Adrian Dix sends a message that New Democrats should be proud of their history
At this weekend's B.C. NDP convention, Adrian Dix demonstrated that he will be a formidable opponent for Premier Christy Clark in the next general election.
The knock on Dix has been that he's a serious policy wonk without much of a sense of humour and not enough charisma to defeat the B.C. Liberals.
But in the first section of a lengthy speech to delegates yesterday, the NDP leader showed that he has the capacity to inspire devotion among the party faithful.
Like all good speeches, Dix sprinkled in plenty of vivid, smaller anecdotes to elicit emotion. He also relied on repetition, which has been used throughout the ages by many great orators, including the incomparable Martin Luther King Jr.
For the B.C. NDP's 50th anniversary convention, Dix began by telling a story about how the first leader, Harold Winch, entered the legislature in second-hand pants that cost $1.98.
Dix also mentioned that Winch fought for the vote for people who didn't have the franchise. Moments later, the leader explained how Winch was the founder of B.C.'s home-care system, building dozens of them with his bare hands. And then, Dix said that Winch won pluralities in 1941 and 1952, but was denied power only because of a change in the voting system.
"Harold Winch was the leader of the B.C. NDP and spoke to conventions like this," Dix intoned in front of a banner with the party slogan: "Adrian Dix: Leadership you can count on."
Dix then told the tale of the next leader, Bob Strachan, who changed the frame of political debate by pushing in the legislature for the nationalization of B.C. Electric. Dix noted that Strachan was ridiculed, but a few short years later, then-premier W.A.C. Bennett went ahead and did this, creating B.C. Hydro as a Crown corporation.
"Bob Strachan was leader of the B.C. NDP and spoke to conventions like this," Dix said.
Then there was the story of another NDP leader, Tom Berger, whom Dix characterized "our country's most progressive jurist" and a legendary advocate for aboriginal people. Dix reminded delegates that Berger also spoke to conventions like this.
One of the loudest applauses came when Dix mentioned the name of Dave Barrett, who was NDP premier from 1972 to 1975. Dix reminded the audience that Barrett's government created the Agricultural Land Reserve, ICBC, Mincome, student loans, and PharmaCare. Dix also described Barrett as "B.C.'s Tommy Douglas".
"In March 1973, six months before an American-inspired counterrevolution in Chile, they called Dave Barrett—the premier of British Columbia, as he liked to say, 'Little fat Dave'—they called him Allende of the North," Dix declared. "And it wasn't easy in those days."
From there, Dix skipped over Bob Skelly, who succeeded Barrett, and went straight to Mike Harcourt, who was praised for bringing justice to gay and lesbian people, introducing freedom-of-information legislation, and creating the "CORE" process to heal the war in the woods between loggers and environmentalists.
"Mike Harcourt was a fantastic leader of the NDP," Dix said. "Mike Harcourt spoke to conventions like this. And Glen Clark, my friend Glen Clark, spoke to conventions like this."
By this point, New Democrats in the room were roaring their approval. Clark was praised for fighting for transit and for the rights of working people, as well as for raising the minimum wage and enhancing access to postsecondary education.
"We went from ninth to second in postsecondary education...in that period of the 1990s," Dix stated. "Glen Clark, who fought and changed the frame of debate—just as Bob Strachan did—by ensuring the passage of the Nisga'a treaty, Glen Clark was leader of the B.C. NDP."
The next former leader to be held up in the spotlight was Joy MacPhail. Dix credited her for rebuilding the party at its most difficult moment when it had been reduced to just two seats in the legislature.
"There was a time when Joy MacPhail and Jenny Kwan fought through the night," Dix said. "Wherever I go in British Columbia, health-care workers will never forget Joy MacPhail. Joy MacPhail was a leader of the B.C. NDP and spoke to conventions like this."
Everyone knew what was coming next. "And Carole James..." Dix said, pausing for a lengthy applause.
Dix described his predecessor as a mentor who not only restored the movement's credibility, but also lived her principles, supporting adults and children with disabilities on a day-to-day basis in her personal life.
"It's not a surprise that a significant legacy of many of her leadership is the child representative," Dix said, referring to the appointment of Mary-Ellen Turpel Lafond.
Dix acknowledged that it's a "little bit humbling" to be following in the footsteps of these and other leaders. He didn't mention former NDP premier Ujjal Dosanjh, who is seen as a traitor by some New Democrats for joining the federal Liberals after losing the 2001 election.
But Dix also emphasized that his party is about much more than the leader. "It's about people in the community," he noted, mentioning several grassroots members who've contributed in their own ways, including his friend Boni Barcia in Vancouver-Kingsway.
In closing the first segment of his speech, Dix noted that the B.C. NDP has a "great, great history".
"I tell you this—this is my promise—our best days are still ahead," he said.
What Dix tried to accomplish
The message to delegates was that New Democrats should be proud of their history, which suggests he won't give an inch when the B.C. Liberals try to talk about the 1990s as a "decade of decline".
In addition, Dix said pubicly what several New Democrats have already told me privately: their party plans to mount a strong campaign in all 85 constituencies in the province.
Dix mentioned that he has already visited the Okanagan 17 times because he thinks the NDP can win seats in this traditional B.C. Liberal stronghold. "We disagree slightly with some of the things said about political strategy," he said with a smile. "I have targeted seats. There are 85 of them. And we're going to take the fight to the Liberals in every single seat."
In previous elections, the B.C. Liberals won with massive majorities in areas like the Okanagan, the Fraser Valley, Richmond, Vancouver-Quilchena, and on the North Shore.
This enabled the governing party to target its resources in swing seats, giving it an opportunity to squeek out victories from the New Democrats.
But with the rising popularity of the B.C. Conservatives under John Cummins, the B.C. Liberals can no longer assume that they'll automatically win in places like Langley, where Cummins hopes to run.
As a result, Dix is focusing a great deal of attention on areas where there is a lot of Conservative support with the hope that the NDP can win in a three-way race.
The effect of Dix's speech was to give a boost to those delegates who come to conventions year after year from constituencies that never elect New Democrats. And by showcasing James as part of a tradition that includes party luminaries like Barrett and Winch, it helped heal divisions that opened up during last year's bitter infighting within the caucus over James's leadership.
Dix hit several high points in his speech, noting the party's rising popularity in the Vancouver–Point Grey by-election, the recent recruitment of former Port Moody mayor Joe Trasolini as a candidate, and the defeat of the harmonized sales tax in a provincewide referendum.
"What was inspiring about our campaign about the HST—a campaign that went beyond the NDP—was we went door to door," Dix stated. "And for the first time in a long time in North America, a regressive tax was sent packing."
He also cracked some funny jokes, commenting that he almost felt sorry for the B.C. Liberals when the NDP recruited Trasolini. Dix also offered amusing quips about a B.C. Liberal website attacking him, noting that he had to tell his mother that it's not true that there aren't any bad pictures out there of her son. On these and at other times, the NDP leader showed that he's not nearly as charismatically challenged as his critics have previously suggested.
Dix lost some people by droning on on too long
If I had any quibble with the speech, it was that it was far too long, lasting well over an hour. After Dix hit the high points and had the crowd under his spell, he brought a bunch of other issues forward, losing the attention of some in the audience.
He talked about how the B.C. NDP was much more environmentally conscious than its competitors. In addition, he mentioned his opposition to raw-log exports, which is a staple of NDP leaders' speeches. And he emphasized the importance of the government talking to teachers and reintroducing postsecondary student grants.
Perhaps he felt that he had to deliver a message to every single NDP constituency. But any gains he might have won by doing this were offset by the loss of magic in the room.
In a telling part of the presentation, Dix tried to dampen expectations by mentioning why he thought the NDP made a mistake by bringing forward so many bills after taking power in 1991. According to him, there were 92 in the first year of the Harcourt government, followed by 73 in the second year, 54 in the third year, and 46 in the fourth year.
Dix left no doubt that he would move more slowly as premier.
He also talked about how the caucus came together this year to fight for adults with developmental disabilities, forcing the government's hand. At this point, he reenergized the crowd.
At one point, I noticed Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers, walk out of the room about three-quarters of the way through the speech. Perhaps he was joining others on a bathroom break, because not long afterward, he returned with a big smile on his face.
As Dix kept talking and talking, I cracked a joke to one of our reporters, Carlito Pablo, that the NDP leader just might give Fidel Castro a run for the money in terms of the length of his speech.
That wasn't the case. Dix wound things down about a half-hour later than the scheduled time on the convention agenda. It didn't turn into a six-hour Castro-style stemwinder.
Then, the convention-centre doors were quickly locked so delegates could fill in ballots, which prevented me from going to the washroom. I realized at that point that Leo Gerard probably knew what was coming when he had left the room a while earlier.
The sum total of the speech, however, was extremely positive, likely convincing many in the media that Dix is the real deal. He looked like a premier and sounded like a premier. And they way things are going for the B.C. NDP, he's likely going to become a premier after the 2013 election.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.