Character matters. It’s important for parents looking for a child-care provider. It’s a huge concern for young couples seeking financial advice. It’s highly relevant for anyone involved in an encounter with the police. And it should be a key factor in who you want to be serving as your MLA and premier.
Surrey-Fleetwood NDP candidate Jagrup Brar demonstrated character when he, alone among MLAs, took up an antipoverty group’s challenge to spend a month living on the income of an employable welfare recipient.
Vancouver-Langara B.C. Liberal MLA Moira Stilwell showed character when she threw her support behind George Abbott after withdrawing from the B.C. Liberal leadership race. She could have backed the front-runners—Christy Clark or Kevin Falcon—and had a better shot at joining the first post–Gordon Campbell B.C. Liberal cabinet.
Vancouver–Mount Pleasant NDP MLA Jenny Kwan also took the road less travelled when she risked her political career by signing a confidential letter and meeting with Carole James, asking her to consider stepping down for the good of the party. For doing this, Kwan and others were outed in front of caucus and the media. Only then did she go public with her concerns. To this day, Kwan is viewed as a traitor by some New Democrats when it was she who was initially betrayed and she who did not respond in a personal way to abuse from party members.
In addition to demonstrating good character, effective politicians need a set of skills, just like in any other job. Ideally, they need to be good listeners, sound judges of the public mood, and curious. The best of them seek to understand new research that might influence their approach to public policies. Vancouver-Hastings NDP MLA Shane Simpson is one such example. Since being elected to the legislature in 2005, he has worked hard to understand the issues of poverty, housing, and regulations affecting adults with developmental disabilities. Not everyone will agree with the NDP’s proposed solutions in these areas, but nobody can question Simpson’s understanding of these complex subjects.
An effective MLA will be a strong advocate for constituents, whether it’s in assisting with someone’s tenancy or student-loan hassles or in hearing a businessperson’s complaints of government unfairness.
MLAs should see themselves as community organizers ready to stand up against regulations or decisions that discriminate against people living in their electoral district. NDP Leader Adrian Dix demonstrated his strength as a constituency politician when he helped rally members of his community to stop the Vancouver school board from closing Sir Guy Carleton elementary school.
Contrast that with the B.C. Liberal MLA for Vancouver–Point Grey, Premier Christy Clark. As the representative for UBC’s Point Grey campus, she approved the government’s elimination of funding for the Therapeutics Initiative—a world-class pharmacological research group, based at UBC, that offers unbiased advice to doctors about prescription drugs. Clark also approved a slight budget cut to the Ministry of Advanced Education, even though she’s the MLA for the largest campus in the province.
Strong MLAs also know how to mobilize the media to advance their constituents’ interests. They understand the legislative process. They are respected by their colleagues: when something becomes a priority for them, it also becomes a priority for their party. They are persuasive and trustworthy.
One example is Spencer Chandra Herbert, who represents Vancouver–West End for the NDP. He made the arts a priority for the NDP to an extent that they never were before. He accomplished this by relentlessly driving home the importance of a buoyant cultural sector—including the film industry—to the provincial economy.
Chandra Herbert also advanced a private-member’s bill to bring transgender people under the B.C. Human Rights Code, which B.C. Liberal MLAs did not support. He has fought side by side with tenants facing eviction.
The best MLAs are often accessible in the community on weekends and in the evenings. Chandra Herbert made himself more visible by setting up tables on the street in different parts of his constituency to talk to passersby. And he has shown a strong sensitivity to businesses in his community, many of which rely heavily on tourism.
There are some new candidates running this year who have the potential to become excellent MLAs. Vancouver-Fairview candidate George Heyman and Vancouver–Point Grey NDP candidate David Eby are two who spring to mind. They’re part of the reason why the NDP has a greener hue going into this election. They’re not the only newcomers worth considering. New Westminster NDP candidate Judy Darcy is tough and smart. The same adjectives can be applied to Craig Keating, a five-term city councillor who’s running for the NDP in North Vancouver–Lonsdale.
For the third straight election, flower-shop owner and media commentator Gabriel Yiu is running for the NDP. If he wins in Vancouver-Fraserview, it will be the first election in recent memory that his constituency will be represented by someone who lives there, rather than being the preferred parachute destination of a “star” B.C. Liberal politician.
The B.C. Liberals have also recruited some strong candidates. Andrew Wilkinson, who’s running in Vancouver-Quilchena, has the potential to become party leader should Eby defeat Christy Clark and the B.C. Liberals go down in flames. Surrey-Panorama candidate Marvin Hunt, the colourful former chair of Metro Vancouver, would be a devastating critic of the NDP if he winds up on the opposition side of the legislature. Former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, who is running for the B.C. Liberals in Vancouver–False Creek, recently demonstrated an independent mind when he wrote a commentary on Straight.com calling for an end to prohibition of marijuana. Most first-time provincial candidates wouldn’t have the guts to do this. If elected, Sullivan will undoubtedly be advancing arguments against the war on drugs in the caucus room, butting heads with former RCMP officer Rich Coleman.
If the B.C. Liberals or the NDP ever take the sensible approach and change their positions on marijuana prohibition, it would be a watershed moment. This could cut policing costs, help people with chronic diseases, stimulate tourism, and ensure that residents aren’t saddled with unnecessary criminal records. There’s also considerable potential for boosting government revenues from cannabis if Parliament decides to amend the Criminal Code of Canada. But it won’t happen without politicians like Sullivan raising this as an issue.
Sullivan’s NDP opponent in Vancouver–False Creek, digital-media entrepreneur Matt Toner, is similarly independent-minded. He’s done a good job raising the profile of the high-tech, film, and video-game industries within his party.
Voters in Vancouver–False Creek actually have no shortage of good choices. Businessman Ian Tootill was probably the best B.C. Conservative candidate in the region until his party leader, John Cummins, booted him off the slate over some silly comments he made on Twitter. Let’s hope that Tootill doesn’t give up on politics, because he has a sharp mind and a commitment to public service.
The Greens’ Daniel Tseghay (a writer who sometimes contributes to the Straight) is one of his party’s better representatives in this region. He’s ethical, articulate, intelligent, democratically minded, and very green in his outlook. You could never conceive of him engaging in dirty tricks, like giving false addresses to party members living outside of a constituency’s boundaries to secure a nomination.
Character also matters when it comes to party leaders. Much has been made of Dix’s character by a shadowy group called Concerned Citizens of B.C. It didn’t have sufficient character to reveal who was paying for an advertising campaign that made the NDP leader look like a gangster.
Dix has pursued a different approach in this election campaign. He has refrained from personal attacks and focused most of his efforts on earning people’s votes and highlighting issues of concern. That’s a sign of character.
Green Leader Jane Sterk has also focused on policies rather than smearing her opponents. Meanwhile, Clark likes showing up on the nightly television newscasts in a hardhat—to convey that she cares about the economy—but she hasn’t called off the personal-attack dogs in her party in the same way that Dix has. It’s cause for concern whenever a party leader conveys the impression that the ends justify the means. That viewpoint was clearly on display in the B.C. Liberals’ multicultural-outreach document, which focused far more on the optics of inclusiveness than on truly advancing human rights for people of colour.
So when the B.C. Liberals place so much attention on condemning candidates’ characters—such as the drive-by attacks on the NDP’s Jane Shin in Burnaby-Lougheed or the ruthless ripping of Dix—it speaks to their own character.
It’s worth noting that the B.C. Liberals failed on a character test in the 2009 election. Back then, they declared that there would be a $495-million deficit. It ended up close to $2 billion. Then they claimed they had no idea that when the budget was presented in February 2009, the world economy was in such horrible shape—this despite the global meltdown having occurred four months earlier.
Then there was the lack of clarity on the harmonized sales tax (HST) during the 2009 campaign. The B.C. Liberals told restaurant- and housing-industry representatives it wasn’t being considered. But 10 weeks after the election, it had become government policy, creating a $1.9-billion annual tax shift from businesses to individuals. It took forever for this decision to be reversed.
This year’s NDP platform, for the most part, gives a clear indication of what the party will do if it forms the government. There are some exceptions; voters have no idea if a Dix-led regime would require unionized labour on all public construction projects, for example. Wilkinson of the B.C. Liberals also scored a bull’s-eye when he criticized the NDP for not coming clean on how it would change the B.C. Labour Code. But in the areas of employment standards, taxation, and funding for health, education, legal aid, and income assistance, it’s not difficult to see how an NDP government will proceed. It’s clear that there won’t be much new money for acute care, but there will be substantial increases for home care. And the NDP will strengthen the Therapeutics Initiative.
Dix deserves credit for providing more transparency than what we’ve been used to in previous election campaigns. This is especially true of his decision to publicly criticize Kinder Morgan’s plan to turn Vancouver into a major oil-exporting port.
Education has largely flown under the radar during this election campaign. A notable exception has been the NDP’s promise to replace the Foundation Skills Assessment tests with “improved assessment tools resulting from consultation with parents, teachers, and school boards”. The NDP’s approach just might make it impossible for the right-wing Fraser Institute to continue its questionable practice of ranking schools. This undermines public education by convincing some parents to transfer their children to different schools or enroll them in private institutions. And the NDP’s promise to create provincewide school codes of conduct will make it more difficult for some boards of education to shirk their responsibility to try to reduce homophobia. This has not been a priority for the B.C. Liberals.
The NDP won’t make major changes to social assistance, a position that has rankled some of its supporters. Employable welfare recipients will only receive a $20-per-month raise, which will be phased in over two years. It’s a pretty paltry change for the better for the province’s poorest residents (who haven’t seen a rate increase since 2007), and it flies in the face of the economic theories of British epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, whom Dix likes to quote. Wilkinson has demonstrated that societies with narrower gaps between rich and poor have superior health outcomes, longer life expectancies, and less violence, mental illness, and drug addiction. Even the rich live longer when there is more equality—and the NDP’s proposals on welfare and social housing don’t go nearly far enough to make much of a difference. But at least Dix, unlike many B.C. Liberal candidates, is aware of Wilkinson’s research, if that counts for anything.
In our candidate picks article, you’ll see our preferences in Vancouver and the inner suburbs. Before you vote, we encourage you to visit the candidates’ websites and read the parties’ platforms.