B.C. NDP cabinet includes bright minds, but there are still political potholes to avoid

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      These are exciting times in B.C. politics. 

      Premier John Horgan has appointed some of his brightest MLAs to key cabinet posts. There's likely more intellectual horsepower in this group than on any other executive council in B.C. history.

      Horgan's chief of staff, Geoff Meggs, and other key political staff are also not lightweights. The premier's director of communications, Sage Aaron, and the director of stakeholder relations, Mira Oreck, will provide a steady hand as the government encounters inevitable right-wing backlashes.

      With this team in place, you can be sure there will be no shortage of third parties lined up to publicly endorse new policies in a wide range of areas.

      Meanwhile, a veteran labour communications operative, Stephen Howard, has been named as Attorney General David Eby's ministerial assistant.

      Howard was chief of staff to Adrian Dix when he was leader. He also worked closely with Meggs at the Hospital Employees' Union in the 1990s and later worked for the B.C. Government Employees' Union.

      In those days, Howard was an exceptional researcher. In his new job, he'll be keeping an eye on everything from legislative changes to ensuring that Eby doesn't go off script in his dealings with the media.

      Government liquor store workers now have a friend at the side of Eby, who oversees liquor policy. This should boost their confidence that they're not going to lose their jobs after the next round of contract talks, though it's not necessarily good news for owners of private liquor stores.

      The B.C. Liberals have tried to make an issue of how much these political staffers are being paid. Given that some left steady jobs to work for what could be a precarious minority government, it's hard to take these complaints seriously.

      But that's not to say there aren't some potential clouds.

      Former premier Gordon Campbell rarely appointed MLAs of colour to senior cabinet posts.
      Stephen Hui

      Diversity wasn't a B.C. Liberal priority

      When the NDP governed in the late 1990s, the party made a big deal of having three ministers of South Asian ancestry: Ujjal Dosanjh, Moe Sihota, and Harry Lali. This was taken as a sign that it embraced diversity.

      But when it came to the senior ranks of the bureaucracy, it was pretty monochromatic. One senior civil servant in that era, Suresh Kurl, even documented how few people of colour were working for the government.

      The front of the house looked diverse, but the corridors of government power were still very, very white.

      The B.C. Liberals didn't seriously change that dynamic at the deputy minister level. And former premier Gordon Campbell had a habit of keeping his MLAs of colour in junior positions.

      Campbell even removed a statement that B.C. was an equal-opportunity employer from government letterhead and abolished the B.C. Human Rights Commission. He challenged the Nisga'a treaty in court.

      In addition, Campbell didn't utter a peep when Vanoc subjected the city to ridicule with an opening ceremony that featured an all-white group of eight Canadian icons dressed completely in white—not a single person of colour in the bunch—bringing the Olympic flag into B.C. Place stadium.

      But hey, Campbell appointed Wally Oppal as the attorney general, so that made everything A-okay in his mind.

      Under Christy Clark, the B.C. Liberals demonstrated a disturbing tendency to run candidates of colour in unwinnable ridings while reserving nominations for white politicians in battleground multicultural constituencies in Surrey-Fleetwood, Burnaby-Lougheed, and Vancouver-Fraserview. Is it any wonder they were slaughtered in the Lower Mainland this time around?

      This image of eight white Canadian icons dressed in white rubbed some Vancouverites the wrong way, given the city's Asian heritage.
      Tim Hipps

      NDP can learn from Liberal follies

      Similarly, there wasn't exactly a rainbow of diversity in the list of senior political staff positions in the new NDP government. To put it bluntly, most were long-time NDP and labour-movement hacks. It's still early, and there are opportunities to address the socioeconomic and cultural homogeneity in other ways.

      It's worth noting that Dix has a capable person of colour as his ministerial assistant; he's always stood out as a politician who makes genuine efforts to expand opportunities for people from a variety of backgrounds.

      The benefits of hiring a diverse workforce aren't always apparent at the outset, but they become clearer over time.

      People with second or third languages, deep knowledge of other countries and cultures, different sexual orientations or gender expressions, and different countries of origin sometimes have a less individualistic or atomized view of the world. This can transform workplaces and make them more outward-thinking and empathetic.

      There's strength in diversity. It builds resilience. And the only way to have a diverse workforce is through hiring.

      All the reports in the world won't change a thing unless concrete action is taken. It also requires thinking about the types of barriers that might hamper the creation of a diverse workforce.

      The NDP, as an organization, has historically been dogged by a closed-shop mindset, something I like to call "attitudinal conservativism". You have to be part of the club for a long time before you're truly trusted.

      Former NDP president Moe Sihota worked very hard over the years to try to diversify his party.

      Progress made in several areas

      At the same time, the NDP has opened pathways for women to a far greater degree than any other Canadian political party. For that, it deserves enormous credit for being far ahead of its time. Rosemary Brown nearly won the national party leadership in 1975, for goodness sakes.

      In recent years, the party has expanded its appeal in other ways. Former party president Moe Sihota put diversity on the front burner, helping attract members from a multitude of communities.

      Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh's candidacy for federal leader and Attorney General Eby's outreach to millennial voters and West Side Liberals are two other examples.

      Under the leadership of Horgan and Dix, the B.C. NDP made concrete and substantial efforts to woo voters of South Asian, Chinese, Taiwanese, Iranian, Vietnamese, Philippine, Latin American, and Indigenous ancestry. They were helped by MLAs like Mable Elmore, Harry Bains, Raj Chouhan, and Bruce Ralston.

      This was advanced by some smart caucus communications staffers long before the writ was dropped for the 2017 election. And all of this contributed to the NDP winning government for the first time in a generation.

      But it will get noticed within minority communities if people are constantly being asked to volunteer for election campaigns but then see most of the key jobs going to heterosexual white people with deep roots in the party. 

      Newer Canadian political volunteers won't necessarily articulate their disappointment, not even to politicians of colour whom they're supporting. But this idea will take hold if it becomes a pattern. And it could be amplified in media outlets that reach these communities.

      The B.C. NDP has made tremendous progress with its candidate recruitment. There once was a time when the only candidate of East Asian ancestry was Jenny Kwan. Those days are long gone.

      Now, it needs to take the next step along this road by offering more opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds in the bureaucracy. 

      Vancouver's Indigenous community will also feel a lot better about this government if it ensures a Native youth centre is built on the East Side of the city. That's long overdue. 

      Mable Elmore, Ellen Woodsworth, and Libby Davies all have large followings within the NDP and deep roots within Vancouver's LGBT community.
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      Token gestures won't be enough

      Horgan is smart enough to realize that simply naming Sihota as chairman of B.C. Hydro won't be enough in 2017. This would be Horgan's equivalent of Campbell appointing Oppal as attorney general and then checking off a box on his to-do list. At a bare minimum, the government should move quickly to restore a B.C. Human Rights Commission.

      In the meantime, it wasn't lost on some gays and lesbians that the only two Vancouver MLAs kept out of the NDP cabinet were its two loud and proud LGBT politicians from the city: Elmore and Spencer Chandra Herbert. And they weren't rookies, either.

      A third LGBT NDP veteran, Mike Farnworth, was named solicitor general. He's a senior figure in the party, narrowly losing the 2011 leadership race. Yet his cabinet post isn't in the top tier of senior portfolios, like health or finance or education or attorney general.

      Farnworth has always had an interest in law-enforcement issues, so perhaps he's happy being solicitor general. He can also dish out enough law-and-order red-meat rhetoric to the media to blunt B.C. Liberal attacks on Eby as a guy who doesn't like the cops.

      But a casual observer might still construe Farnworth's cabinet post as a snub. This is especially so when one considers that previous occupants of this position have not exactly been B.C. Liberal government heavyweights.

      Naming two MLAs of South Asian ancestry to a mid-range and low-grade cabinet post also isn't a very good start, given how this community made the difference for the NDP.

      There will no doubt be grand publicity if a third MLA of South Asian descent, Raj Chouhan, is named speaker. But the reality is that the speaker's position is largely symbolic and doesn't carry real power to effect major changes in society.

      If being speaker was the best job in government, MLAs like Dix or Carole James or Shane Simpson would be clamouring for the position. They didn't do that.

      Chouhan wasn't included in the cabinet despite being a caucus member representing Burnaby-Edmonds since 2005. Full stop.

      So in light of these first appointments, the premier and his chief of staff are going to have to remain vigilant that newer Canadians and the LGBT community aren't left with lingering perceptions that they're not a priority.

      It's politically dangerous for the NDP if these communities are under an impression that the best government jobs are reserved for long-time party apparatchiks loyal to Horgan and the B.C. Federation of Labour, above all else.

      Giving a respected human rights advocate an influential position—like former MP Libby Davies or immigration lawyer Zool Suleman or former human-rights commissioner Harinder Mahil or former NDP candidate Victor Wong—would be a good start. It would convey a much-needed message of inclusion.

      Otherwise, support in minority communities could slowly ebb away if the NDP isn't careful. That could be fatal over the long run, given how close the last election was.