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Simpson Traces Rift with James Back to 2005

NDP's 'strategy isn't working' says MLA ousted from caucus over critical statement.

By Andrew MacLeod 8 Oct 2010 | TheTyee.ca

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

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Bob Simpson: Intends to stay with NDP.

With the ejection of Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson from the British Columbia New Democratic Party caucus Thursday, a long standing rift -- at least five years old according to Simpson -- became suddenly public. The parties involved spent the day talking to the media, each with their own version of what went wrong and when.

NDP leader Carole James was out the gate first, with a statement released shortly after midnight on Thursday.

"Earlier this evening, I spoke with Bob Simpson, the MLA for Cariboo North, to advise him that he was no longer a member of the NDP caucus," NDP leader Carole James said in the written statement.

"The NDP caucus is a team of hardworking British Columbians committed to our work as a strong opposition and focused on building a pragmatic and progressive alternative to the current government," she said. "Through his public comments today, Mr. Simpson has made it clear that he would rather criticize our work than contribute to it. He has made it clear that he does not want to be part of our team."

Despite the split, she closed with a human touch: "I wish Mr. Simpson well."

Column triggered ouster

At issue were two lines from a column Simpson wrote for a website called Welcome to Williams Lake.

In it he critiqued the vacuousness of the speeches given at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Whistler last week. While he was tough on Premier Gordon Campbell, his own leader, James, failed to escape criticism.

"The Leader of the Opposition likewise had little concrete to offer the delegates other than a commitment to be more consultative than the current government and a promise to explore the possibility of revenue sharing with local governments," he said. "This is a timely concept which has the potential to address the resource needs of local governments, but the lack of specifics was a disappointment to delegates."

The only speech he liked at all was Green Party leader Jane Sterk's, which he praised as "courageous": "While she failed to address the issues facing local governments, she at least challenged every politician in the room with her reflection that unless we fundamentally change our thinking about our consumer driven economy we will doom our children to a bleak future."

Come morning, Simpson, who said he slept just a couple hours, was into a day of interviews explaining the depth of his concerns about James' leadership and the direction of the party.

James spent much of the day talking to the media as well, but was not in the end available for an interview for this story. She left a voice message at one point, but was available at no other time.

'I gave them an excuse'

On the surface, the dispute is about the column, but it goes far deeper. As Simpson put it in an interview, "I gave them an excuse."

"I knew that I was skating on thin ice," Simpson said. While the comments were viewed as a "direct assault" on James and her team, they really were pretty gentle, he said. "I think my comments about Carole's speech were a soft critique."

James called Simpson Wednesday evening and asked him to retract the comments and make a public apology, he said.

As far as he was concerned, however, there was nothing to apologize for. The speech did lack details, and many pundits agreed, he said. "It's a factual statement. How do you apologize for a factual statement?"

There was a two-and-a-half hour caucus conference call that Simpson says he wasn't invited to participate in, even though he was still officially in the caucus. Never, he said, was he given a chance to defend himself.

"Two sentences in a column and you're booted from caucus," he said. He called it a "Draconian" move, particularly for someone who has said they were going to do politics differently, that "Speaks volumes about her leadership style."

No mention of James, no ovation

Meanwhile, Simpson had had a meeting scheduled next week to talk with James about his concerns. He said he'd tried to meet with her at the UBCM, but she was unavailable. "They know I've been increasingly frustrated," he said. "I don't think we have a winning strategy."

Party officials were ticked at him because they believed he'd disparaged James at a Saanich South NDP annual general meeting in mid-September, he said, though he insists he had not. "I've not mentioned Carole James' name in a speech for at least four years."

Also, the constituency association in Cariboo North, Simpson's riding, is behind a motion that would force a leadership race at the party's biennial convention in 2011, Public Eye reported Wednesday.

With James pushing him out, Simpson said he believes the Cariboo North motion may find wider support.

The party isn't serving its grassroots members well, Simpson said. It fails to present new policy ideas or a positive vision for the province, even though James herself cited this as a problem after the 2009 election, he said.

"There's a huge appetite out there for something that we're not capturing," he said. Despite the Liberal government's tumbling popularity, the NDP is getting virtually no bounce in the polls, he said.

"That advantage is going to a Conservative Party that doesn't have a leader," he said. "This shows our strategy isn't working."

Lack of direction

Not only has the public been left cold, he said, membership is dropping and finances are in rough shape.

He described James as being risk averse and needing to tell a better story about why people should support the party. There needs to be an anti-poverty strategy, a labour strategy and a carbon strategy, he said.

At the leader's fundraising dinner two weeks ago, James courted business but had nothing to tell them other than that she planned to reach out to them, he said. And vague as that is, it raises questions for the party's other supporters.

"What does reaching out to business mean?" he asked. "Does reaching out mean more corporate tax cuts? Does reaching out mean more deregulation?"

Simpson was one of several MLAs who declined to stand as part of an ovation for James, something he says was noted. "My comment is I didn't get a lobotomy at the front door."

Getting to the fork in the road

Simpson said other NDP MLAs have deep concerns but each will have to decide what they want to do, something they'll have time to think about over the Thanksgiving weekend. "Other MLAs have to find their own voices," he said. "It takes the courage of your convictions. A lot of folks have some tough choices to make. I know deliberations are going on."

He traces his disagreements with James and the party's direction back to 2005, building to his resignation from the caucus executive in 2007. "It's been a low rumble from there."

Before the 2009 election, he "took a walk" during a vote on Campbell's stimulus package, which the NDP supported and he'd been told to vote 'yes' on.

"I regret that," he said, adding he let himself be convinced it was too close to the election to make a stink. "I think I should have fought the fight then."

Simpson said he now has to deal with the party whip, clerk of the house, speaker's office and comptroller general to figure out the logistics of his standing in the legislature.

"I'm pretty confident I have the support of my riding association to stay as an NDP MLA," he said. He also notes the Quesnel and District Labour Council came out in full support of him. "My intent is to stay with the NDP."

Alternatively, Simpson may find himself seated with independent MLAs Vicki Huntington and Blair Lekstrom. "More independent MLAs in the house will change the dynamics of B.C. politics substantially as well."

Nor is he ruling out returning to the NDP caucus in the future, possibly even taking a run at the leadership should the job become available. "I'll cross the path of whether I'd seek leadership if and when the time comes," he said. "This is about us being on a wrong path and Carole's leadership."

NDP observers disagree

As the day went on, various NDP stalwarts weighed in on different sides. Former MLA and strategist David Schreck published a column supporting James and blaming Simpson for distracting from the Liberal government's woes.

Glen Clark's former communications director, Bill Tieleman, described James' move to boot Simpson as "a serious error in judgment." He said it would "make James' leadership a central issue of debate in public."  [Tyee]

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