B.C. NDP may go back to the 1990s in crowning a new leader in time for 2017 election
The B.C. NDP leadership race is shaping up as dreary contest between two fairly conservative retreads from the 1990s.
That became even more likely today with rookie NDP MLA David Eby's declaration that he's not running because his partner is expecting a baby.
The two likely leading contestants—veteran MLAs Mike Farnworth and John Horgan—can each expect to be targeted by B.C. Liberal attack ads in the 2017 election should they emerge victorious in September.
Farnworth, the NDP finance critic, is quick-witted and congenial but a little light on policy. He was first elected in 1991 and served in the cabinet of Glen Clark.
Anticipate the B.C. Liberals to zero in on a decision that Farnworth made as the minister in charge of gambling in December 1998.
That's when Farnworth granted approval-in-principle to a casino-licence application from a company owned by Dimitrios Pilarinos and Steve Ng.
That set the wheels in motion for the "casinogate" scandal, leading to the resignation of then-premier Glen Clark the following year.
Farnworth later testified in court that he didn't know Pilarinos had done work on Clark's house and cottage or that their families had vacationed together.
B.C. Liberal communications advisers will pay little heed to this nuance in trying to submarine Farnworth in 2017.
Horgan has vulnerabilities as well
Horgan worked for three B.C. NDP premiers in the 1990s—Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark, and Dan Miller.
That alone would provide plenty of fodder for B.C. Liberal attack ads.
Last year, Horgan said he wasn't going to run for the leadership—suggesting that his party needed someone not associated with the 1990s—but he's since been sending signals that he might be ready to change his mind.
Now the NDP house leader and MLA for Juan de Fuca, Horgan has his own casino bugaboo, though it's not as politically damaging as Farnworth's.
That's because Horgan was the witness who signed a government letter granting Dix a $66,000 severance payment after being replaced as Clark's principal secretary.
Horgan also has a connection to the growth of the Vancouver gambling industry.
In 2003, he along with former NDP government officials Ian Reid and John Heaney cleverly orchestrated a public-relations campaign to get Vancouver city council to lift a moratorium on slot machines.
The trio had previously worked in the ministry overseeing the expansion of gambling in B.C. in the 1990s.
In January 2004, the Straight reported that the campaign included getting a retired Vancouver police sergeant, Don Smith, to offer assurances to city council about allowing slot machines at the Plaza of Nation.
In addition, SFU criminologist Neil Boyd—a friend of then-mayor Larry Campbell—wrote a letter to city council purporting that pathological gambling was a “relatively trivial public health concern”. It worked wonders, clearing the way for a second slot-machine proposal to proceed at Hastings Park.
Campbell cast the deciding vote on the second proposal, and after becoming a senator, joined the board of Great Canadian Gaming.
High entry fee discourages progressives from running
Numerous other potential candidates for the NDP leadership have declared that they're not interested in the job.
There are a couple of reasons behind this.
One is the prohibitive cost.
The party set a $25,000 entry fee and a spending limit of $350,000 for candidates. According to a Vancouver Sun column by Vaughn Palmer earlier this year, half the money that any candidate raises must go to the party.
This ensures that more conservative-minded candidates—such as Farnworth and Horgan—are in a better position to run because they can count on more financial support from businesspeople and corporate lobbyists.
One of Farnworth's top supporters, for instance, has a long list of corporate clients, including the association representing brand-name pharmaceutical manufacturers.
Meanwhile, Horgan is an unabashed free enterpriser who can probably count on support from some in the corporate sector.
Those of a more progressive bent who've so far refused to enter the race include NDP MLAs Norm Macdonald, Jenny Kwan, Judy Darcy, and George Heyman, and NDP MPs Kennedy Stewart, Peter Julian, Nathan Cullen, and Fin Donnelly.
Kwan and Macdonald—two dissidents who opposed the leadership of Carole James in 2010—will support Farnworth. That's because he is seen as a nice guy in caucus who's willing to listen to others' ideas.
Horgan, on the other hand, went ballistic on those who criticized James's leadership, especially Kwan, whom he called "childish".
Don't expect her to forget this when it comes time to choose her preferred candidate.
Municipal politicians not given a chance
The party and its leader, Adrian Dix, made it extremely difficult for successful municipal politicians to enter the race by ensuring that the next leader is chosen in 2014.
That's because local councillors and mayors face re-election, and can't take time out to run for a provincial party leadership.
The justification for this decision has been that provincial New Democrats didn't want to select a leader at a time when federal New Democrats were raising money to take on Stephen Harper in 2015.
While that might make sense for party cohesion, it has likely left the B.C. NDP with an extremely boring race that won't fire up anyone except the party's most ardent supporters.
If the B.C. NDP had waited until 2015, perhaps it could have lured some fresh faces into the contest, such as Vancouver city councillor Raymond Louie, City of North Vancouver mayor Darrell Mussatto, or Burnaby councillor Sav Dhaliwal. They could have helped generate a great deal more interest.
If the party was perceived to be more open, had delayed the leadership race, and reduced the entrance fee, it would have opened the door to other intriguing candidates who've demonstrated their mettle at the municipal level.
The leadership competition could have been electrified by the entry of some wild cards with strong appeal to environmentally minded voters, such as New Westminster councillor Jonathan X. Cote or Abbotsford councillor Patricia Ross.
As things stand now, that's not going to happen. And the B.C. NDP will probably go into the next election still trying to bury its past from two decades ago by steering as close to the middle of the road as possible.
That's a real shame for progressive voters across the province who question the wisdom of basing our economic future on more pipelines and exports of liquefied natural gas.