Martyn Brown: Will Shelley Cook be Kelowna’s first-ever NDP MLA?

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      Valentine’s Day. It can be the sweetest or cruelest day of the year, depending on who loves you or who doesn’t.

      It also happens to be the day that premier John Horgan has announced for the upcoming Kelowna West by-election, which was triggered by the resignation of Christy Clark.

      Anyone wanting to send her a Valentine’s Day card for her role in effectively handing the NDP power and giving Horgan a more stable minority government might be hard-pressed to find her mailing address.

      Too bad. I suspect that lots of British Columbians might be inclined to send her chocolates for all she did to help the GreeNDP and to hurt her party, including in the riding that is now up for grabs.

      Three main candidates are vying for the job: the B.C. Liberals’ Ben Stewart, the NDP’s Shelley Cook, and the B.C. Greens’ Robert Stupka.

      All of them have been making their pitches for more than a month already. Each has the same Valentine’s plea: “Love you forever. Won’t you ‘bee’ mine?”

      On February 14, only one of them will triumph. As the saying goes, “A hundred hearts would be too few, to carry all my love for you.”

      There are almost 47,000 registered voters in Kelowna West, to be precise.

      Some 15,674 of them voted for Clark last spring, 6,672 voted for Cook, and 3,628 voted for the Green party’s Robert Mellalieu.

      Given the lower turnouts that usually mark by-elections, it is conceivable that maybe only 15,000 or so ballots might be cast on February 14.

      A winning plurality on a split vote might only amount to a small fraction of the riding’s eligible voters; in this case, that could work to the distinct advantage of the NDP and Green candidates who want to change B.C.’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

      Regardless, you’ve gotta love Ben Stewart, the odds-on favourite to win that competition for a blind date with political destiny.

      At least I do, having worked closely with him for a few years during his first stint as a successful B.C. Liberal candidate and as a former minister of citizens’ services, community and rural development, and agriculture under the Gordon Campbell government.

      Remember, he’s the guy who surrendered his seat after the 2013 election to let Clark win a seat after losing her own riding of Vancouver Point Grey to the NDP’s David Eby.

      Not only is Gentle Ben a sweetheart of a guy, he is one of the kindest and most decent, affable, and honourable men I ever had the pleasure to know and work with during my time in B.C. politics.

      He’s smart, principled, and easily underestimated, mostly due to his height. Cue Randy Newman’s “Short People”.

      Plus, he makes killer wines.

      His passion for that art and for the superlative vintages his “family farmed” Quails’ Gate winery produces is a joy to behold. Especially for anyone who has had the good fortune to be guided by him, as I once was, on a tour of that gem of a winery/restaurant/acreage that he did so much to develop on the west side of Okanagan Lake.

      Yet none of that might matter enough to re-earn him a seat in the most romantic building in British Columbia’s most romantic city, Victoria.

      When Ben Stewart (right) was in cabinet, he walked in Vancouver's Chinese New Year Parade.
      Stephen Hui

      This time, his former constituents might just find their fickle hearts and do the unthinkable. They might choose someone else.

      Intentionally or not, they just might elect Shelley Cook as Kelowna’s first NDP MLA. I, for one, would revel in that outcome as a star-crossed power play of Shakespearean proportions.

      Think it can’t happen? It probably won’t.

      From its earliest days as part of the first Okanagan riding, through its various permutations as Okanagan South, South Okanagan, and the other smaller constituencies into which the community was subsequently divided, Kelowna’s “true-blue” heart has beat only for “free enterprise”.

      Not on your life, you say? It would never “go NDP”! Not that Conservative/Socred/Liberal “heartland” that was for so long represented by Wacky Bennett, Bill Bennett, and even Preston Manning’s beloved “Iron Lady”, a.k.a., the faux liberal that was Clark.

      Maybe not by design, I agree, at least in this by-election.

      But love is a many-splendoured thing that sometimes defies all expectations. In politics, anything is possible, as history shows.

      It used to be unthinkable that voters in the ultraright stronghold of the Cariboo would ever elect a “socialist” MLA. It hadn’t ever happened in more than 100 years of provincial history, and therefore it couldn’t happen.

      Until it did.

      I, too, was in shock and awe, as the Vander Zalm government’s caucus research director, when NDP maverick Dave Zirnhelt snatched that then-dual-member seat from the supposedly “invincible” Socreds in the 1989 by-election.

      Two months later, Elizabeth Cull once again turned a century’s history on its head in the Oak Bay-Gordon Head by-election. She was elected as the NDP’s first-ever MLA to represent that conservative bastion.

      People used to say it was unthinkable that the old riding of Okanagan North could elect a “socialist” MLA. It had also never elected a CCF/NDP candidate in all provincial history.

      That went out the window when the NDP’s Lyle MacWilliam’s won that seat in the 1984 by-election. The Socreds never really saw it coming.

      In all of those instances, as in so many others, once the electoral map was changed from conservative blue to NDP orange, they all went from safe seats to swing seats that no party could ever again take for granted. And that was a good thing.

      Until the NDP’s Gwen O’Mahony won the 2012 Chilliwack Hope by-election, no one thought her party would stand a snowball’s chance in hell of electing a candidate in that community. Wrong makes its own right.

      The B.C. Greens’ Andrew Weaver can indirectly thank Cull for breaking the mould that made his victories in Oak Bay possible—aided and abetted, no less, by B.C. Liberal party ads in the 2013 election.

      Here’s the rub: that cynical ploy to permanently split the “NDP vote” by electing a Green MLA in the Liberal incumbent’s seat may have worked as intended in 2013.

      But it backfired, big-time, in 2017 and continues to yield its just desserts, sweeter than any candy hearts the NDP has ever tasted.

      By giving Andrew Weaver and the Greens a solid foothold in the legislature, it was the B.C. Liberals—not the NDP—that paid the biggest price last spring.

      If anything, it was the NDP who most gained from that colossal miscalculation that first ushered in the Horgan government and may yet usher in a new proportional-representation electoral system that will most hurt the Liberals, at least in the short term.

      And now the madness in that method might well become even more apparent.

      Both the New Democrats and the Greens hope that the February 14 by-election will be forever remembered as the B.C. Liberals’ “Valentine’s Day Massacre”.

      Indeed, the prospect of an NDP victory, if not a Green win, may not be as crazy as it sounds.

      If Green candidate Robert Stupka attracts the support of many former B.C. Liberal supporters, the Kelowna West by-election could be closer than many pundits expect.

      First, Shelley Cook is an outstanding candidate of impeccable credential, character, and reputation.

      As a former two-time NDP candidate, third-generation Okanagan resident, and stellar community champion, Cook is well known, well liked, and widely respected for her dedication and contributions to her region’s constituents and to addressing its human challenges.

      She is young, dynamic, and a shoo-in for a cabinet post in the Horgan administration if she manages to pull off the feat that I maintain her constituents should hope she will.

      And I say that as someone who thinks the world of Stewart. I only wished he had retired from provincial politics for good after resigning from his patronage gig as Clark’s trade-ambassador-of-sorts in Asia.

      Who better to represent Kelowna as its first-ever NDP cabinet minister than the executive director of the Central and South Okanagan John Howard Society, Shelley Cook?

      She has also chaired Kelowna’s housing committee and led the treatment pillar for the Central Okanagan Four Pillars Coalition in its effort to improve drug-addiction treatment, prevention, enforcement, and harm reduction.

      After all, Kelowna is not used to not having a cabinet minister. Neither is Kamloops, Penticton, nor most of the other communities in the broader Thompson-Okanagan region that are currently without any elected member in cabinet or in the government caucus.

      The people of that massive region deserve a strong voice in government, which Cook is now uniquely positioned to offer.

      Regardless of who wins the Kelowna West by-election, the Horgan government will mostly likely be in power at least until 2021.

      West Kelowna residents will have no one but themselves to blame if they opt not to elect a champion for their causes and interests in government, mostly for ideological reasons that should have gone out with the Cold War.

      Second, Horgan is rapidly building confidence in his NDP government that should serve Cook well.

      His brand is “principled pragmatism”.

      It is informed by honest listening, learning, and responding to community ideas and concerns, in the broader interests of British Columbia.

      He showed that with his revised grizzly-bear hunting ban, which adjusted his government’s initial policy after hearing how it had failed its objective.

      He might do Cook and all British Columbians a huge favour by vowing to revisit his government’s inadequate process for next fall’s referendum on proportional representation, which many have rightly criticized, as I have (see related stories here and here).

      Horgan is demonstrating that he is not so much driven by ideology, party dogma, or interest-group pressure tactics, as the B.C. Liberals’ had tried to define him in their campaign fearmongering.

      Rather, he has so far mostly tried to do what’s right.

      He seems intent on reaching across party lines to find that balance, which he hopes will also serve to redefine the NDP as an essentially small-l liberal force for progressive change that is generational and inclusive at its core.

      The vote on PR is only one such initiative, the currently flawed process notwithstanding: it speaks to inclusion, diversity, representativeness, and democratic reform.

      It particularly appeals to younger voters and to those disaffected by the perceived failures of an electoral system that is arguably out of touch with the times.

      Third, the by-election vote will take place the day after Horgan’s widely anticipated throne speech, a week before the February 20 budget.

      It will give voters lots of new reasons to applaud his government, including past Liberal voters who have been frustrated by the lack of action on so many urgent public priorities.

      The speech will surely drive the themes that defined the NDP’s ascension to power: making life more affordable for families, improving crucial public services, and creating jobs.

      The cash commitments behind that rhetoric won’t be evident until after the by-election vote, but the hard promises and actions that the throne speech will specify will be broadly popular.

      Who knows, it might even include a commitment to advance the second bridge across Okanagan Lake that the former Liberal government had held out to local voters as a distinct possibility.

      You can bet that throne speech will give Cook an important last-minute bump.

      It will outline new actions to tackle speculative investment in housing, to improve the affordability of housing, health care, childcare, and other things, to tackle the opioid crisis, and to invest in public services that even many Liberals concede were for too long neglected.

      All those issues speak directly to Cook’s strengths and stated priorities on behalf of her community. For a more comprehensive review of those affordability initiatives, read this.

      Fourth, B.C. Green party candidate Robert Stupka is also a compelling and credible alternative. At a minimum, he will split the vote mostly at Stewart’s expense, as Andrew Weaver’s appeal hits home with many voters.

      Weaver is wisely pushing all sorts of political “hot buttons” that differentiate the Green party from both the Liberals and NDP, as they also showcase his caucus’s talents in opposition as constructive partners in a minority government that is so far working well.

      Many of those issues have emotional resonance that cut across party lines. None more so than Weaver’s newfound push to restrict property purchases by foreign buyers.

      As most voters now know, he is urging the Horgan government to embrace the law that New Zealand’s new minority labour government has recently introduced, with the Green party’s support.

      It is a shame, in my view, that he didn’t run on that commitment back when I was among those calling for restrictions on foreign property ownership. He also chose not to push for that as part of his party’s power-sharing agreement with the NDP, so his commitment on that front must be taken with a grain of salt.

      Still, better late than never, I say. And Horgan’s weakly articulated rejection of that policy change could cost his party lots of votes on Valentine’s Day that might otherwise flow to Cook.

      There are likely more voters than not that support Weaver’s belated stance on foreign property ownership, especially in the Okanagan. A poll on that question would be most interesting.

      In Kelowna as in Metro Vancouver, voters see what is happening to housing prices, to agricultural-land acquisitions, and to their children’s dreams of home ownership.

      Rightly, in my view, they attribute it in no small measure to speculative and often illicit offshore investment, mainly from China. David Eby and the NDP have admitted as much and are committed to addressing the problem in ways that Weaver argues will only ever amount to half measures, at best.

      I would bet that most British Columbians see how that scourge of unwanted foreign demand, laundered capital, and vacant available housing is hurting Metro Vancouver, as it also increasingly impacts Victoria, Kelowna, and other communities. And they don’t like it.

      Stupka might well be the beneficiary of some of that voter discontent, to the extent that it is not stemmed by firm and aggressive actions outlined in the NDP’s throne speech.

      He knows a thing or two about engineering desired outcomes, as a professional engineer.

      And so does Weaver, the man most responsible for engineering his party’s disproportionate hold on power.

      Don’t kid yourself, many traditional Liberal voters love Weaver’s stance on foreign ownership, on ride-hailing, and on Site C, to cite only a few examples.

      They rightly view his Green party as the key driving force behind electoral reform, banning big money in politics, and strengthening climate action.

      Many Kelowna West voters will “show their love” by marking their ballots for Weaver’s man, if only to help send a message to the other parties in Victoria that it is also time to get serious about restricting the sale of homes and agricultural land to Canadian citizens and residents.

      Fifth, this is a by-election, not a general election. As such, the “risk” of splitting the vote or electing either an NDP or Green MLA is minimal.

      Typically, by-elections go against the government in power, as they did with the examples I cited above.

      Yet consider what just happened in Surrey-White Rock.

      The federal Liberals’ Gordie Hogg just won that formerly “safe” Tory seat in a landslide. It was essentially gifted to the Trudeau government by Dianne Watts’s resignation, in an honourable gesture to put it all on the line in running for the B.C. Liberal leadership.

      Which raises a sixth reason why Cook could conceivably eke out a “miracle win” in Kelowna West.

      Namely, as a partial reaction to the Liberal leadership vote and to the frustrations of electing two Liberal MLAs who promptly abandoned their responsibilities after earning the voters’ trust.

      First Stewart quit to help Clark get elected, and then she quit after getting reelected, leaving Stewart to now ask for his old job back that he abandoned, however honourably.

      “A pox on your party and on you,” some of his previous supporters might this time respond to his appeal to return him to the post that he vacated.

      Moreover, as I have written, none of the Liberal leadership candidates have even remotely won the hearts of most B.C. voters.

      Their sleepy contest has given many voters new licence and cause to look to other parties for suitable suitors.

      Most of the Liberal contenders have elicited one response from the subjects of their clumsy overtures and unconvincing affections: “wake me up when it’s over.”

      The leadership candidates are all viewed as either flawed or uninspiring figures. They will never cause voters’ hearts to flutter, like Trudeau and even Christy Clark did when they first blew their leadership kisses, which the starstruck masses happily indulged.

      On January 23, the B.C. Liberal’s last leadership debate will be moderated by Global TV’s Keith Baldrey and widely broadcast on BC1 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. How that spectacle will indirectly impact Stewart’s campaign remains to be seen.

      One would think it should help, but not if it mirrors the previous debates. They were mostly a giant snooze that did none of the candidates any favours as prospective leaders.

      If local Liberal supporters in Kelowna West can’t abide by whomever the party chooses as its next leader, they might well decide it’s time to break up with the party for good. Or at least for a “trial separation”.

      As I’ve argued, Todd Stone might give the Liberals the best fighting chance in the short run, especially in the Okanagan, next door to his home town of Kamloops.

      I dare say, Vancouver’s Sam Sullivan doesn’t stand a chance of winning the Liberal leadership. So he is probably not too relevant, except for the often remarkable ideas that he has so fearlessly or incautiously advanced, as the one candidate with something original to say.

      Michael Lee, Dianne Watts, and Andrew Wilkinson would perhaps all send a message to Kelowna voters that the Liberals are more concerned about Metro Vancouver than they are about them, whether that is fair or not.

      Mike de Jong might be marginally more relatable as a Fraser Valley sometimes farmer, whose values are in lockstep with most of those living in the “other” valley that time and politics threatens to forget.

      Perhaps not so much now, though, given Rich Coleman’s double-edged endorsement.

      The new focus that NDP attorney general Eby is highlighting at de Jong’s expense has only been aggravated by that dubious blessing from Coleman, who should have remained neutral, as his party’s interim leader.

      Eby’s attacks on de Jong’s and Coleman’s past failings as former ministers are bound to intensify in the weeks ahead. They may even prove pivotal in the January 23 leadership debate, if Watts or the other candidates go for the jugular.

      What better way to drive Watt’s bonafides as the party’s only outsider than by pointing out why a leader untainted by past involvement in government is so “desperately needed”?

      Hell, she has already been disparaged by de Jong and his caucus colleagues for not having been in the trenches when the Liberals needed her the most, so she has little to lose.

      Watts also seems to be looking for a way to reverse the impression that her campaign is in trouble and perhaps destined to fail.

      At this point, she may be as much concerned with salvaging her well-earned reputation as an independent-minded politician of undeniable integrity as she is with winning the leadership race.

      Either way, how that Liberal leadership debate and the February 3 party leadership vote goes may have significant ramifications for the Kelowna West by-election.

      All in all, it is going to be a Valentine’s Day to remember for B.C. politics.

      Like Shakespeare said: “Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs.”

      No matter who wins the by-election, there will be sighs and groans aplenty.

      As a former political hack with no skin in the game, I’m loving that.

      And I’m wishing upon a star that the NDP’s Shelley Cook will make history.

      I’m hoping that she will earn a seat in the legislature, and perhaps sooner rather than later in cabinet.

      It would be a real tribute to the voters of Kelowna West if they embrace that change, which would also help to make that region more politically competitive in years to come.

      For too long, those ideological barriers have made silly strangers of us all.

      It’s high time we changed that, as we have already collectively begun to do with the Greens’ election last spring.

      Time will tell whether the people of Kelowna West are willing to take a chance on Cook and give the Horgan government a big hug. I wouldn’t bet on it, but hope springs eternal.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic adviser to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2009, and in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact him via email at