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BC Politics

Appadurai’s Insurgent Challenge

The activist’s surprise bid to become BC NDP leader takes sharp aim at the party’s establishment.

Paul Willcocks 15 Aug

Paul Willcocks is a senior editor at The Tyee.

Anjali Appadurai probably isn’t going to beat David Eby and become BC NDP leader and premier.

But she is going to transform the province’s political landscape and challenge the NDP government’s fundamental values and approach to governing.

“They tell us that the only thing we can do is tinker around the edges and make incremental changes,” Appadurai said in a Twitter video announcing her candidacy. “But I don’t believe them.”

Until last Wednesday, Eby was the only NDP leadership candidate, heading comfortably toward the same kind of coronation John Horgan enjoyed in 2014.

Then Appadurai entered the race taking aim at the party establishment.

Appadurai wants a new, much bolder approach for the NDP on issues like climate change, oil and gas production, housing, health care, Indigenous rights — pretty much everything.

And she isn’t pulling punches.

“The system is unravelling. We all feel it,” she says in her video. “And our government’s priorities are completely backward.”

Appadurai has a track record that should make Eby take her seriously. At 32, she brings impressive skills, political experience and alliances to the campaign.

Appadurai foreshadowed Greta Thunberg when, as a 21-year-old youth delegate, she attracted international attention in demanding action from leaders at the 2011 Durban Climate Change Conference. “You've been negotiating all my life,” she said. “In that time, you've failed to meet pledges, you've missed targets and you've broken promises.”

Appadurai has also chosen more direct action, helping organize a 2014 climate protest that disrupted a Vancouver speech by then-prime minister Stephen Harper. The point wasn’t the disruption — it was the resulting social media response, including from journalists, that amplified the message.

She’s worked as a campaigner with West Coast Environmental Law and Sierra Club BC.

And Appadurai has experience as an NDP candidate in last year’s federal election, falling just 431 votes short of winning in Vancouver-Granville. The volunteers from that campaign — who had a reunion picnic last week — can play a big role in the leadership campaign.

Wearing a black shirt, pants and mask, dark-haired Anjali Appadurai raises a fist surrounded by volunteers holding orange federal NDP election signs bearing her name.
As a youth delegate to a 2011 global climate conference, Appadurai drew wide attention for scolding leaders: ‘You've been negotiating all my life… you've missed targets and you've broken promises.’ As the federal NDP candidate in Vancouver-Granville last year, she roused many volunteers but narrowly lost. Photo for The Tyee by Zoë Yunker.

Eby cheerfully welcomed Appadurai to the race.

But the New Democrats are likely wondering how this campaign is going to affect the party’s future.

Appadurai’s basic premise is correct. The Horgan government has avoided bold action in favour of incrementalism. Its political success has come from not making anyone really mad, even if people are disappointed in its response to different issues.

That approach — which Eby has pledged to continue — has worked. The NDP were re-elected in 2020 with the largest share of the popular vote in the party’s history. The implicit rationale is better a slow-acting NDP government that stays in power than four years of change that leads to a BC Liberal government.

But while politically astute, the cautious approach brings risks. The NDP government is following in the BC Liberals’ footsteps when it comes to big talk and little action on climate change, for example. In 2007, the BC Liberals said they would cut emissions by one-third by 2020. Instead the province’s emissions will have increased when the final numbers are tallied.

The NDP government says it will cut emissions by 40 per cent from 2017 levels by 2030. Appadurai will point out the impossibility of that task as LNG production expands.

Just as she will poke at the government on other issues.

Appadurai's announcement included condemnation of the government’s approach to Indigenous rights, noting she had recently travelled to the Coastal GasLink pipeline route through Wet’suwe’en and Gitxsan territory. “I witnessed this government trying to force a pipeline through sovereign Indigenous land.”

And, as the NDP government prepares for battle with public sector unions, Appadurai responded to the BC General Employees' Union strike notice by tweeting “My solidarity is with B.C.’s public service workers. I’ll see you on the picket line.”

The Greens and BC Liberals will be watching all this with keen interest.

The Greens — betrayed by Horgan when he called the snap election in 2020 — have been effective in opposition. And Appadurai will be hammering the government on many of the same points Green MLAs Sonia Furstenau and Adam Olsen have been raising.

If the NDP dismisses those concerns, the Greens can legitimately argue that people should give up on the New Democrats and vote Green in the next election.

And the Liberals will be rooting for Appadurai to alarm centrist voters who Horgan has successfully wooed.

While Appadurai is a long-shot candidate, there is a possible path to victory.

In the last contested NDP leadership race in 2011, Adrian Dix edged Mike Farnworth, with a total of 19,000 votes cast.

Appadurai’s late entry into the race is a problem. People have to be party members by Sept. 4 to vote in the leadership contest.

But her campaign is signing up volunteers to help recruit new members before the deadline. Dogwood, which bills itself as the province’s largest non-partisan citizen action network, has launched a phone campaign to encourage people to join the NDP and vote for Appadurai. And public sector union members might be open to supporting a candidate who backs their campaign for larger wage increases.

Disappointed current party members and a big influx of new members eager to back Appadurai’s vision could make her campaign competitive.

The New Democrats were heading to a second consecutive leadership contest with one candidate, boring but safe.

Appadurai has changed that. And her entry in the race will likely bring much broader changes to B.C. politics.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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