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Will May 14 Be Independent's Day in Cariboo North?

One of several exciting races where voters are choosing between party politics as normal and a free voice.

By Andrew MacLeod 3 May 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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Cariboo North's indie incumbent Bob Simpson said he's shown 'you can have power as a constituency MLA without a party brand.' Photo by Andrew MacLeod.

QUESNEL -- The half dozen men drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes at a table on Quesnel's main street Sunday morning all took a dim view of party politics, but disagreed on whether or not electing an independent MLA in the provincial election would make any difference.

On one side was Wayne Malone. He said he doesn't like the party system, but in a race between the New Democratic Party and the Liberals it makes sense to vote for one of them. "That's the only way you've got a voice," he said. "As an independent you've got nothing, period."

On the other was Leroy Goodwin. "If everybody voted for the independents it would wake the other parties up," he said, arguing that the parties are the problem. "They're just idiots."

Whether or not to vote for an independent is a key question in Cariboo North, where incumbent MLA Bob Simpson is facing challenges from the NDP's Duncan Barnett and the BC Liberals' Coralee Oakes. Simpson was elected as an NDP candidate in 2005 and 2009, but has sat as an independent since 2010 when he parted with the party over his criticism of then leader Carole James.

This election voters are asking similar questions in a handful of other ridings with strong independent candidates, including Vicki Huntington in Delta South, John van Dongen in Abbotsford South and Arthur Hadland in Peace River North. The calculation is similar in ridings that might elect a Green Party or BC Conservative candidate.

Politician without a brand

Quesnel is the kind of town where the shops are closed on Sundays, a bowling alley still operates and there's a western wear shop on the main street. The most prominent landmark is the Billy Barker Casino, lit at night to look like a paddle wheel boat.

Within days of this reporter's visit, both Liberal Leader Christy Clark and NDP Leader Adrian Dix would come through town in their quest for votes. The NDP in particular would love to beat Simpson and win back Cariboo North, which stretches south to include part of Williams Lake.

At the second of two all candidates' meetings on April 27, Simpson in his opening remarks said, "I've shown you can have power as a politician and you can have power as a constituency MLA without a party brand."

He'd tried being in a party, but found it constraining, he said, pointing out how the current NDP candidates seem to march in lockstep with the slogan, "Change for the better, one practical step at a time."

Regarding the party slogan, the NDP's Barnett said, "I like it. I helped write it, so I'm pretty comfortable saying it."

There is strength in working with a team, he said. "I'm not running to be a critic in the legislature. I'm running to deliver results in Cariboo North."

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A prominent local landmark, the Billy Barker Casino, lights up Quesnel's streets. Photo by Andrew MacLeod.

He allowed that there will always be trade-offs in politics, especially in a province where the majority living in the Lower Mainland are bound to have a huge influence. "You won't always win, but that's how you get things done," he said. "I'll bet you'll get more done on the inside working as part of a team than you will as an independent critic."

And if you don't like what the party does as government, he added, "You can vote us out next time if we don't deliver."

Free MLAs needed: Simpson

It's an odd argument for someone from a party that's won just three of the last 22 elections to make, said Simpson. "You're negating your predecessors to say you have to have a government MLA to get things done."

At the earlier event, in his closing remarks he'd hit a similar theme: "One of the things that's interesting as an independent this election is the argument that gets made you have to choose a government MLA for your area to be well represented. If you take that to its logical end, that means that what's being advocated for is a one party system."

B.C.'s political culture needs to change, he said. "What we really need is a system that allows all 85 MLAs, irrespective of their political orientation or stripe of their party, to be free to represent their constituents in the legislature so we don't enable the dictatorship of the premier's office between elections through an overuse of party discipline and whipped votes."

Electing more independents will move the system back towards a "true representative democracy," Simpson said, quoting comments made in the legislature by NDP house leader John Horgan that acknowledged independent MLAs "have the luxury... of being able to get out on issues ahead of the government or ahead of the opposition."

In an interview, the NDP candidate in neighbouring Cariboo-Chilcotin, Charlie Wyse, allowed that the party system has flaws.

"The warts that exist with any system are there," he said. "The better side of a parliamentary system that has parties in it is people can look at the parties, they can look at the platforms, and they have an idea of what they should be receiving from their government. They can then hold them accountable if they do not live up to their promises."

Disciplined parties are accountable: Wyse

"That's the good side," said Wyse, who within days would be the subject of a minor controversy after incorrectly saying the NDP would put a two-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. "The warts are, on that part of the system, there is some discipline that is required."

He compared the system to a legislature without party discipline. "When you move over to look at a house that would have 85 independents in it, its strengths are that each one of them come on their own," he said. "The warts then become how do you develop a consensus on both the budget and (what the government provides), and how do you hold anyone accountable when you have 85 independents?"

Wyse sat as an MLA from 2005 to 2009, having been on the winning end and the losing end of two close elections. "For me personally, I found I was able to bring forward the interests of rural British Columbia as a matter of practice," he said. "I give the NDP credit for having listened to its rural caucus and our platform is reflecting very strongly the needs of rural British Columbia."

Dave Zirnhelt, a former NDP cabinet minister, said parties have a role to play aggregating positions and presenting the public with packages of policies from which to choose.

Nobody, including Simpson, is predicting a day when independents will win all 85 constituencies. Electing a few, however, will bring greater scrutiny to both the government and the opposition.

Polls and campaigns

It is tough to predict with any confidence what the voters of Cariboo North will decide, but word was circulating that one of the parties had a poll showing 50 per cent support for Simpson, with the rest split evenly between the Liberals' Oakes and the NDP's Barnett.

"It feels good on the door," said Simpson, when asked about the figure. His support seems distributed more evenly through the constituency than it did in 2005 and 2009, he said. "Certainly there's no slippage. If there's no slippage, it's around the 49 range where I was before."

His team found a similar result in a poll taken before the two main parties chose candidates, he said.

"I've been in Liberal poll areas; I can't find the Liberal support," he said. "We know we're drawing from both the traditional parties' camps as well, but we're not taking anything for granted. We're running a very, very strong campaign."

Simpson mentioned the Green Party usually gets between three and six per cent of votes in the riding, but people are aware this time the Greens chose not to run anyone against him, and leader Jane Sterk and federal MP Elizabeth May have both endorsed him. "That little bit of a margin is available too."

When asked about the 50 per cent for Simpson figure, Oakes said, "We've certainly looked at the polls, we're on the phones every day and we're door knocking, and I've read what your publication's saying. I really do believe it is too close to call."

The Tyee has listed the race as likely to be close.

Government by the people

"It is such an interesting riding right now because of not knowing where that split is going to fall," said Oakes. "That just motivates (us) every single day to make sure we get out there, work harder, talk to more people and do as much as we possibly can to talk about what I'm passionate about."

Growing up in the area, serving on Quesnel city council and being the executive director of the Quesnel and District Chamber of Commerce all help, said Oakes. "On the voter ID, I think maybe we have a little bit of an advantage," she said. "Having been around so many years, you have a lot of contacts and a large network. For us we feel really positive."

"I think it's going to be a tough three way race and I'm very comfortable with the support I'm getting on the doorstep talking to people," said the NDP's Barnett, a past Cariboo Regional District director and president of the Cariboo Cattleman's Association. "People are saying they're ready for a change in government, no doubt about it."

His party's been polling, but compared to talking with people his team doesn't put much stock in the results, he said.

"I think voters in Cariboo North are really fortunate in that we're seeing democracy in action," he said. "They've got three good candidates, so that hopefully will cause people to engage and to look at what the candidates are saying and look at the party platforms and make an informed decision. But they've got a choice, and that's what democracy's all about."

As for the Quesnel coffee and cigarettes focus group, they included three likely votes for Simpson, two for Barnett and one for Oakes.

"Bob Simpson's going to get in," predicted Malone, saying the vote split will work in Simpson's favour.

But the consensus seemed to be they would rather see a different system altogether. Len Nordin joked the province might do better using a fortune telling Magic Eight Ball to make decisions. "I'm going to vote for the eight-ball party," he said.

And Al Archer suggested choosing citizens randomly through a lottery system to serve as MLAs.

"That would be government by the people," he said.  [Tyee]

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