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BC Election 2013: The Declaration of Independents

Without a hope of holding party power why would anyone run solo?

By Crawford Kilian 8 May 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous Tyee articles here.

Every B.C. election sees a few independents running, but they usually seem more like comic relief than serious contenders.

Most are well-meaning amateurs, often with a particular axe to grind. They get nowhere. Others are candidates abruptly ditched by their own party, defecting or expelled from their own caucus whether over matters of principle or pure bad behaviour.

Historically, such independents are usually the only ones sitting in the legislature, and if they run again as independents the voters show them the door.

Despite the daunting odds against success, a few independents are running in this election as a matter of choice. They weren't turned down by some other party, or kicked out. They don't like parties or the party system. Whether they win or lose, they reflect a widespread voter alienation from the present party-driven form of democracy.

The inspiration for this movement is clearly Vicki Huntington, who was courted by several parties in 2009 but chose to run as an independent for Delta South. She beat Liberal Wally Oppal by just 32 votes. Since then she's had a good hitch in the Legislative Assembly, and she's running again; The Tyee is currently calling the riding for her.

The Tyee recently talked with Huntington and three other independents: Michael Markwick in West Vancouver-Capilano, Jaime Webbe in North Vancouver-Seymour and Arthur Hadland in Peace River North. Like Huntington, all are candidates any party would be glad to run, and all deliberately chose the independent route.

Not all have Huntington's advantages. She comes from a political family -- her father Ron Huntington was a North Shore Progressive Conservative MP in the 1970s and early 1980s. Huntington herself was a Delta councillor before 2009, and she told The Tyee that being well-known in the community was a definite asset. She tapped into community resentment at the way the Liberal government was treating Delta, with power transmission lines as the last straw.

"People were concerned with what an independent can accomplish," she told The Tyee. "We proved we can accomplish a lot. Being an independent is not an impediment; we have as much access as anyone." She added that a number of her proposals succeeded; the budget for "other members" (independents) was doubled, enabling them to hire researchers. She was also happy to get provincial support for dredging the waterways of Ladner harbour.

Little partisanship

Working with other independents was also easy, Huntington said, with broad agreement on issues and little partisanship. "Get down to basics and you can find solutions," she said.

Huntington said it wasn't hard to recruit a campaign the first time, but it's easier now. "We're drawing volunteers from right across the spectrum, NDP and Liberal. It's very grassroots."

How would she work with an NDP government? "The same way as the present government. I was considered opposition, so I worked closely with the NDP." Huntington predicted the New Democrats would have a steep learning curve once in power, but she was confident she could work with them.

Is the independent candidate a trend? "If governments and parties don't reform the party system so MLAs can represent their communities, it will be a trend," she said. "People are fed up with a system that doesn't respond to the public. B.C. MLAs have very little opportunity to effect change." She would like to see electoral reform, so that elections are held over real budgets.

Huntington's success in fighting the system inspired Michael Markwick to run as an independent in West Vancouver-Capilano against longtime incumbent Ralph Sultan. "This campaign would be inconceivable if not for her example," he told The Tyee.

Having worked in the Ontario government of Bob Rae (then a New Democrat), and served as chief of staff to Rosemary Brown when she led the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Markwick -- now convenor of the communications degree program at Capilano University -- would seem like an ideal NDP candidate.

But Markwick has a link to the trailer for Sean Holman's new documentary Whipped: The Secret World of Party Discipline on his campaign website. "I couldn't put myself under the heel of a party structure," he told The Tyee. He wants to restore democratic accountability, which means MLAs with far more independence. "The premier can prorogue at will with a whipped caucus," he said. "There are better ways."

"Politics is now government-driven citizens instead of citizen-driven government," he added.

A waste of time?

Isn't he wasting his time in one of the most affluent, solid-Liberal ridings in B.C.? "We've got twice the average income," Markwick says, "but there's a disconnect with reality." Even West Van-Capilano has homelessness and at-risk youth. "Suicidal kids and youth have doubled in numbers," he said.

Markwick has lived on the North Shore for 20 years, a community he sees as highly reliant on education and the arts. But he argues that the Liberal MLAs representing North and West Vancouver seem indifferent to this need. Speaking of the cuts at Capilano University, Markwick said the Liberals are "euthanizing the knowledge economy" and have no interest in the film industry. "The Liberals are deadbeat dads for North Shore ridings and industries," he said.

Farther east, in North Vancouver-Seymour, Jaime Webbe is another high-quality candidate who would seemingly thrive as a Liberal, New Democrat or Green. Born in North Vancouver, Webbe and her family recently returned from years overseas, where she worked as as expert with the World Bank and the UN on environmental and development issues. She continues as an expert advisor to the UN.

"As an independent candidate," Webbe says in her campaign literature, "I believe that we must urgently address three key issues: restoring the integrity of our government; enduring environmentally responsible development; and fulfilling our social responsibilities to children and seniors."

Webbe sees both advantages and drawbacks to running as an independent. She can give her own views without being constrained by a party platform. Her campaign isn't affected by the personality or actions of a party leaders; "I am judged based on my own strengths alone."

But campaigning is harder without a party machine, media coverage is harder to get, and fundraising is very difficult: "With my budget of about $3,000 things like ads in the newspaper are beyond the reach of my campaign."

Bullying OK in the legislative assembly

Arthur Hadland, in Peace River North, is on his second campaign. "The first time was a protest," he told The Tyee. "Now it's a contest."

A lifelong resident of the Peace, Hadland was chair and director on the board of the North Peace Saving and Credit Union in the 1980s and has been a director of the Peace River Regional District since 2008. Money issues, especially provincial debt, are a major concern: "The debt trendline is upward, and it's now massive. The party system is the culprit."

Hadland, like other independents, strongly objects to party discipline: "Classroom bullying is bad but it's OK in the legislative assembly." Like Markwick and Huntington, he strongly endorses Whipped. He also expresses a widespread attitude in remote rural ridings: that urban B.C. doesn't know and doesn't care about rural issues.

"We need policies for the north," Hadland said. "The carbon tax renders us uncompetitive; we're at a 15 per cent disadvantage against Alberta."

Hadland acknowledges the difficulties of running as an independent, but cites Huntington as an example of what can be done: "She asked 20 questions in the 17 days that the legislature sat this year." And like Huntington, he thinks independent MLAs would work effectively with one another regardless of their political positions.

One function of the independent candidate is to raise issues that the parties prefer not to face. The party system itself is just such an issue. Anyone forced to listen to an MLA or MP robotically reciting the party's talking points while ducking substantive questions must think that democracy deserves better than this.

The sheer organization of the party machines makes independent candidates the longest of long shots. That's why parties impose discipline on their candidates, because discipline and staying on message win elections.

Still, as party leaders contemplate the public impatience with discipline, and the public alienation from democracy itself, they might pause to reflect. Perhaps, if they threw away their whips and gave candidates the freedom ordinary Canadians enjoy, they would be able to attract strong candidates like Hadland, Huntington, Markwick and Webbe -- and to improve their chances of winning formerly unwinnable ridings.

The party that took a chance on such candidates might just find it had figured out what the voters really want.  [Tyee]

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