Rare birds

By Andrew MacLeod, April 2011

Concurrent provincial leadership races have given voters an unusually clear look at the parties’ core values.

In the March afternoon when Lieutenant Governor Steven Point swore in Christy Clark as premier of British Columbia, interim NDP leader Dawn Black observed, “Ms Clark never once mentioned the environment in her victory speech, nor today did she mention the environment.”

Nor for that matter had Clark said much about the environment throughout the campaign that saw her chosen leader of the BC Liberal Party, and thus premier of the province. Indeed, it was one of several key policy areas, including health and fighting poverty, that received scant attention.

There’s a reason she ignored those issues: she could. 

Neither Clark’s competitors, party members, nor the media demanded she address them, so they were never a factor in the race. The few times environmental issues did come up in the Liberal race, the thrust wasn’t even about protection. 

For example, Clark called on Stephen Harper’s Conservative federal government to take another look at a mining proposal it had rejected because of its environmental destruction—it included draining Fish Lake. She’s repeated that call since taking office.

As for the carbon tax, a Gordon Campbell environmental policy that had been controversial ahead of the 2009 election, she and her opponents entertained options ranging from freezing it to rolling it back. None championed expanding it to a point where it would likely make a significant difference to people’s decisions or the climate.

Not that environmentalists didn’t try to put the issue on the Liberal agenda. A group called Organizing for Change encouraged environmentally-minded voters to join the party for strategic reasons, and the Conservation Voters of BC made recommendations on who to vote for. 

The CVBC’s top picks, however, Mike de Jong and George Abbott, placed fourth and third respectively in what by voting day had become a four-person race.

Remember that for introducing North America’s first carbon tax the party received the support of many prominent environmentalists in 2009. The NDP, which in recent decades had generally enjoyed support from environmentalists, found itself bloodied in the election by those same greens over its populist axe-the-tax position. 

Then-NDP leader Carole James said after the election that she thought the carbon tax position didn’t hurt the party, but that her campaign had failed in general to say what the party stood for. “The thing we could have done better, and should have done better, was getting our positive vision out there,” she said at the time. 

The environment was one area where that was true and the economy was another, she said in an interview a week after the election. “We didn’t articulate in the way we should have a clear economic vision for British Columbia,” she said. “We needed to do a better job showing people we had a strong, balanced approach.” 

With little vision on offer, roughly half the people who were eligible to vote in the 2009 election stayed home. 

Bump forward two years: James has stepped down, pushed out by members of the NDP caucus who didn’t want to fight a snap election with her as leader facing a revitalized Liberal party with a new person in charge. 

Those vying to replace James have been outlining visions on all sorts of issues.

John Horgan was the first to release an environmental platform, receiving positive reviews from the Wilderness Committee and from long-time activist Vicky Husband. The Juan de Fuca MLA’s long list said he’d expand the carbon tax, invest in transit, pass an Endangered Species Act, and protect more old growth forests. 

Port Coquitlam MLA Mike Farnworth’s environmental platform—also receiving Wilderness Committee support—included keeping a steady amount of land in the Agricultural Land Reserve, moving salmon farms to closed containment, giving local governments more say on significant projects, restricting raw log exports, and planting more trees. He’d keep the carbon tax and extend it to industrial emitters, using it to pay for transit and other green initiatives.

Adrian Dix, who represents Vancouver-Kingsway, would use carbon tax revenues for transit and green infrastructure, invest in the park system, and protect endangered species and ecosystems.

Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons would strike a citizens’ assembly on climate action, make the BC building code greener, stop the development of new coal mines, and ban the cosmetic use of pesticides.

Dana Larsen, best known as a former federal NDP candidate and pro-cannabis activist, has sustainability listed as one of the four corners of his platform, along with democracy, social justice, and “smart on crime.”

Thus the party that fell down on the environment in the 2009 election—and in presenting a positive vision in general—is all over it in their 2011 leadership race. And the party that best exploited the issue in 2009 ignored it in their race.

How to explain the seeming reversal? 

As Conservation Voters’ organizer Will Horter pointed out during the Liberal race, the candidates have different objectives in a leadership contest than they do in a general election. While they may be talking to the public at one level—laying the groundwork for a future election, or at least avoiding saying things that will be used against them—their immediate interest is in talking to existing party members.

That means saying the things those members want to hear, talking about the things those people care about. If there’s an appetite among the members, who number in the tens of thousands in this province of 4.5 million people, to hear about an issue, then one or more of the candidates will weigh in. If there’s not, they’ll coast through without bringing it up, as most of the Liberals did on questions of how to address poverty.

Leadership campaigns thus provide a clearer glimpse of the parties’ core values, uncluttered by the political strategizing of a general election where the parties at times present policies that push into their opponents’ territory and at others avoid talking about issues they don’t see as their own strengths.

On the Liberal side, core issues included managing the economy, continuing to lower taxes, containing government costs and balancing the budget. Clark won on a “families first” platform that included building opportunities for people to get ahead by working.

For the NDP, all the candidates have talked about social justice, education, and the environment, with the occasional foray into economic growth and building honest government.

While American voters get this kind of perspective every four years—Barack Obama pushed left running against other Democrats in the primaries, then to the right against the Republicans in the general election—it’s unusual for a Canadian province to have two party leadership races so close together.

The last few months have therefore been a rare chance for British Columbians to see just who the parties think they are. Many voters may remember when they next go to the polls.

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