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BC NDP technicalities evade party takeover by its own members

Once again, the NDP has, in a panic, shot itself in the foot

Canadian Politics

Anjali Appadurai meets with supporters in downtown Nelson, BC, August 30, 2022. Photo by Peter Schramm.

The BC NDP has just narrowly avoided a takeover by its own members. Responding to the leadership challenge by climate activist Anjali Appadurai, the party resorted to a technical disqualification and dodged an open contest and debate on the province’s direction.

David Eby, a popular cabinet minister in John Horgan’s government, had been all set for coronation in a race with no other contestants. Horgan was similarly crowned unopposed in 2017.

The party seemed shocked when 32-year-old Appadurai announced in August that she wanted the job, and wanted the party to debate climate and more. Appadurai ran as a federal NDP candidate, and came very close to winning, in Vancouver in 2021.

What happened next was astounding. Here in Nelson in an NDP enclave in the interior of the province, I thought Appadurai had a great idea and I immediately re-joined the party to support her. I started suggesting the same to my friends, but I discovered most of them had already joined, too. Others took the tiniest bit of persuasion and in under a month thousands had signed up across the province.

This mass mobilization, from the ground up, was an unprecedented event.

Bringing back disaffected members

I’m thinking most of the ‘new’ members had been members and supporters in the past. Many of us had despaired of the BC NDP’s failure to take climate change and environmental destruction seriously. We were troubled by the NDP failure to meaningfully deal with Indigenous land claims and other issues. On these topics we saw little policy difference between the NDP and the BC Liberals.

The list of concerns is long. The NDP pleaded they had no choice but to continue the massive Site C dam project. The long debated dam on the mighty Peace River is now set to flood and destroy a productive agricultural valley. And it will produce power far more expensively than renewable alternatives. Thousands abandoned the party, including myself, over the decision.

The Horgan government continued massive subsidies to the fracked gas industry in north-east BC and gave the nod to a giant pipeline and $40 billion plus LNG compression plant in Kitimat.

That pipeline is being built without consent across Wet’swuet’en territory. It’s a terrible insult to any notion of reconciliation. The Horgan government allowed the RCMP tactical squad in and we all know about the police violence that ensued.

NDP MLAs explain that BC fossil gas shipped to Asia would be climate-friendly and a bridge fuel off of coal, just like former Liberal Premier Christy Clark had said. But that rationalization has now been completely debunked. The fracking wells, pipeline and LNG plan are BC’s own climate bomb, blowing the province’s emission targets out of the water.

The NDP, despite promises, failed to reform the dying logging industry, which had already mowed down too much of a shrinking forest. The industry is in crisis. Mills have been steadily closing, raw logs are shipped overseas for milling, and the remaining supply of ‘fibre’ is dwindling fast.

Forest defender arrests have mounted steadily and now over 1,100 people across the province have faced charges. That’s all happened even though the NDP announced a paradigm change in how forestry is done. It had commissioned an expert panel for advice and accepted all the recommendations, including an immediate moratorium on logging old growth.

However, the rate of destruction continues and to this day the feller buncher machines are logging and the big trees are falling. In BC, we have a name for this: ‘talk and log.’

The provincial NDP has reportedly lost 30,000 members since it came into government, down to some 10,000 loyalists. Thousands left, angry and disappointed.

Appadurai’s campaign brought us quickly back with the possibility of a premier aware of the necessity of bigger changes. The party hasn’t released the numbers but reports are that the total memberships went from something like 10,000 to 24,000 (or as much as 40,000) in just over a month.

Faced with a flood of new and returned members? Panic!

The Eby campaign, and the party, panicked. The BC NDP and even Premier Horgan framed this as a takeover by the Green Party who have only about 3,500 members. The party phoned and sent me and many other new members emails demanding to know, with written evidence and a three-day deadline, that we weren’t members or supporters of another party. It was a blatant exercise in voter suppression.

Very quickly it must have become clear to them, however, that they couldn’t possibly disqualify enough voters to be sure Eby would win.

Finally, of course, the NDP’s Chief Returning Officer, Elizabeth Cull, accused the campaign of colluding with a BC environmental group, Dogwood BC, and breaking the leadership rules. Cull’s report on complaints filed against Appadurai by Eby’s campaign was presented to the Provincial Executive Council and they, as we all know, voted to disqualify Appadurai.

The Appadurai campaign responded in detail to the charges.

Appadurai pointed out: “The heart of the CEO’s case is the August 6 Zoom Call. Without her [Cull’s] biased presentation of this event, the case for disqualification falls apart. When I look at the Zoom call—and I encourage you to do so, too—what I saw at the time: a public meeting to explore how much interest there was in a leadership by me.”

After that Zoom meeting, Dogwood did go on and actively reach out to its members to support Appadurai. The organization says it had checked with Elections Canada to find out what specifically it was allowed to do and followed the rules.

What we have heard however, is that the party executive voted not to consider Appadurai’s response. That’s not what anyone would call ‘due process.’

The provincial council faced a barrage of emails and criticism both before and after the fateful vote. Complaints were rife about the ‘No Democracy Party.’ There was such a firestorm Horgan himself felt compelled to talk in the media about what he called “thuggery” against his executive council.

Rules are rules?

The decision is being hotly debated. Many, like Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer, say rules are rules. According to Palmer, “…the cosy relationship with Dogwood BC, a third party that shared resources with the Appadurai campaign and recruited supporters to join the NDP and vote for her. Cull found the sharing violated restrictions on third party involvement in the leadership campaign.”

Meanwhile former NDP Premier Ujjal Dosanjh couldn’t see what the problem was. He was on CBC saying that politics is all about reaching out to community organizations for support.

It may be legally defensible to eliminate Appadurai’s challenge on a technicality. Yet, when the energy and hope of her campaign had brought thousands back in to the party, it’s morally bankrupt. Clearly, Cull should have considered the rights of all those members to a vote. She could have accessed the historical membership records that showed many of the new members are returning ones.

On the face of it, the move is an insult to democracy and the rights of those thousands to have their say in their choice of leader.

Why would the NDP engage in such down-and-dirty tactics?

There are two important features of the BC NDP that led to these ruthless tactics. One is that the NDP is heavily lobbied by the fossil fuel and forestry industries. Green Party MLA Adam Olsen took advantage of the moment to put out a TikTok video about the 1,100 reported fossil fuel lobbying events in the past year.

In 2018, Cull herself was a registered lobbyist whose clients were connected to big oil.

Horgan’s NDP is clearly amenable to industry influence. And he makes no bones about standing up for the economic well-being of union members, who are well organized within the party and act collectively with the principle of solidarity—and can be ruthless. At NDP conventions the ‘labour caucus’ has a large block of votes they often use to veto progressive policies they believe hurt their interests.

Unionized workers in the resource sector mostly think of themselves as winners in our economy, and they are. They are largely in the top 20 percent of family incomes in the country. And many well-to-do union workers align their interests with their corporate employers, especially in the resource sector (in BC, Teck’s coal miners in the Crowsnest are staunch Conservative—and BC Liberal—voters).

The union movement plays hardball. They play to win. Tolerating scabs doesn’t win strikes. You can’t always be nice, you have to win.

That’s the way the NDP executive played the BC leadership contest.

NDP goes on with business-as-usual

After the disqualification, Eby was hurriedly named leader the following day. His response to the debacle was predictable. He urged Appadurai to carry on in on the party, which she already had said she is going to do. We can lead BC to a clean energy future together, he said.

This has long been the posture of the BC NDP: talk a big game on climate, and at the same time subsidize the fossil fuel industry to expand.

Eby is obviously counting on the short memory of voters, hoping the dirty moves that gave him the leadership will fade in time. He also counts on an old NDP line: what are you going to do about it? Vote Liberal?

You can’t ignore the environmental outrage of the membership

The NDP has long blackmailed environmentalists: it’s us, or the far-worse alternative, the Liberals, your choice. The threat has largely worked. With a still small Green Party, environmentalists feel they have little option but to vote NDP. No one doubts another Liberal government would be far worse.

NDP elites also believe that focusing too much on the environment will lose votes. The Eby campaign loyalists repeated: letting Appadurai win would give away the next election to the Liberals.

Well-known commentator and occasional NDP strategist, Bill Tieleman, directly blamed the loss of the 2013 provincial election, one where the NDP had been leading strongly in the polls, on environmental statements made by then-leader Adrian Dix. Incidentally, Tieleman also helped lead the campaign against proportional representation in the 2018 referendum.

The reality is that, like so many of the party’s members, British Columbians are well aware of the climate crisis we are already in. The province is hotter and drier (and sometimes wetter) than at any point in the past. A rolling catastrophe of fires, floods and landslides have everyone’s attention. We are eager to do something to stop it, including of course bringing emissions down.

A grave miscalculation

The NDP party line was all about Appadurai being ‘unelectable.’ The truth is likely less clear. After two terms of NDP government, and with a severe housing crisis, an affordability crisis, and the pandemic, all making conditions tough, British Columbians could well be looking for a change in the next election in 2024.

An experienced, organized and youthful climate champion like Appadurai could well be the party’s real road to electoral success. In less than a month she inspired thousands of politically-engaged activists to get back involved in the party. A true ground-swell.

Canada’s heroes of the climate left Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein support Anjali. The energy is here.

Yet the NDP manoeuvred to even avoid a leadership debate.

Once again, the NDP has, in a panic, shot itself in the foot—maybe even shot its own left foot right off. Rejecting Appadurai, who galvanized thousands into action, means rejecting the beating heart of the party, those ready to work and donate. Instead, we get stuck with the ossified hulk of a party with a shrinking and aging membership, beholden to the extractivist industries that are fuelling climate change. This is where the risk of losing to the Liberals really lies.

The NDP has not publicly released membership numbers. The numbers used here are as reported or quoted in other sources. If you have specific numbers, with references, I’m all ears.

Keith Wiley has been a lifelong environmental and political activist working in NGOs, for a period for the NDP in Edmonton, and for a public service union. Now in Nelson, BC he campaigns against pipelines and for real action on our environmental crises. Every week he hosts and produces The EcoCentric on Kootenay Coop Radio. He calls it “Canada’s longest-running environmental news hour on the radio.”

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