One month, two coups

by Andrew Macleod, January 2011

The recent shake-up in BC politics may give politicians more room to say what they think.

Premier Gordon Campbell stepped down as Liberal leader in early November as his caucus quietly prepared to push him out, only to be followed a month later by opposition leader Carole James succumbing to a much more public coup in the New Democratic Party.

Both parties are seeking new leaders, and those who want the job would do well to consider some of the criticisms levelled at Campbell and James about the roles of MLAs in the government and their parties.

Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett, whose public comments sped his slide from cabinet to sitting as an independent, has said Campbell led by intimidation and discouraged MLAs from voicing their views. Bennett described Campbell yelling and spraying saliva after Bennett said he thought MLAs should have had more influence at a meeting. “I thought he truly wanted to hear from MLAs. He says he does, he’ll tell you he does.”

And Vancouver-Mount Pleasant MLA Jenny Kwan’s criticisms of James—the most detailed of any from the 13 NDP MLAs who opposed James’ leadership—hit similar notes, with complaints that debate had been stifled, decision-making centralized and individual MLAs marginalized. (Saanich South MLA Lana Popham, identified as part of the group who wanted to see James go, has yet to explain her reasons and didn’t respond to a message requesting her comments for this story about how she sees the role of MLAs.)

“Many are shocked at how some critical decisions are made or how caucus decisions have been later altered,” Kwan said. Caucus members often learn about decisions through the media, she complained. “This poor decision-making practice and a lack of genuine consultation within our caucus is an ongoing source of frustration for many within the caucus.”

Former NDP cabinet ministers Corky Evans and Tom Perry have both described taking orders from “the centre” on what they could or could not say.

While there’s an obvious need for political parties to maintain clear messages and show unity so as not to confuse the public, that MLAs on both sides of the house are feeling disempowered is telling. So is the fact they are beginning to express those concerns publicly. 

Each is elected with the votes of thousands of supporters. They run promising to represent the views of the people from their area. The leaders of their parties run saying they will listen to British Columbians and the MLAs who represent them before making decisions. But MLAs who break with party discipline and speak their minds are chastised or punished. They lose positions of influence within the party or are otherwise pushed to the fringes.

As labour minister, Murray Coell contradicted the party line when he mused in September that it might be time to raise the minimum wage. Within 24 hours the Saanich North and the Islands representative called a press conference to backtrack. He’s now the environment minister, replaced in labour by someone who has until recently been steadfast against lifting the lowest wage above $8 an hour.

Then there’s Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson, who James kicked out for lightly criticizing a speech she gave. There is something wrong with the caucus process and how decisions are made, Simpson said after Kwan released her statement. “Especially for somebody who goes to the public and says, ‘I’m a collaborative, consultative, bottom-up democrat. I’m going to be a new kind of leader.’ We were not experiencing that in caucus,” said Simpson, adding, “The decision-making was certainly becoming more centralized and less clear to us what the agenda was.”

Even the leaders often appear to be spouting politically strategic positions, rather than saying what they may really think. 

University of Victoria political science professor Dennis Pilon argues that political parties need room to explore issues and politicians should be able to disagree even within their own caucus. He says it’s sad when people like Kwan and Simpson, who say they want their leader held accountable, are labelled—by both the party and some in the media—as troublemakers and dissidents. 

“These are real genuine disagreements,” he says, noting that instead of having them aired, they get cut off before the debate has a chance to happen. The media, he adds, “should be supporting this, not calling it names.”

Pilon points out that voter turnout in the 2009 provincial election was close to 50 percent: Just one out of five British Columbians who was eligible to vote cast a ballot for a Liberal candidate, allowing Campbell to form a government with the support of just 20 percent of the population.

Stifling debate, says Pilon, will only add to public cynicism and give people one more reason to avoid voting or participating in politics. “We’ve got a self-replicating loop here…How do you get people to join a party? You give them a voice.” Without allowing for a range of opinions to be voiced, adds Pilon, political discussions will continue to become ever more narrow and trivial.

One possible bright spot is the rise of independent MLAs in the legislature. After the election, there was just one, Vicki Huntington, who knocked off Attorney General Wally Oppal in Delta South. Simpson and Bennett have since joined her, as well as former Liberal cabinet minister and Peace River South MLA Blair Lekstrom. 

It is a good time to be independent, claims Huntington: “In the political culture today they can sure get elected. The people are disgusted with the system.” Voters elect politicians to represent them in Victoria, but the party system often subverts that promise, she points out; “It places the party before the public.”

Huntington feels that changing how politics work in BC would require doing things to give individual MLAs more input, such as through committees that are taken more seriously than they now are. “You may as well not go to those committee meetings,” she says. “This system will only change with the leaders’ commitments on both sides of the fence.”

Simpson too has pledged to run as an independent in the next provincial election. “Voter turnout has been steadily declining; people who are voting state they are unhappy with the limited choices they’re offered,” he says. “Mistrust and cynicism toward politicians runs deep, and too many people are simply not engaging in their democracy as a result. Based on my experience in party politics, I’ve concluded that the party system itself is to blame for much of this unhappiness and lack of participation.” 

Whether he and others running as independents can succeed remains to be seen. But as long as the short-term crisis in provincial politics has people talking about how it could be better, either within or outside the party system, there’s hope.

Andrew MacLeod is the Legislative Bureau Chief for www.TheTyee.ca.