Martyn Brown: Get out the popcorn—this B.C. NDP leadership contest is suddenly fun and fascinating

Anjali Appadurai isn't only competing against David Eby, she's running against his government's record

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      Seven years before 15-year-old Greta Thunberg first took the world by storm in campaigning for urgent climate action in 2018, then-college-student Anjali Appadurai delivered a fiery speech at the 2011 UN Climate Summit that also captured significant global attention.

      As the federal NDP’s former candidate for Vancouver Granville last year, she came within 432 votes of winning that seat in Parliament after having run an inspired campaign that made the most of her profile as climate-justice lead at Sierra Club of B.C. 

      Now she’s gunning for Premier John Horgan’s job in aspiring to slay the NDP’s one-time giant slayer, David Eby, in the party’s suddenly fun and fascinating leadership contest.

      It’s tough to say who is happiest about her leadership bid.

      It’s probably a toss-up between the NDP’s environmentally disaffected members, the party brass, and her fellow climate warriors at the David Suzuki Institute's Climate Emergency Unit project.

      Or equally, B.C. Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon, B.C. Green Leader Sonia Furstenau and Premier John Horgan.

      Or even presumed NDP leader-in-waiting and premier-select Eby.

      Who graciously wished Appadurai luck, “but not too much luck!” in her leadership effort.

      One thing is certain, after watching her campaign announcement video and her same day interview on Global.

      She is bound to pack a punch in this NDP leadership prize fight, framing her own party’s government priorities as “upside down.”

      A thrilla in vanilla, this reverse David-versus-Goliath battle ain’t.

      From the opening bell, this hard-hitting, lightning-fast 31-year-old underdog laid Eby and all of his government colleagues low with so many sharp attacks it even left me in stitches.

      "Ten years ago, [Eby] was in my position," she said in her CTV interview. "He was the activist and the insurgent and he's made a great contribution. I think at this time, though, the party is at a place where young people simply cannot get behind it."


      At 45, Eby’s suddenly the aging former rebel without a cause.

      Or as boomers like me might say, he’s the Man, and all that negatively implies for anyone hoping for radical change.

      He may stand 6’ 7” tall and tower over her, but Appadurai’s not one to be easily intimidated, least of all by him as the status quo champion of the NDP’s “business as usual” government.

      A government that she suggests is now fundamentally alienating “young people.”

      Or at least some of them. The ones not apparently flocking in droves to the federal Conservatives, according to one recent poll.

      You can bet that the opposition parties and the media will be actively rooting Appadurai on.

      She’s already proven herself to be a devastating quote machine whose words will never hit the political canvas, however much they floor the NDP.

      She wants you to know that “our elected officials have no plan. And that became terrifyingly clear last year. Here in B.C., we were hit with one climate disaster after another. An entire community incinerated. Farms under water. Hundreds of people killed in a heat wave. And yet our government wants to push ahead with the status quo.

      “And it’s not just climate. It’s health care, it’s housing, it’s the sheer number of our friends and family who died in the past two years. The system is unravelling. We all feel it. And our government’s priorities are completely backward.”

      Hear, hear, B.C.’s silent majority would likely roar in agreement, whatever they think of Appadurai’s prescriptions for change.

      God knows, I have also been critical of the Horgan government’s climate targets as so much hot air.

      Anything her leadership campaign can do to counter those failings by bringing much needed attention to that globally existential issue is good news, indeed.

      Have to say, though, it does make me wonder why Appadurai just didn’t run for the B.C. Greens.

      After all, they seem to be in total lockstep with her outlook and agenda, as they are also at odds with the current NDP government.

      Hell, she is basically now the B.C. Greens’ best brand ambassador.

      The more divisive the NDP leadership campaign becomes, the greater the long-term dividends that acrimony should pay to their electoral chances.

      If you thought the NDP might have a party unity problem the ways things were shaping up, despite Eby’s truly staggering caucus support, Appadurai’s here to remind us: we ain’t seen nothing yet.

      She’s pretty much framed her leadership bid as a battle royale between the NDP’s brown and blue-collar contingent, and the uncompromising greens, who want to shut down most of B.C.’s resource extraction activities.

      She’s made it crystal clear that she is against LNG, fracking, pipelines and the entire oil & gas industry, not to mention Site C. Ditto for the NDP’s limited measures to stop old-growth logging. And she’s certainly no fan of large-scale mining, particularly coal mining in the Elk River valley, as her work with Sierra Club of B.C. has suggested.

      All of which defines her as being diametrically opposed to those perennial jobs-first concerns that Horgan so proudly embraced in concert with the unions that are constitutionally joined at the hip with his labour party.

      And that was just Appadurai’s opening salvo, followed by blow after damning blow to her party’s record in government. Back to her video.

      “Last month, I travelled up to Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan territory in Northern B.C.,” she continued. “I witnessed this government trying to force a pipeline through sovereign Indigenous lands, drilling under one of the last rivers that you can drink out of. All, so that foreign oil and gas companies can make more money.

      “People’s lives are crumbling and it is these big corporations that have never in Canadian history been more profitable. And that is a choice that our decision-makers have made.”

      Namely, the NDP decision-makers in Victoria who she maintains are so wrongly ruling B.C.

      “They tell us that sweeping and transformative changes aren’t possible. They tell us that the only thing we can do is tinker around the edges and make incremental change. But I don’t believe them. And that’s why I am running to be the leader of the B.C. NDP.”

      The Horgan government’s record on other priorities like affordable housing, mental health and combating the opioid and addictions crisis are also in Appadurai’s campaign crosshairs.

      “We are seeing a whole generation of young people who don’t feel they have hope in this government and electoral politics in general,” she told Global.

      Double ouch.

      And that’s why she has “answered the call from a growing movement in this province to run for NDP leadership as a way to challenge the party status quo and to lay out a vision for what our province could be like.”

      Pressed into service, she has “agreed to be the candidate and the spokesperson for the movement, but it is much bigger than me.”

      Anjali Appadurai (right) has been consistent in her climate activism for many years.
      Anjali Appadurai

      More power to you, the NDP honchos likely say, knowing she probably stands a snowball’s chance in hell of actually prevailing in the leadership contest.

      Least of all, with all the odds they’ve stacked against her in setting the rules, as I’ve previously highlighted.

      She’s got a whopping three weeks left to sign up new eligible voting members before the September 4 cut-off date. Not much time, even for a formidable campaigner like her.

      Like Eby, Appadurai’s urging anyone 12 or older to join the NDP before the September 4 cut-off for voting eligibility in the scheduled November election that will conclude on December 3.

      If her videos go viral, who knows how many people who share here concerns and beliefs might sign up as party members to advance the priorities she has so passionately articulated, including here in the Straight.

      How many 12-year-olds will ultimately choose B.C.’s next premier? I’d love to know.

      But both would-be NDP leaders want you, kids, just as the Liberals courted eligible party members 14 and older.

      Although you’ll have to wait until you’re 18 to vote for either party in the next provincial election.

      Certainly, her boss at the Climate Emergency Unit should be happy with Appadurai’s leadership bid.

      It can only help to rekindle sales for Seth Klein’s book, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, which their organization cites as inspiring its work.

      And it shouldn’t hurt that environmental political action group’s future fundraising efforts, either, regardless of how Appadurai fares in her leadership campaign.

      Having world-famous author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein in her corner will also help.

      Eby could only dream of having her active celebrity backing in bolstering his climate cred.

      Klein is urging her 697.8K Twitter followers, 399K Facebook followers and countless others in other social media forums to get behind Appadurai’s effort to advance their common cause.

      Which both Kleins and so many environmentalists also publicly championed through their  2017 Leap Manifesto, as I have previously discussed.

      No, Appadurai won’t be able to use her access to the NDP membership list for data mining.

      The party expressly prohibits that as part of its privacy protection requirements in the nondisclosure agreement that all leadership candidates will be required to sign.

      Not that she would, anyway.

      But you can’t unknow supporters you meet and sign up as party members along the way.

      Many of them will likely become her ongoing future fans and that should stand to benefit any ENGOs she might work for or help with appeals for support.

      Similarly, Appadurai likely has a leg up from her long experience and probable wealth of personal contacts, more than a few of whom have probably supported her past environmental and political enterprises.

      That should make it somewhat easier for her to raise and fork over the $40,000 in non-refundable leadership fees that she’ll need to pay to put her name on the ballot.

      All of which must be raised as with her campaign’s other fundraising efforts from individual donations, up to a maximum $1309.09 per person. And also, must come from people other than herself who are both residents of B.C. and are either Canadian citizens or permanent residents.

      Which is to say, there is no direct way for any foreign or friendly wealthy environmental benefactors to pay her leadership fees or bankroll her leadership campaign.

      An initial $15,000 payment is due by September 4 in filing her nomination package, with a further $25,000 due only a month later, even before her candidacy is formally approved.

      For the party brass, it’s all good, in their collective wish for a more inclusive and democratically competitive leadership contest.

      Specifically, one that counters the potential spectacle of an Eby coronation and all that suggests in an ostensible lack of interest and diversity in attracting candidates to compete for the NDP’s top job.

      That aside, lots of New Democrats are surely thrilled to have a vote in choosing their leader, as opposed to seeing Eby elected by acclamation.

      If all goes according to Appadurai’s plan, at least now they will have at least two names on the ballot. One of whom is a self-described “young, brown woman"—“an immigrant who fell in love with these lands.” Good stuff.

      She stresses on her campaign website she and her supporters are “committed to halting colonial violence by our government and co-creating a healthy future where Indigenous cultures, languages and families can thrive for all time.”

      She also notes that her views and positions “do not necessarily represent those of the BC NDP, the BC NDP Caucus or the BC NDP government. Anjali Appadurai does not speak on behalf of the BC NDP and her statements, views and positions are her own.”

      No kidding.

      She has basically positioned herself as anathema to the government Eby proposes to lead, backed by 48 of the 55 other NDP MLAs excluding himself and Horgan.

      Who are those supporters and the other seven caucus members who don’t endorse Eby, Appadurai might ask?

      Presumably, they include Finance Minister Selina Robinson and Land, Water and Resource Stewardship Minister Josie Osborne. They declined to support him in announcing their own decisions not to run for the NDP leadership.

      Might someone like NDP Minister of State for Infrastructure Bowinn Ma turtle in offering her support to Eby?

      Doubtful. But let’s not forget that before she swore allegiance to his leadership effort, she tweeted this incredible thread calling for climate leadership of the kind Appadurai is now advocating.

      Not that it really matters much, as every single member of the NDP caucus has repeatedly supported all of the Horgan government’s initiatives that Appadurai so adamantly rejects.

      If her ongoing campaign against her own party’s government continues through the two promised leadership debates and over the next few months, it’s sure to be hugely entertaining.

      Especially in the context of an upcoming fall legislative sitting and the municipal elections.

      Best of all, we’ve all got free ringside seats.

      For the B.C. Liberals and the media, it’s like manna from heaven.

      They will relish the opportunity to rub the NDP’s nose in Appadurai’s pointed criticisms at every turn.

      Falcon will sure hope to use her quotes in positioning Eby’s NDP as anti-jobs and dangerously extreme, particularly for British Columbians living in resource-dependent communities.

      At the same time, Appadurai’s criticisms of the Horgan/Eby government stand to reinforce those age-old environment versus jobs fissures in the NDP.

      The Liberals hope that will compel Eby to more actively embrace his activist roots in those and other areas, to drive the NDP further left of centre, if only to stop the bleeding to the Greens. Especially in all those seat-rich urban and Island areas that the NDP now almost completely owns and needs to retain to form the next government.

      Plus, to the extent that Appadurai gives her own party’s government failing grades on health care, housing, affordability issues and other files, it can only minimize critical attention of the B.C. Liberals’ failures in office. Including when Falcon was such a central cabinet figure.

      Meanwhile, one suspects that Horgan will be happy as a clam to sit in his premier’s chair until nearly Christmas, thanks to a contested leadership election.

      He sure seems in no hurry to leave, and probably secretly is also pleased to see Eby have to fight for the job he covets, after the rumours about their relationship flowing from Horgan’s politically suicidal $1-billion Royal B.C. Museum vanity project.

      Though, technically, we still won’t know for sure that there will be a contested vote until Appadurai and Eby file their successfully completed nomination packages, pay the $40,000 leadership fee, and are approved by the party.

      Former attorney general David Eby risks looking like the establishment man in the B.C. NDP leadership race.

      Unlike the B.C. Liberals, when they blocked controversial candidate Aaron Gunn’s leadership bid for entirely different reasons, I can’t imagine the NDP rejecting Appadurai’s candidacy no matter how at odds she might publicly be with the party’s record and policies in government.

      She would have to go way, way further down that critical path for the NDP to ever risk invoking that nuclear option. Any attempt to do that would have hell to pay.

      But that might not stop the opposition parties from hoping against hope that the NDP leadership contest could completely unravel, making it so much harder for Eby to pick up the pieces and live to successfully fight another day.

      So, what about him?

      How could Eby possibly stand to benefit from Appadurai’s leadership campaign?

      Crazy as it might sound, he not only could, but probably will, in the long run.

      For one thing, it should serve to define Eby in comparison to her as Horgan’s equally moderate and pragmatically accommodating successor.

      As opposed to the far-left, anti-jobs, environmental “extremist” and crime-enabler-in-chief that the Libs hoped to define David “catch and release” Eby as being.

      Eby now looks suddenly tame. The establishment personified. Too timid for the NDP’s far-left climate and social democracy crusaders.

      For another thing, Eby’s expected ascendancy to the throne should gain new legitimacy from at least having to weather a couple of leadership debates and actually having to fight his party members’ votes.

      In doing so, he should also have a more explicit mandate from the party for his specific vision, ideas and prescriptions for policy change and problem-solving.

      That might also serve to strengthen his hand in building caucus buy-in on contentious policies he hopes to advance that might not otherwise be everyone’s cup of tea. Particularly in more aggressively addressing climate action, both in terms of mitigation and adaptation measures.

      Which is probably the main point of Appadurai’s campaign, anyway, come what may.

      By the same token, although I don’t think it is at all in B.C.’s interests, Eby won’t immediately have to confront the myriad crises now facing the province as premier. Which is why I had hoped that he would be acclaimed and sworn into the premier’s office ASAP, if he is bound to win the job anyway.

      Horgan will be left to struggle with the calamity exploding in health care, with the brutal affordability challenges posed by skyrocketing inflation, with the crises in housing, homelessness, mental health, random assaults, opioid addictions and so much more.

      Eby won’t have to bear the immediate personal brunt of the COVID crisis that continues to kill so many, as Dr. Bonnie Henry, Health Minister Adrian Dix and Horgan all seem content with their unconscionable mask-free handiwork.

      Having to now wait until late December to be officially sworn in as B.C.’s next premier, Eby will also probably choose to defer the next budget for a month or two after February.

      With him decidedly out of the active budgetary-planning loop, much of the work Treasury Board does over the next four months will need to be widely revisited.

      The next budget will need to reflect any specific commitments Eby makes on the leadership campaign trail. And if Appadurai somehow pulled off a miracle victory, all bets would be off. The entire draft budget would have to be thrown out the window.

      Yet one more helpful argument for Eby’s candidacy and ultimate budget priorities.

      Finally, Eby might stand to benefit by being forced to actually earn the NDP members’ support with face-to-face meetings and grassroots efforts.

      That exercise he would have skipped if he had been acclaimed should enhance his organizational capacity whenever he opts to go the polls as premier.

      So, there you have it.

      Appadurai’s leadership bid might just be a win all-round for everyone.

      Especially for those who desperately want more urgent and far-reaching climate action.

      But equally, for all those who welcome her impressive efforts to make a go of the NDP leadership contest by daring to say and do things that only someone of her skills, knowledge, experience and calibre would venture to advance.

      For far too long, her supporters might argue, governments of all political stripes have been content to play “rope a dope” on climate change.

      At the rate we’re all going, that’s only going to get us and our planet all dead.

      Time to start swinging like we mean it, Appadurai’s campaign stands to forcefully argue.

      Amen to that.

      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