Martyn Brown: Looking for a leader and in search of John Horgan

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      (This lengthy assessment is not intended as a column. Skip it if you are looking for something shorter to read.)

      The federal New Democrats and Tories are not the only ones looking for a leader. Here in British Columbia, many disaffected voters are also looking for a new leader. Someone who will stand tall for all that Christy Clark does not, is not, and never will.

      Count me among them.

      We are looking for a leader who is ethically worthy of our confidence and who is bent on tackling the problems and challenges that have so often been created and aggravated by the Clark government’s failures of leadership.

      We are looking for a leader who is, in many ways, the antithesis of Premier Clark.

      Someone who commands our respect and attention, not because he or she is as telegenic, as personable, or even as easily likable as she is; but rather, because that person stands for something different—for changes and actions that we know in our hearts are right and that offer a more hopeful vision for province.

      We are looking for a leader who is not beholden to those who have effectively ruled their favoured parties with wads of cash that buy them inordinate influence over the choices that premiers and cabinets tend to embrace, with one eye on their party pocketbooks.

      We are looking for a leader who is prepared to break out of the stifling confines of ideology. Someone who will govern for the people they serve, instead of administering for the powerful few that subvert the interests of the many with their proficiency at interest-group politics.

      And yes, we are looking for a leader who is supported by a capable cast of diversely talented candidates, advisors, and thinkers. A leader of a viably competitive party that is attuned to populist concerns and dedicated to delivering responsive, effective, responsible government.

      That is, we are searching for a team leader, whose own understanding of what it takes to be an effective premier has been refined by firsthand experience in government. Ideally, someone whose own world views and political perspectives have evolved and matured, shaped by their personal observations of what does and doesn’t work in the real world of government.

      Someone who is nevertheless an idealist at heart and who is driven more by values and principles than by the latest opinion polls or by a rigid adherence to any ideology.

      In short, we are looking for a leader who might positively redefine our future with forward-looking, proactive government that is responsible in all respects—socially, environmentally, economically, fiscally, and democratically.

      We are looking for a so-called "post-partisan" leader, who aspires to bring us closer together in hopeful engagement that might transcend traditional party politics and help to renew public trust in government.

      Martyn Brown argues that NDP Leader John Horgan shouldn't worry so much about offending members of his own party.
      Stephen Hui

      Enter John Horgan.

      A leader who hopes to persuade frustrated voters that he is an effective champion for their concerns and a plausible agent for positive change.

      He is a guy I happen to like very much. A man who, like his predecessor, Adrian Dix, I enormously respect. For his intellect, for his long and distinguished public service, and for his enormous personal commitment to our province and to his party.

      Horgan is a serious thinker who might just be the guy to bridge the partisan divide that has for too long frustrated our collective ability to tackle the great challenges of our times.

      Challenges like climate change, affordable housing, and sustainable development. Like the unacceptable inequities of growing social inequality. Or how to meet the needs of our aging population and workforce. Or how to foster reconciliation with aboriginal peoples. Or how to responsibly provide for crucial public services like public education, health care, public safety, child care, or child protection.

      The list is very long. None of those priorities have been central to the Clark government’s political agenda, which starts and ends with LNG and balanced budgets.

      In today’s world of leadercentric politics, it’s too easy to forget that it’s what politicians stand to change that really matters, not the colour of their campaign jerseys.

      What does Horgan need to do?

      Horgan’s mission is as much to change our way of thinking about what we truly value in our leaders as it is to present a cogent and compelling argument for all that his leadership stands to offer.

      To win, he will have to elevate and sharpen our focus away from our shallow obsessions with the cult of personality to the problems we want to solve, to the solutions his party proposes, and to the benefits of electing an NDP government.

      To do that, he has to worry less about offending some of his own party members, or those who doubt his commitment to resource development, and concentrate more on advancing a targeted agenda for change. One that leaves no room for doubt about where he stands and that specifically highlights Clark’s failures in leadership.

      Which is to say, he has to resist the media push to fight the next election on Clark’s chosen battleground.

      He must stake his claim on the higher, unshakeable ground of his ultimate "holy cause", whatever it is, and repeatedly target that cause in every issue he addresses.

      He must fight on the territory forfeited by Clark’s failures of leadership and charge forward with passion, tenacity, and persuasive force.

      One thing is for certain. Horgan will never win by trying to fight a rearguard action on a morally bankrupt appeal to fossil-fuel development.

      Nor will he succeed by trying to outcompete Clark’s God-given gifts of likeability, personal dynamism, and photo-perfect appeal.

      Christy Clark's mastery of the photo op has served her well in provincial politics.

      "Sunny ways", movie-star looks, and charismatic appeal are all great qualities in leaders that too often carry their parties into government in the absence of other overriding vote-defining issues. 

      But they are ultimately empty attributes in telling us who we should trust the most—or if you prefer, distrust the least—to follow and reward at the ballot box.

      They are hallmarks of celebrity, not leadership.

      We know that. We tell the pollsters that they are not leadership properties that are especially material to our choices.

      Yet time and again we allow those qualities to tip our votes to those who swoon us with their antics, charm, and costumes.

      More hard hats, please. Because those images mean, she means jobs. And that she "gets" working people. Ah, right. It’s so stupid, yet so effective.

      Over and over again, we knowingly allow ourselves to be played like chumps. We discount so much of what we claim to value in leaders and let our votes ride on the charlatans who beguile us with their humour, wit, and optical delusions.

      Ethics go out the window. Issues get buried under the carpet. Good sense gets abandoned.

      We rush to surrender to the scams that scream "sucker!", as we quietly reassure ourselves that dishonesty is not so bad if it’s couched as hyperbole.

      Like the LNG fraud that promised us all $1 trillion of economic activity, 100,000 jobs, a $100-billion "prosperity fund" and a "debt free BC." Gotcha.

      We will ever learn? Will we next time, in 2017?

      What do we really want in a leader anyway and is John Horgan the guy to fit that bill in British Columbia?

      I hope so, even if I remain to be persuaded, in view of all that I am looking for in a leader, and of how he has allowed himself to be presented through the distorted prisms of the media.

      NDP leader risks being framed by opponents

      My sense is that he is danger of being defined by his opponents as someone who is inconsistent with his own imposing stature—a potentially lethal reverse contrast if there ever was one.

      He is looking less like the tough guy that his physical presence suggests and more like a reluctant apologist for positions that make him visibly uncomfortable, even when they shouldn’t. If only because he "knows too much".

      Some say it’s smart to straddle the mushy middle on the issues that tend to be most provocative and subject to messy internal party divisions. They maintain it is easier, to say nothing of consequence than to take contentious positions that are prone to alienate some within party tents, as they also lure new believers.

      I don’t agree. Which is why I was so delighted to finally see Horgan take an emphatic stand against the Kinder Morgan pipeline and oil tanker expansion project.

      As I have previously argued, contrary to what most pundits maintain, Dix was right and courageous to oppose that project, as he also opposed the Northern Gateway project.

      His mistake was not in taking that right and principled position, which is so widely supported by so many voters, the critics be damned. Rather, it was in taking it so unexpectedly, so belatedly, and so tepidly, in the midst of the 2013 election campaign.

      Former NDP Leader Adrian Dix's "Kinder Morgan surprise" harmed his party's chances in 2013, according to Martyn Brown.
      Stephen Hui

      His strategic mistake was in not driving that issue forcefully enough, as his cause célèbre, with all the weight and advertising he could muster. It was in not appearing to be consistent in his stance, which made him look unprincipled and too easily cowed by the electoral threat posed by the Green Party of British Columbia.

      His "Kinder Morgan surprise" became the story that the mainstream media happily obliged in framing as a mistake, which somehow proved Dix was anti-resource development and "anti-jobs". They bought Clark’s narrative hook, line and sinker, which no doubt cost the NDP the election, adding as it did to Dix’s many other campaign woes and strategic errors.

      Never mind that the premier did a 180 on her position on Kinder Morgan within days of winning that election. Never mind that she has used her vaunted "five principles for pipelines" to argue Dix’s point, which Horgan has now embraced without equivocation, citing his own four principles for responsible resource development.

      The lesson of that debacle for Horgan is two-fold.

      First, if you are going to choose any so-called job-creation issue as your hill to die on, throw everything you’ve got at taking and winning that moral high ground. And second, get out early and often in pressing your case with all of the volume and supportive imagery you can marshal.

      I believe that Horgan is starting to get that message.

      His party’s position opposing the Petronas Precedent last summer was bang-on.

      So was his recent letter to the Canadian Environmental Assessement Agency, opposing the Pacific Northwest LNG project.

      What was a mistake was silently submitting that letter and seeming apologetic about its contents and about not first consulting the United Steelworkers union when called to task by its members.

      Far from straddling the fence on issues like the Kinder Morgan project or the Pacific Northwest LNG project, as Horgan initially did, he is smart to take principled stands on both projects that he should now run to the top of the public flagpole.

      He should hammer those projects for all he’s worth and take no prisoners. That’s the leader I am looking for.

      Public wants assertive leadership

      Say what you want about Christy Clark, but she is consistently committed to her ideological base in almost always choosing jobs over the environment, balanced budgets over needed social investments, and her partisan interests over the public interest.

      In contrast to Horgan, she is predictably hard and fast. And that gives her an air of strength and purpose that Horgan has too often answered with muddled messaging and policy half-measures that diminish his newsworthiness and his persuasive appeal.

      Plus, he has the added geographic challenge of trying to get much of his message out from his home base in Victoria, where most of the "easy" major media is not.

      To the extent that Horgan’s first line of attack is typically mediated through the seasoned and skeptical ranks of the legislative press gallery, and not often executed with creative visuals tailor-made for the more malleable Vancouver television crews, he is doubly disadvantaged.

      That challenge is further compounded by other factors that undermine his ability to command attention and to motivate the masses.

      He has been too reluctant to go out on a limb and to take black-and-white positions on so many vexing issues that he knows from his long experience in government are grey.

      He doesn’t want to be unfair, too aggressive, or insensitive to the arguments that often challenge policy makers in making principled-based decisions, because he knows how much more there is to responsible policy making than what usually meets the eye.

      Perversely, that tends to make him look and sound diffident, indecisive and equivocating—like a "typical politician"—instead of as a confident leader and decision maker.

      He needs to address that quickly, with bold policies, artful visuals, and populist appeal that declare, "This is who I am. This is what I’m about. What you see is what you’ll get."

      Like he has done on Kinder Morgan, Pacific Northwest LNG, campaign-finance reform, and to some extent, the housing crisis.

      I think he gets that, too.

      And the more he does to come down firmly on the side of the angels in presenting compelling actions on climate change, affordable housing, sustainable growth, and other challenges, the better.

      If the Kinder Morgan pipeline project is built, it will result in approximately 400 oil tankers per year travelling through Burrard Inlet.
      Travis Lupick

      Ditto for his efforts to improve his "street cred" as an effective national champion for British Columbia.

      Some of us are looking for a leader who is prepared to put B.C. first in ways that are not always comfortable for the federally aligned NDP.

      Case in point: Horgan should be forcefully calling for a national referendum on electoral reform that gives all voters a direct say over how their votes will count. After all, he has promised a provincial referendum on his party’s commitment to changing our provincial electoral system to some form of proportional representation.

      No one should want that more than New Democrats, however much they might also embrace a specific electoral model that they feel is more representative than our current first-past-the-post system.

      As I argued in this space last summer, the logic for that argument for a universal vote on electoral reform is intrinsic to the very "problem" that the Trudeau government now hopes to address. It is unconscionable that anyone would seek to ask the supposedly "unrepresentative" Parliament to decide on our behalf how our voices should be heard in electing our representatives.

      That effort cannot wait until the writ period, notwithstanding the tired axiom that "campaigns matter."

      Of course they do.

      But so does defining yourself before you are defined by your opponent; or worse, by what you do not say, as much by what you do say.

      Horgan should not vacate the field to the federal NDP or to Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson in visibly pushing the Trudeau government to reject the Kinder Morgan project.

      He, too, should go to Ottawa and demand a meeting with the prime minister to make his case for B.C.

      If Trudeau is willing to meet with China’s foreign minister, who berated our Canadian free press for asking questions about human rights, the prime minister should at least be willing to meet with British Columbia’s Official Opposition leader.

      Trudeau should want to learn more about why the man who could be our next premier is urging the federal government to uphold its commitments in Paris on climate action and to reject a project that stands to do so much harm to our land and marine environments.

      It’s not that hard for Horgan to garner the positive publicity that he and his party so desperately needs, if he is prepared to be creative and constructive as a nationally relevant leader. Doing so would strengthen his stature and make believers of doubters.

      Clark has advantages as a premier

      Like most Opposition leaders, Horgan cannot hope to compete with his nemesis in raising money and all that her multiple millions in corporate donations afford her in helping to get around the province and in getting out her message.

      Nor can he compete with, or do much about, the premier’s penchant for spending millions of taxpayers’ dollars on partisan self-promotion. Or using other levers of power to buy votes and to reward the friends and insiders who sing her praises.

      In today’s economic and fiscal context, the NDP will never successfully make the case for change unless they turn public attention to the problems we perceive and to their pointed solutions to address them.

      As I discovered in the 2005 provincial election, ironically, it is when the economy and the government balance sheet are the strongest that the BC Liberals become most vulnerable to the NDP. It is when usually Liberal-leaning swing voters feel most confident about the state of the economy and when the government is running surpluses that they are most willing to take a "flyer" on electing an NDP government.

      Why? In a nutshell, it’s because of the absence of fear and the licence that that affords to "risk" voting for a new government that offers new hope and new ideas in the NDP’s perceived core competencies of managing social and environmental policies.

      Former NDP leader Carole James was reluctant to promise big infrastructure spending before the 2005 election.
      Poyang from Flickr

      Carole James might have won that election with a more pointed platform that dared to offer those voters more of what they really wanted. Which was not a slavish adherence to annually balanced budgets; but rather, new investments in crucial public services and infrastructure that she declined to promise, in trying to innoculate against the adage that the NDP is "fiscally irresponsible".

      That requires Horgan to roll out the thrust of his platform now, over the next several months. Not in the writ period, when policies tend to take a back seat to each campaign day’s latest spectacle.

      In my experience, that is how you motivate all those campaign workers, volunteers, and supportive crowds that are so crucial to any leader’s campaign optics. The lack of an early focused agenda for change was also a major factor in Dix’s undoing.

      Looking at the NDP’s website, it is hard to glean anything much about what that party stands for or what it vows to do, besides encouraging us to give it our email addresses, donate money, or sign a few of petitions.

      That’s a problem. A big one.

      Indeed, it’s the last thing I would expect from its brand, which has always been rooted in policy and ideas that are meant to provoke public discussion.

      Horgan needs to address that problem by owning the issues he hopes to tackle. Preferably, before his party is irrevocably defined by the Leap Manifesto, which for all of its faults, he should not be apologetic about.

      Certainly not in its fundamental push for bold action on fighting climate change and fossil-fuel development, and its appeals for addressing social inequality.

      I am no fan of much of that Leap document. But I very much value its vision and ambition, however flawed or inappropriate I consider many of its proposed "solutions" to be.

      In any case, it makes Horgan look the moderate he is on the issues it addresses, which are—and should be—core to his vision and to his party’s abiding purpose. He should not limp away from the Leap. He should own its moral purpose, even as he must temper or disavow some of its ardent policy positions.

      Horgan can campaign on housing issues

      As such, Horgan’s chosen turf should be the fertile political ground that his principal opponents have made such a mess of, starting with the most topical problem that is on everyone’s lips—affordable housing.

      It is a problem that been exacerbated by the B.C. Liberals’ paucity of leadership.

      A problem made worse by their political gamesmanship and by their refusal to properly invest in public transit. A problem compounded by their wealthy party paymasters, who have essentially bought the government’s ear and obedience.

      The B.C. NDP has brought forth some policy proposals to address public concerns about an overheated housing market.

      It is also a problem fuelled by the government’s negligence in preventing unwanted types of foreign investment marked by money laundering, absentee ownership, tax avoidance, and corrupt real-estate practices.

      It is a problem that frustrates and angers voters from across the political spectrum.

      One that the New Democrats have talked a lot about, largely led by Vancouver-Point Grey MLA David Eby, with Horgan seemingly content to play a supporting role, apart from his laudable proposed Speculator Tracking and Housing Affordability Fund Act.

      Trouble is, the real issue that most of those voters desperately want Horgan and his party to address is the one that they are so reticent to talk bluntly about, or to directly counter with policies. Namely, the problem of the unwanted inflationary demand that flows from unrestricted foreign ownership.

      The NDP has skirted around that issue with relatively "safe" appeals for penalty-based taxation measures to discourage some of the most egregious problems. Just like the banks, economists, academics, and Mayor Robertson have also called for.

      I certainly support those suggested measures, which do not fundamentally target the issue of foreign ownership and investment, per se. I welcome those proposals to penalize flipping,  discourage speculation, tax absentee ownership, minimize tax avoidance, and place a surtax on luxury properties.

      But as I argued recently in an essay on this subject, those measures do not really essentially address the broader problem of unwanted incremental demand.

      As Horgan refines his party’s policy on affordable housing, he would be wise to address that issue of foreign investment and foreign ownership more directly.

      For example, he could call for an all-party legislative committee to review the options that so many other jurisdictions have embraced in restricting foreign property ownership, supported by an independent expert advisory panel.

      He could consider putting those bodies’ recommendations to a provincial referendum, or to a regional referendum in which any restrictions on foreign ownerhip might apply.

      The politics of facial hair

      And then there’s the beard.

      As someone who has also worn one all his adult life, I know how integral it is to Horgan’s sense of authenticity.

      It is a defining feature of who he is, and he is not about to shave it off. Nor should he feel obliged to do so.

      Yet he is also well aware that it presents a physical barrier for some people, which makes it that much harder for him to emotionally connect with a portion of his audience, especially on television.

      It shouldn’t matter. It is entirely trivial. Few voters would ever admit that it makes Horgan any less "warm or cuddly" in their nonjudgmental eyes.

      But there’s a reason that so few successful politicians these days have facial hair.

      It sure didn’t help Tom Mulcair’s bid to lead Canada.

      It made him seem less friendly, less approachable, and too severe. It distracted from his message, to the point where his handlers stupidly convinced him to affect a perpetual smile that further compromised his optical sincerity.

      I will bet that the parties’ focus groups would have all hit on that weakness, even if the media pretty much avoided the issue.

      "Hulk" Horgan's beard will be a topic of discussion among some voters.
      Stephen Hui

      Similarly, Horgan’s nicely trimmed beard makes him look tougher, gruffer, and less clean-cut. The "biker" comparison is often made. He’s Hulk Horgan.

      It is totally ridiculous and even sexist to the core, but it’s an additional distraction that is often the first thing that voters talk about when Horgan’s on-screen. Sad, but true.

      And so it reinforces the impression that he is the "big brute" with the goatee, who is perhaps insecure in coming totally clean about his true nature.

      He’s the guy with the partial beard who sometimes looks like he can’t quite decide how far to go in embracing the "realm of the uncomfortable"—be it in policy or appearance—that might broaden his voter appeal.

      I think he also needs to address that issue head-on, at every opportunity, as he most recently did in his Shaw cable interview with Vaughn Palmer, on Voice of BC.

      If you haven’t seen it, you should. Because it showed another side of John Horgan that voters really need to see more of. He was very good. Humorous, down to earth, thoughtful, and thoroughly knowledgeable.

      That interview offered viewers a "glimpse into his soul" as it also gave us more of a sense of his quiet confidence, his inner strength, and his cerebral inclinations.

      He is, after all, a self-professed policy wonk, who at one point in that interview felt obliged to check himself for "geeking out". Indeed. But telling all the same that he caught it.

      Ideologically, he is also torn between being who he is and the person he being pushed to present himself as being by those who want to shape him in their preferred image, whether it is to make him more broadly appealing or to define him in ways that reinforce their own beliefs of what the NDP should ultimately stand for on the issues that matter most to them.

      Horgan is a pragmatist. That’s good. That’s what most voters want.

      He is neither dogmatically "left" or "right". That is certainly the type of leader I’m looking for. Except when the way I lean on any given issue is at odds with the way he might be leaning in his heart of hearts, which is also sometimes hard to fathom.

      Brown argues that the "wise men" in B.C. legislature press gallery wrongly believe Horgan can only win if he slaps down greens within his party.

      It is no secret that Horgan has struggled to find a balance between his mostly centrist personal policy preferences and the more ardently left-leaning positions held by many of his colleagues. Particularly in respect of resource development issues.

      He is a man trapped in his party’s web of indecision and disagreement on the economy versus environment dynamic.

      He is also a leader who has also been too concerned about how the Wise Men in the legislative press gallery judge his actions. He risks being browbeaten by those "experts" who have wrongly concluded that he can only win if he slaps down the "greens" who play into Clark’s "forces of No" attacks.


      He is much too sensitive to their barbs as being the leader of the No Development Party who is too quick to rankle. He has not yet presented a clear enough economic vision and plan that might answer that criticism, which itself begs to be ridiculed for the baseless cheap shot it is.

      Horgan is no pushover

      It is still very early in the game.

      Horgan’s learning to lead and he is making progress.

      In fact, his party is leading in most opinion polls, if only by a hair. And we all know what polls are worth when the bell sounds.

      When it does, 11 months from now, my hunch is that Horgan is going to positively surprise a lot of undecided voters who will get to meet him for the first time.

      He is no pushover and he has the potential to defy most pundits’ expectations. It would be foolish to underestimate his potential appeal, his political smarts, or his ability to adapt as need be to win over those who are hungry for change.

      I hope Horgan finds his focused, authentic voice as the gifted leader that I suspect he would be, if given the chance to govern.

      Because I am looking for a leader who dares to go "all in" on the issues that should positively position the NDP always in contrast to the B.C. Liberals as the true agents of needed change.

      As the premier-in-waiting who is needed all the more because of the harmful changes that Clark has wrought.

      Because despite her considerable political talents and her epic electoral victory in 2013, she is leading B.C. backward on too many fronts.

      She is a remarkable winner whose passion for the game of politics is her highest calling and whose singular preoccupation with LNG is environmentally myopic, economically misfocused, and socially irresponsible. 

      She is a leader who is more content to follow—be it the dictates of her financial backers, the unprincipled promptings of pollsters, or the people who hold the real power in her cabinet—than to do what is politically hard and what is, at least to me, demonstrably right.

      Horgan has his own challenges. But I am inclined to believe that his heart and his head and his policies and positions are all increasingly aligned in the right place.

      I don’t doubt his purpose, which is above all, fixated on forming the next government.

      The question for me is, whether or not he has it in him to take the hardest winning step: to lead, as if he wholly means it, with courage, consistency and conviction.

      Now is no time for pussyfooting, for half-measures, or for equivocation.

      Real leadership starts and ends with vision.

      It is about having a discernible destination that is as crisp in its contours, in its pathways to progress, and in its conceptualized benefits, as it is defined in contrast to the brutal realities of the tortured land in which we are now stuck and wish to escape.

      In her speech to the party faithful this week, Christy Clark spoke to the "10-second-choices" that will decide who the millions of undecided voters ultimately choose when they mark their ballots. She reminded her supporters that voters’ choices are fluid and often not determined until those last final seconds when they enter the ballot box.

      If John Horgan is as smart and capable as I think he is, he will win over those "10-second voters"—the ones the Socreds used to rely upon to vote for them, even when they would not admit to the pollsters that they might again vote for that party that they also wanted to turf.

      In the end, it is strong leadership that most voters want. Leadership that dares to be better. Leadership that taps into voters’ frustrations and anger with the status quo. Leadership that negates phony partisan-fueled fears with a more hopeful agenda for postive change.

      The time to win over those 10-second Liberals is now. It is over the next 11 months. And I believe that Horgan is up for the task.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment in British Columbia. He is the author of the ebook Towards a New Government in British ColumbiaContact Brown at