Matt Toner: My B.C. Green response to Martyn Brown
Say what you will about Martyn Brown, he is not a man daunted by the empty page.
I have followed his writing throughout this election season, and more than once been moved to offer a reply. But before I can even sit down in front of my keyboard—bang!—he’s unleashed another new piece. It’s like trying to jump aboard a moving train.
Nonetheless, I really couldn’t let his May 5th article pass without comment. In a week best characterized as a concentrated attempt to suppress the B.C. Green vote—“a vote for the B.C. Greens is a vote for the B.C. Liberals”—Brown’s piece stands out. This isn’t a troll lurking on rabble.ca—his is a respected voice in a widely read publication. It must be answered.
In the article, Brown makes much of his decision to vote against the B.C. Liberals and for the B.C. NDP. This announcement is a bit of old news, no matter how he couches himself as an old warrior formerly committed to the B.C. NDP’s destruction. For Brown, that particular train has long left the station.
As part of his argument, he rolls out the sometimes-used canard that after 16 years in opposition, the B.C. NDP has earned its turn in government. You will hear this sort of tone come through in much of the party’s own wording: it seems to imply that the election is only about defeating Christy Clark, rather than offering a vision for change.
And it’s just not remotely the right way to think about things.
The right to govern is earned one vote at a time, over the course of years, with the moment of truth coming in the ballot box. And in our first-past-the-post system, it’s a zero-sum game: if you lose, you lose, and you need to begin building the argument to govern anew.
It’s simply not the case that if you lose multiple times, you’ve now somehow earned the chance to govern—in fact, a 16-nil score is better understood as a resounding multigenerational failure to connect with the people of British Columbia.
It's also this very track record of failure that has allowed for the emergence of an increasingly viable third party, one that is determined to offer a serious challenge to the B.C. Liberals. Despite what Brown would have you believe, there is little room for confusion on this score: the B.C. Green’s unqualified opposition to the B.C. Liberals starts with the LNG fiasco and goes on from there, page after page after page.
True, this was territory that used to be owned by the B.C. NDP, but that party has been losing its way for sometime. Caught between the need to create (preferably unionized) jobs and still appease the environmental wing of its membership, the B.C. NDP has been steadily watering down and compromising what it stands for. And its cost them at the ballot box, most recently in the stunning reversal of 2013.
B.C. NDP failed to reform itself
After the 2013 debacle, I put out a series of articles about the need to seriously overhaul the B.C. NDP. I had been drawn to the NDP by Jack Layton and was moved to fight and win the nomination contest to represent that party in Vancouver-False Creek.
Say what you will about me, but I am not a neocon in progressive clothing.
I was admittedly a different kind of New Democrat, and I brought together a different team, with different backers to run a different kind of campaign. We waged an “all in” battle to unseat Sam Sullivan in a B.C. Liberal stronghold…unsuccessfully, but in an election where the provincial NDP vote dipped across the board, we worked every angle to run our raw vote total up 75 percent from the level reached in the 2009 election.
We did so by talking about issues in ways not typical of the B.C. NDP and were able to draw votes from both the B.C. Liberals and the B.C. Greens, while bringing back B.C. NDP voters who had grown disaffected.
From my point of view on the morning after the 2013 election, it certainly seemed like the party needed to hit a “reset” in order to realign itself with where the province was heading: we had to apply our own slogan of “change for the better, one practical step at a time” to ourselves.
Instead what followed was a whitewashed postmortem, an anemic leadership “race”, stumbles, and semiscandals from a party apparatus that seemed incapable of reinventing itself.
Remember “Think Forward B.C. NDP”? No? How about its follow up “Forward B.C. NDP”? The B.C. NDP turned out to be quite adept at smothering new ideas in the cradle. I was disappointed to find that while its members were some of the finest people I’d come across, this wasn’t the party I thought it was.
And this is emblematic of the process other progressive people have gone through in recent years. They have either disengaged entirely or sought out alternatives. And many have found their way to the B.C. Greens.
The last data I saw—contrary to the fear-and-smear campaign unleashed this week—shows that these people are roughly a seven-to-nine split of former B.C. Liberals to former B.C. NDP voters. Just about a dead heat…but it sure seems to unsettle folks like Brown to a greater extent.
In his article, Brown also makes much of Andrew Weaver’s refusal to be drawn into committing to how our party would act in the event of a minority government. And for such a serious man, this sort of pearl-clutching is a little silly.
In his hypothetical scenario of a minority government, Brown wants the B.C. Greens to pre-emptively declare—without qualification—that we will support the B.C. NDP. But why on earth would we unilaterally disarm on the eve of an election where the largest number of British Columbians in history stand ready to vote for the sort of real change that we offer? The very idea is simply a terrible, terrible abdication of the trust those voters are showing in us.
Despite fear-mongering to the contrary, we are on record as ready to work with either party in this hypothetical scenario. But doing so without qualification is more than a little naive: in a minority government, our role would be to hold the other party to account.
In this hypothetical scenario, it is a question of trust and whether the other party will play fast and loose with the people’s confidence. For my part, in such a scenario, I would want to ensure that the B.C. NDP can’t squirm away from some very important public commitments it has made. And the B.C. NDP has left itself so much wiggle room on certain campaign issues that John Horgan will be able to do a credible John Travolta impersonation should he so choose.
For example, during his last-minute outreach to Green-leaning voters last week, Horgan talked about the common ground we shared on important issues. But the B.C. NDP’s commitment is far from firm:
1. The B.C. NDP says it will reform campaign financing, but Horgan has so far refused to do so internally. We have done so, as a matter of principle, and the public has responded emphatically. Personally, I would like to see some real evidence of the B.C. NDP's sincerity on this score.
2. The B.C. NDP talks about defending our coast on Kinder Morgan, but Horgan is also recently on record as saying he “can be persuaded”. Personally, I would like to move to a point of certainty here…as I would with its tepid opposition to Site C and its tepid support of the LNG industry.
3. On electoral reform, the B.C. NDP will only commit to holding a referendum on the issue. But as we have seen again and again in Canada, referenda can be gamed, or held to be nonbinding plebiscites, or simply ignored (as was the recent vote on electoral reform in PEI). Personally, I think I’d prefer to see precisely where the B.C. NDP plans to put the goalposts.
B.C Greens offer positive vision
But Horgan isn’t wrong when he talks of common ground. There are a lot of other issues where we are aligned with many of the B.C. NDP’s broad goals. The key difference is that the B.C. Green party would like to move more quickly and far more decisively.
Housing affordability, childcare, advanced education, the emerging economy, carbon pricing—the list goes on and on. Say what you will about Weaver, he is not a man who needs to have a bold idea explained to him.
And that spirit is contagious and has certainly infected each of our 83 candidates running across the province. These people are neither career politicians nor B.C. Liberal shills (as last week’s social media postings would have you believe), but come from a wide range of life experiences. They joined the B.C. Greens because they see themselves and their communities when our party talks about a sustainable path for the environment, for the economy, and for our society. It’s a positive vision that puts people first.
And we don’t require them to sing from a central song sheet: personally, I have had more than enough vocal disagreements with Weaver that I would have long been banished to Siberia in other political parties. Weaver—despite how Brown caricatures him—simply chuckles and tells me to keep acting as “the tenth man”.
In the cut-and-thrust of an exhausting provincial campaign, that says a lot about him. And if people were to pull themselves back a bit from their partisan perches, they would see that this way of thinking is exactly WHY the people of B.C. are supporting the B.C. Greens in unprecedented numbers.
We have been working hard to give them something to vote FOR and—while that might seem a bit alien at first—it’s something for which they have been waiting a long, long time. At least 16 years, by my count.
So, here’s hoping that Brown will pick up his blazing pen on the morning of May 10, no matter the results of the night before. Win, lose or draw, I hope he enjoins the B.C. NDP to do what it failed to do in the aftermath of 2013: apply the positive lessons learned from this election. And pay particular attention to the success the B.C. Greens have realized, instead of strategizing new ways to suppress our vote in the future.
We have shown the people of British Columbia that there is an alternative to politics as usual. And I have a feeling that their appetite for this way of governance will only grow.