Retired NDP cabinet minister Corky Evans never had a lot of patience with toeing the party line. In a recent e-mail to the Georgia Straight and three independent Victoria-based journalists (Paul Willcocks, Andrew MacLeod, and Sean Holman), Evans declared that when he first entered provincial politics in 1986, candidates were allowed to use their own words to express their beliefs.
But the former horse logger from the Kootenays claimed that this wasn’t permitted in the 1991 election, which the NDP won under Mike Harcourt’s leadership.
“Candidates were, essentially, instructed to read from the script or keep their mouths shut,” Evans wrote. “I remember going to candidate school in 1991 and being told ”˜Open your book to page 11. That is the script. All the rest of the book is background so you will understand what we are saying.”¦and any deviation from that script will be remembered and you will not like the reaction you get from us.’ ”
Evans claimed in his e-mail that he never really mastered the art of spin or sticking to the “message box”.
Yet he acknowledged that the public doesn’t like to hear a party or a government speak out of both sides of its mouth. That’s why politicians keep their mouths shut until the “Centre”, as he called it, tells them what to think.
“This is ironic, given that elected people are essentially in the business of ideas,” he noted.
However, Evans claimed that there is one period when new ideas can be discussed candidly—during a party leadership race. At that time, he maintained, candidates are expected to say what they think.
Evans should know. He ran twice for leader of the B.C. NDP, losing to Glen Clark in 1996 and to Ujjal Dosanjh in 2000.
“This is not just true of the front runners,” Evans wrote. “In a leadership contest even candidates with no chance of winning are expected to be honest about their thoughts on a myriad of subjects.”
And he stated that for those who ignore the opportunity to discuss ideas now—while there are vacancies at the top of both the B.C. Liberals and the B.C. NDP—then, “like they say at weddings, we should ”˜forever hold our peace.’ ”
The NDP MLA for Vancouver-Kingsway, Adrian Dix is one of those considering entering his party’s leadership contest. In a recent interview with the Straight in his constituency office near the Joyce SkyTrain station, Dix wasn’t shy about discussing where he thinks the NDP should go in the coming years. But before talking about his ideas, Dix first had a few things to say about the B.C. Liberals’ record in office over the past decade.
He stated that economic growth during the Gordon Campbell years has been significantly lower than during the NDP governments of the 1990s or the Social Credit governments of the 1980s.
Dix mentioned that he didn’t want to overstate the importance of this, saying some of this is attributable to globalization and other international factors. But he also said that the B.C. Liberals didn’t help the economy by allowing inequality to grow.
He cited the experience of a health-care worker who lives across the street from him in the neighbourhood. She is a single parent who supported her family on her salary, but after her job was privatized, her wages were virtually cut in half. She took two other jobs to maintain her income, Dix said, but she now works 70 hours a week.
“That time was taken away from her by this government,” he claimed. “That was true of lots of people.”
Expanding on the theme of growing inequality, Dix talked about how the B.C. Liberal government eliminated a corporate capital tax on banks, which used to generate $120 million per year. He pointed out that in the recent B.C. budget, Finance Minister Colin Hansen increased medical-services premiums by the same amount. Another $52 million will come from “vulnerable seniors” from higher long-term care rates, he added.
There was a 50-percent increase in medical-services premiums shortly after the B.C. Liberals took power; this has been followed by an 18-percent hike over the next three years.
“They go around complaining about the cost of health care,” Dix said. “The people who should be complaining about the cost of health care should be seniors and middle-income people, who have been forced to pay an additional burden.”
He claimed that the government could accomplish a great deal more by spending its money more wisely.
As one example, Dix said that the government should not pursue public-private partnerships in health care. He pointed to greater costs—because private companies must borrow at higher interest rates than governments.
“We’re locking ourselves into commercial contracts where we have to ask the private providers to make even minor changes in the way we run our hospitals,” he claimed.
Other priorities for him include improving rural health care, promoting the use of nurse practitioners, and reinvigorating B.C. Hydro to invest in green-energy projects, which would excite workers, environmentalists, and young people “who would love to see our public utility become a leader in that area”.
If there’s one lesson that the NDP must learn from the 1990s, Dix said, it is to choose a relatively small number of important things to do, rather than adopting a scattergun approach.
He recalled that the NDP passed 92 bills in its first full year in office in 1992, and another 73 bills the following year. What’s at the top of his list?
“I think the issues that address the growing inequality in our province,” he responded. “We can’t afford as a province, for example, to write off one in five or one in six children who are below—officially below—the poverty line.”
Another potential candidate for the leadership, Vancouver–West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert, recently met with the Straight in the lobby of the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel to discuss where he feels the party should go. Like Dix, Herbert emphasized the importance of setting a few key priorities rather than presenting a “laundry list” of promises, which might not be affordable.
“We need to be the party of creativity, of innovation, of supporting the creative sector in all its many facets,” Chandra Herbert said. “So I’ve certainly tried to drive that agenda not just in arts and culture, but including forestry—value-added—so that we’re not just sending raw logs across the ocean. We’re actually working with companies and entrepreneurs to create more jobs here, and more high-value jobs.”
In addition, Chandra Herbert wants a more democratic legislature that is receptive to citizens’ ideas. He claimed that the committee system fails to sufficiently engage British Columbians, pointing out that people have far more input into municipal decisions. He also talked about moving climate change higher up on the political agenda.
Chandra Herbert claimed that he’s still a supporter of electoral reform, even though the 2009 referendum on the single transferable vote was soundly defeated.
“People wanted changes to the system, but found that confusing,” he stated, adding that perhaps a different form of proportional representation known as the mixed-member system would be more appealing.
A greater emphasis on democracy is also a central issue for Norm Macdonald, who quit as NDP caucus chair after the party leader, Carole James, kicked MLA Bob Simpson out of the Opposition caucus.
Macdonald, who represents Columbia River–Revelstoke, was one of the 13 NDP MLAs who wanted an immediate leadership convention and who didn’t wear pro-James yellow scarfs at a November provincial council meeting.
Macdonald told the Straight by phone that he hasn’t decided if he’ll seek the party leadership. But he emphasized that the public is hungry for new ideas, and that a leadership campaign offers an opportunity to bring forward some proposals.
“For me, what I would hope would be part of any leadership discussion would be a really thorough discussion of our democracy—what it looks like now and what it needs to be,” he said.
Macdonald emphasized that the NDP itself must be a model of democracy if it wants to be taken seriously on this topic by voters. He also said there’s a “powerful argument” for mixed-member proportional representation because it brings more voices into the political process.
“When I go to public meetings, people have very good solutions to incredibly complex problems,” he stated. “If the system is working properly, those ideas flow upward. They’re sifted through, and the best of them are put forward as solutions.”
In addition, he wants NDP leadership candidates to talk about the land and social equity. When asked to elaborate on what he meant by “the land”, Macdonald replied: “The giveaway of the rivers is something that has been talked about for a long time, but there is something that is fundamentally wrong about that whole process.”
He added that he thinks people understand this issue and have clearly opposed the direction of the B.C. Liberal government, which has been to sign long-term deals whereby private companies sell run-of-river power back to B.C. Hydro.
Moreover, Macdonald said that not enough resources have been allocated toward dealing with land, even though it’s the province’s most valuable asset. He cited the mismanagement of forestry as one example.
“The people in rural B.C. and, I think, the cities too, understand we need to be doing a better job.”
On the issue of inequality, Macdonald echoed Dix’s concerns. Macdonald also said that the NDP has to be honest with the public—that if it’s going to increase services, it must be transparent about the costs.
“I think the public will always accept what you’re doing if you’ve laid it out clearly and you’ve made a strong case,” he stated. “And if the public doesn’t want to move in that direction, that’s a choice they can make.”
In recent years, elections have been held in the spring after the release of a budget. Macdonald thinks that’s not the optimal time to go to polls because voters can’t tell if the financial forecasts are accurate. In 2009, for instance, the B.C. Liberal government announced a $495-million deficit before the election. Less than four months after the vote, it had ballooned to $2.8 billion. “I think it does argue to moving to the fall for elections,” he said.
Political commentator Bill Tieleman doesn’t plan to enter the NDP leadership race, but he’s not shy about sharing some “big ideas” that he thinks should be discussed. They include detox on demand for anyone suffering from substance abuse. He told the Straight by phone that it makes sense to invest public funds to ensure addicts to have access to services because it could help them become contributing members of society and reduce health-care costs.
Tieleman also said that the NDP should consider allowing property taxes to be raised to pay for transit, but said that in return, each household should receive a transit pass. This would improve the environment and reduce traffic congestion.
Even though Tieleman is a high-profile supporter of the NDP, he criticized the party for its position on the harmonized sales tax. He characterized it as retaining the HST until 2015, and then talking to the federal government at that time about getting rid of it. Tieleman said that unlike Premier Gordon Campbell, the NDP has not explicitly promised to dump the tax if it’s rejected in a provincewide vote.
“I will tell you that I have privately urged the NDP since August 2009 to adopt a binding referendum as a policy, and they’ve steadfastly refused that entire period of time,” Tieleman said.
There are numerous other New Democrats who have ideas about how to grapple with other pressing issues, such as climate change, the Gateway Program, fish farming, the economic challenges faced by First Nations people, and education. Under normal circumstances, these topics are handled by designated spokespeople for the parties. And as Evans noted in his e-mail, there is a hierarchy in these organizations.
“Some people are listened to and others are considered peripheral,” he wrote. “In a leadership contest, however, whoever has the wherewithal to run gets to speak, for better or worse. Thus, it is an opportunity for party members without ”˜currency’ among the political classes to be heard.”
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.