected for their loyalty. A few like Nettleton and some veteran members have slipped through the net, but most own their lives and future to Campbell."The whole New Era agenda is driven by Gordon Campbell, concurs Norman Ruff, and no one has emerged who could credibly be called an heir apparent.Overlooking the Legislative Assembly, and the ocean of seething, competitive, type-A men and women who make up the Liberal caucus, it's no wonder that Campbell feels a need to keep a tight hold on the party. The question is whether it is a firm but harmless grip - like the one attributed to Brenzinger - or a stranglehold that further MLAs will try to escape.Tyee Contributing Editor Chris Tenove files irregular dispatches to give readers a look at the personalities and issues that shape British Columbia's political landscape. If you want to comment on a story or to suggest a future trip, email him by clicking on the link below.  [Tyee]

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