Opinion

BC's Year of Living Politically Dangerously

Expect serious casualties as Libs and New Dems deal with internal fights.

By Bill Tieleman 23 Nov 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

"We vote with our actions." -- Benjamin Shield, author

Welcome to British Columbia's year of living politically dangerously.

Over the next 12 months there will be serious electoral casualties coming in as both the BC Liberals and New Democrats deal with significant internal battles.

Those struggles were in full public view last week, with ex-cabinet minister Bill Bennett laying out a totally devastating portrait of Premier Gordon Campbell as an abusive bully who gets literally spitting mad at any questioning of his supreme authority as leader.

And the BC NDP engaged in full conflict over Carole James' leadership at the party's provincial council meeting last weekend, with James supporters unsurprisingly defeating a motion calling for a full leadership convention next November.

But James failed to convince nearly 40 per cent of her caucus to publicly endorse her when questioned by media.

That followed the sudden resignation of NDP caucus whip Katrine Conroy on Friday, a news conference with NDP MLAs Jenny Kwan, Lana Popham and Claire Trevena all in attendance to give Conroy support and decline to voice the same for James.

At the root of both the BC Liberal and NDP problems are strikingly similar issues -- is there any room for democracy and dissent within political parties?

And do leaders have the right to demand absolute loyalty of individual MLAs who are elected by voters -- not the party?

Elites and anti-elites

The challenges now faced in both parties are not unique to British Columbia at all -- neither is the province simply a wacky place for politics.

Central to both is the concept of elite domination of politics versus direct democracy.

In Toronto, anti-elite candidate Rob Ford simply devastated elite politician George Smitherman -- a former Ontario Liberal deputy premier -- in the election for mayor.

In the United States, the Tea Party movement has gained huge traction even as it clearly has no coherent policy prescription for the country other than anger at existing politicians.

And right now, that's enough.

Here in B.C. we've seen the incredible public response to the direct democracy citizens' initiative campaign of Fight HST -- which I am involved with -- against the hated Harmonized Sales Tax.

And we'll soon see if the Fight HST-organized recall campaign against BC Liberal cabinet minister Ida Chong in her Oak Bay-Gordon Head riding to add pressure to end the HST gets traction when it begins this week.

Grassroots anger at the HST has already driven Campbell to resign and his party to nosedive in popularity.

Even without an initiative process available in Ontario, Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty -- who also introduced an HST there at the same time as in B.C. -- appears headed for a disastrous defeat in the next election.

The consequence of anti-elite anger at the leadership of both the governing and opposition parties in B.C. is clear: the controversial Campbell could be forced from office by his caucus prior to his planned departure when a new leader is chosen by the BC Liberals on Feb. 26, 2011.

And James could see her party fracture both at the caucus and membership level even before a Nov. 2011 NDP convention holds a scheduled yes or no review vote on her continued leadership.

Papering over torn feelings

This week saw transparent efforts to paper over significant splits in both parties.

Campbell loyalists, especially women, have been trotted out to say the premier may have been "very, very tough man to work for" -- as former deputy premier Christy Clark put it -- but no, they all say, he never abused me.

Bennett's alleged mistreatment and his former BC Liberal colleagues' response to it are eerily reminiscent of the old Monty Python television show skit about gangster Dinsdale Piranha and how he terrorized his thugs but fear forced them to deny it.

Presenter: Another man who had his head nailed to the floor was Stig O' Tracy.

Interviewer: I've been told Dinsdale Piranha nailed your head to the floor.

Stig: No. Never. He was a smashing bloke. He used to buy his mother flowers and that. He was like a brother to me.

Interviewer: But the police have film of Dinsdale actually nailing your head to the floor.

Stig: (pause) Oh yeah, he did that.

Interviewer: Why?

Stig: Well he had to, didn't he? I mean there was nothing else he could do, be fair. I had transgressed the unwritten law.

Interviewer: What had you done?

Stig: Er... well he didn't tell me that, but he gave me his word that it was the case, and that's good enough for me with old Dinsy. I mean, he didn't want to nail my head to the floor. I had to insist. He wanted to let me off. He'd do anything for you, Dinsdale would.

Interviewer: And you don't bear him a grudge?

Stig: A grudge! Old Dinsy? He was a real darling.

Whatever the truth of Campbell's intimidating behaviour, his 15 per cent income tax cut announced on television Oct. 27 disappeared faster than Bennett's photo on the party website.

Even traumatized BC Liberal MLAs realized that their new leader would get no credit for the tax reduction but they would be left with an annual $600 million hole in the budget, something likely to force unpopular public service cuts.

Yellow banner

In the NDP's case, James' supporters at provincial council made a show of giving out yellow scarves with a large embossed letter C, indicating support for the leader.

There were also buttons with "Doer. Dexter. James." -- a reference to former Manitoba NDP premier Gary Doer, who lost three elections before winning government for 10 years and current Nova Scotia NDP Premier Darrell Dexter, who had two election losses before becoming premier in 2009.

But the strategy backfired when sharp-eyed media were immediately able to identify 13 caucus members pointedly not wearing the yellow scarves -- and not responding to James' angry speech calling for party unity.

Those familiar with the provincial council also know it is traditionally dominated by supporters of the leader and has never voted to break ranks with any of them in the past -- even when NDP premiers Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark and Ujjal Dosanjh were in the direst of straits with the public.

So James still faces a challenge to restore unity to the fractious caucus -- and calling MLAs who disagree with her "selfish" prior to the vote wasn't wise.

Downward indicators

Despite that provincial council vote against a full leadership convention next year, the NDP remains in serious financial difficulty with a shrinking membership and falling polling results.

A Mustel Group poll released Friday showed the BC Liberals rebounding after Campbell's resignation announcement to 37 per cent, just five per cent behind the NDP's 42 per cent -- which is the same level of support it achieved in the 2009 election.

And Mustel said James' personal approval has dropped nine per cent since September to 33 per cent, putting her just a point above Campbell's 32 per cent.

(Those numbers differ with the last Angus Reid Public Opinion Poll before Campbell quit, showing the NDP at 47 per cent versus 26 per cent for the BC Liberals but with James having just 25 per cent personal approval to Campbell's 12 per cent.)

Move up the convention

Ultimately, the only resolution of the NDP's leadership question can come from the general membership of the party -- not the provincial council.

The solution offered here last week is even more salient now. The provincial council should move the scheduled party convention and its planned leadership review vote on James from Nov. 2011 to early March.

The constitution allows it, the circumstances demand it.

It may be painful to deal with contentious delegate selection meetings where James' leadership is the primary issue in all 85 B.C. ridings.

But if not, it will be absolutely excruciating trying to deal with a split in the caucus and party if the BC Liberals cleverly call a provincial election after their new leader is chosen next Feb. 26 -- and before the November NDP convention.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Elections

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