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'Sustainability' the Hot Word (Again) at NDP Convention

Leader James links economy with ecology, but some delegates not satisfied.

By Andrew MacLeod 30 Nov 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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NDP Leader Carole James: Greener lens

British Columbia New Democratic Party leader Carole James began setting a course for the party's future even as some delegates to the NDP's biennial convention expressed deep frustrations with the leadership in the last election.

With James' support the members approved measures that could open her performance to review and eventually lead to her dismissal.

"This morning, I've placed education at the top of my agenda to build a sustainable, new modern economy," James said in her Saturday morning speech to the crowd of over 600 delegates at Vancouver's Westin Bayshore hotel.

In some ways it was an unsurprising announcement from a former school trustee who has said she believes the party lost in May's election because it didn't do a good enough job promoting its positive vision and that she plans to campaign in a way that's more true to her own beliefs and instincts in the future.

"Education is key in the economy," she said in a scrum with reporters in the convention's closing hours Sunday. "That's where the new bright ideas are going to come from. That is where the new entrepreneurship is going to come from. That's where we're going to be able to address the climate change agenda and build a new green sustainable economy."

Sustainability missing

The focus on education did, however, come as a surprise to some caucus members. Never mind the wisdom of putting front and centre an issue that, as Public Eye pointed out, a recent poll found was the top concern for just three per cent of voters.

The thing is, as became clear in the 24 hours following James' speech, many party members believed the party already had a central focus on sustainability and climate change.

At the last convention, in 2007, the party approved a Sustainable B.C. policy document that would have every issue reviewed through a 'sustainability' lens, former MLA David Cubberley told the Tyee. "I don't think that speech had it as a lens in any way, shape or form," he said. "For me I would say sustainability has not made it to being a value in this party and if it doesn't the party will become progressively less and less relevant."

The speech, he said, "appeared not to be centred in the most paramount issue of our times at all . . . The word 'climate change' was never mentioned. 'Sustainable' was a tack on."

During the May election, James and the NDP made opposition to the Liberal government's carbon tax a major plank of the party's platform, putting the party at odds with much of the province's environmental movement.

"The speech was an opportunity to show [sustainability] is becoming more relevant and I think it showed the opposite," said Cubberley, who represented Saanich South from 2005 to 2009 and chose not to run in the May election.

"The question really now, especially after the last election campaign, is whether they care about the environment and the sustainability of our economy and whether they see the shift that we have to make moving into a more sustainable economy as something they play a key role in and I didn't get a sense of that from this speech."

Shane Simpson, the NDP MLA for Vancouver-Hastings and a former environment critic for the party, argued that James may not have used the right "buzz words" in her speech, but that the convention, including James' speech, has largely focused on the links between the environment and the economy.

Instructions ignored

A day later, debating a motion to reaffirm the party's commitment to sustainability, other senior New Democrats expressed frustration at the sidelining of environmental issues.

"I have to say I'm very frustrated to have to stand here at all to support this motion because it shouldn't have had to be here at all," said Joan Sawicki, a former NDP environment minister.

"Those instructions were ignored," she said, referring to the support for making Sustainable B.C. central to the election campaign. "I would suggest that a whole bunch of voters out there, especially young people who are turning their backs on our party because of that."

The party has to do more than talk about green jobs and start talking about a total transformation to an environmentally sustainable economy, she said.

North Island MLA Claire Trevena said she was "immensely disappointed" that the party abandoned talking about sustainability in the election. "I think we would have won that election if we used Sustainable B.C.," she said. The campaign machinery and the caucus dropped it, she said.

Saanich South MLA Lana Popham also spoke in favour of the motion, which passed easily, saying the party will fail future generations if it opts not to view issues through a sustainability lens. "When I was deciding whether or not to become part of this party I was looking for a home where I could put my commitment to the environment," she said. The promised commitment to sustainability was part of what convinced her to join the NDP, she said.

Layton draws ovations

"I've said, and you've heard me say many times, that we didn't put enough of our positive vision out and the example would be the green bond," said B.C. NDP leader Carole James. The NDP had a proposal to raise money for environmental projects by offering a green bond, but didn't do a good enough job promoting it, she said.

"It's very clear you can't get a campaign and you can't get a platform out in 28 days," she said. "I support the comments from folks who said we have to start that process now, we need to make sure it's ingrained, and we need to get it out earlier, well before the election."

She said she has no regrets about the position the NDP took against the carbon tax and supports the party's position.

In contrast, federal New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton stressed the importance of fighting climate change in his address to the convention, a speech that was heavy on specifics and received many standing ovations from the crowd.

"The climate change crisis is the largest crisis faced by the global community," said Layton speaking with reporters later. "All other leaders seem to realize it and they're trying to bring their countries into an advanced position. Our prime minister [Stephen Harper] still has his foot on the brakes and his head in the tar sands."

Asked what role the provinces can play, Layton said, "The provinces have enormous possibilities. Many provinces are taking far more actions than the federal government." His focus is on holding Harper to account, he said.

Other currents running through the convention included:

Leadership review vote next year. There will be a secret ballot vote at every future convention on whether or not to have a leadership convention, according to a motion that passed with broad support. A majority vote would require a leadership convention to be held within one year. Headed into the convention some said this was a housekeeping motion correcting an oversight, while others suggested it is laying the groundwork to replace leader James. James spoke in favour of the motion.

Party money concerns. The NDP had trouble raising money during last May's provincial election campaign and is now in financial trouble, according to a report by party treasurer Cheryl Hewitt. "We are now faced with a post-election cash flow crunch and debt that, while not unanticipated, was significantly more than had been expected."

The provincial executive finance committee has begun meeting regularly to develop a plan to pay off the election debt as fast as possible, she wrote.

One commenter on the Tyee's Hook observed: "I'm a fairly heavy contributor to the NDP . . . But I will not officially contribute to the provincial wing of the party until they actually stand for something sensible to working people. I suspect I will still be waiting on election eve in 2013."

Another wrote: "The money I normally give to the BC NDP has been cut off for over a year and that won't change until they get their act together including a new leader."

The NDP's financial troubles are no worse than other political parties are suffering, treasurer Cheryl Hewitt said. "If you look at the Liberal Party as well, their donations from individuals are down too. All of us took a hit. Every political party in the country took a hit."

The financial statements presented to the convention said the party had spent $311,605 more than it took in by the end of 2008. They cover the period up to four and a half months before the May election.

Asked how big the party's debt is, Hewitt said, "It's hard to tell because we carry debt at the provincial level and we carry debt at the riding level."

The delegates defeated a motion to support federal style public financing for political campaigns. This despite Nanaimo MLA Leonard Krog's observation that the federal legislation, passed by Jean Chretien's Liberal government, worked against the interests of the Conservative Party. "Not only is it the right thing to do," said Krog, speaking about how such a system would work provincially. "It will kick the hell out of the Liberals."

Labour's role in the BC NDP. Distancing the party from labour unions has not affected the party's finances, Hewitt said. "We're still as connected as we ever were. There's still huge commitment from working men and women in British Columbia to the party and it shows up in the support from those individuals and support from their unions. There's really no change at all."

Here's how James put it: "We continue to have a strong relationship with labour and we always will. British Columbia has to grow up when it comes to politics. We need to make sure we have business and labour at the table. It's not either or."

Labour played a central role in the convention with B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair and United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard giving keynote addresses. Other leaders including HEU's Judy Darcy and CUPE's Barry O'Neill had a vocal presence. And despite all the talk about inclusivity with the business world, none of the speakers obviously came from that background.

Cheers for taxing the rich. Sinclair advocated raising taxes in his address to the convention shortly ahead of James' speech. “We need to look at the tax system and make it fair again," said Sinclair, in a speech that received strong applause throughout and a standing ovation at its completion. "We need to get that wealth back from the people who can most afford to give it, the corporations and the wealthy."

In making the argument, Sinclair cited his former employer, Conrad Black, observing that Black's current incarceration may have made him more aware of the need for a better funded public sector.

In a National Post column on Nov. 27, Black said taxes should be raised in three areas, including "a serious gasoline tax" to encourage conservation, a tax on securities trades and merchant banking transactions, and a "wealth tax" to be used for anti-poverty projects.

But no one was sticking up for the Harmonized Sales Tax that the Campbell government introduced after the May election. The HST has been attacked by James and others in the BC NDP as a shift of tax burden from big business to small business and consumer. Layton spoke at length about the federal NDP's opposition to the HST saying it's the wrong time to introduce a new tax.

Broadening the base. The NDP are planning a series of community meetings throughout the province, James said. "I'll be engaging you and a broad range of British Columbians from all walks of life, and experts in their field -- including concerned business leaders -- on how we tackle the big challenges that face us and move beyond the conflicts that hold us back." She talked about finding common ground and using a strong business climate to increase social justice.

After a heated debate delegates approved recommendations to continue with an equity strategy to increase the number of candidates who are women and/or from other under-represented groups.

Moe Sihota was elected president of the party with 364 votes to Brian Fisher's 96.

Organizers announced there are 621 delegates at the convention, which is roughly the same as the 606 who attended the party's 2007 convention.

Two of the NDP's freshest faces, Vancouver West End's Spencer Herbert and Nelson-Creston's Michelle Mungall, co-hosted the convention.

James, traveling with her husband Al Gerow and a Victoria-Beacon Hill delegate, was on the 3 p.m. ferry back to Victoria Sunday afternoon.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Environment

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