Saturday December 4, 2010
Dissention Among The NDP Ranks
Corky Evans' views on when MLA's go rogue
Submitted by Rafe Mair
think that the current, and very public, troubles inside the NDP must be hugely confusing to citizens. In order to try to help folks better understand the debacle I am inclined to try and offer some history about how political parties function in times of stress and how mine (and ours) has functioned over the last few weeks.
Leadership, in any Party, is not a right. Every Leader understands that they serve the Party they lead. Power, of course, is addictive and extremely difficult to abandon. This is true in all institutions from the family to a community group to a company to a political party. Power is also isolating. When we have power we have a position of status and we tend to be surrounded by people who support our status and may even benefit from our position by virtue of their wages or their ambition. Surrounded, as we are by such people, we lose contact with the views of the citizenry at large and need the intervention of others, outside our circle, to tell us what is really going on.
Political parties resolve these contradictions, at least in a democracy, in various ways. One of the most straightforward methods available to help a Leader understand what is happening outside their circle is to have some of the elected people they work with simply go and tell them how things look out on the street. These interventions are universally “in confidence” and, to my knowledge, have rarely ever been discussed outside of the circle of people actually involved in the discussion. An MLA who meets with their Leader to suggest that the Leader needs to consider moving on in life has to be tremendously brave. The Leader does not have to agree with them and can make their life difficult in future. Obviously, the discussion works best when the Member is trusted by the Leader so that the Leader can believe that the Member is not acting out of ambition or malice.
The Leader can, of course, decide to accept the advice of the Member or decide the Member is wrong and stay on. Regardless of the outcome, however, we who were not in the meeting never hear about the exchange because it is never in the best interest of the Party to have their internal discussions made public.
In 1986, when I was a candidate and prior to the election, I was asked to sign such a letter to Bob Skelly, suggesting that he resign as Leader. I declined, but others (I believe) signed the letter and (I believe) MLA’s delivered it. If such a letter and meeting actually happened, Bob Skelly, as was his right, chose to disregard the letter and the request to step down. I have never seen the letter and do not know who the MLA‘s were, as it has always been treated as an “in confidence” occurrence. I know none of this to absolutely true because, correctly, none of it has been discussed with me by any of the participants.
Same thing with Mike Harcourt. (I believe) a group of MLA’s visited Mike to discuss their wish that he resign in order to make the Nanaimo “bingogate” scandal go away for the good of the Party. He chose to take the advice but, because it was a private meeting, I do not know if such a meeting took place or who went to see him or what they said. I was part of that government and I do not know, and have not asked, what private communications took place prior to Mike’s resignation.
Same thing with Glen Clark. I believe MLA’s suggested to Glen that he resign. Glen (as was his right) chose to resist the request and then was forced to step down by virtue of actions by the Attorney General. As with both Bob Skelly and Mike Harcourt, private discussions with Glen by MLA’s who (may have) asked him to resign remain “in confidence” to this day. I was part of that government and I do not know, and have not asked, what private communications took place prior to Glen’s resignation.
For all I know, similar meetings have taken place between Socred MLA’s and Bill Bennett Jr.and/or Bill Van derZalm, and Liberal MLA’S and Gordon Wilson, and/or Gordon Campbell. The point being that MLA’s of all Parties have always had the right to request of their Leader that they resign or submit to a Leadership review and those discussions have always been, and should always remain, private. The Leader can decide to step down or decide to remain in office. Everyone involved, however, always understands the assumption of “confidence” involved in the process. It is also important to understand that when these kind of private meetings have happened in the past, they are most likely to happen with Members who personally like the Leader. Members who wish to personally replace the Leader or have antipathy for Leader do not attend because their motives would be suspect. These are private meetings to discuss a private issue raised in the best interest of the Party in question, not the personal feelings or ambitions of the people in the meeting.
Precisely in keeping with
this historical tradition, a group of New Democrat MLA’s came to the conclusion
a few weeks back that it was time to hold a Leadership convention.
A small group of those MLA’s took a letter signed by the others and themselves, to a private meeting with their Leader. Both the letter and the meeting were private. It was assumed that they would always remain private, because that is the way that it has always been done.
In keeping with historical tradition the Leader had the absolute right to consider their intervention and decide to take their advice or reject it.
For the first time in history (that I know of) Carole James chose to respond in a different, and utterly unpredictable manner. She advised others in her Caucus and staff what had happened and named the MLA’s who had come, in confidence, to see her and then proceeded to turn the upcoming Provincial Council meeting into an opportunity to divide the signatories of the letter, and their supporters, from the rest of the Party.
The Provincial Council of the NDP is a wonderful institution. Alone (as far as I know) the NDP understands that democracy inside the Party requires that constituencies have the right to run the Party and oversee it’s activities. In spite of the huge financial costs involved the NDP representatives of every constituency in the Province come together a few times a year to debate issues and hear reports from their committees and their Leader and to meet with their MLA’s.
I was honored, recently, to have been elected as a delegate to Provincial Council by the constituency of West Kootenay. A meeting of the Provincial Council was scheduled to occur a few days after the meeting between Carole James and the MLA’s who had asked her to consider calling for a leadership convention. .
As we walked into the hotel the morning of the Provincial Council meeting, staff members stood in the hallway outside the meeting room and gave yellow scarves to everyone EXCEPT the folks they knew had signed or delivered the letter, and a few of the rest of us they figured might support the 13 signatories. The result was surreal. It was also the most divisive thing I have ever witnessed in our Party. The MLA’s who had NOT signed the letter asking Carol to resign were identified, in front of their peers and the Press, as Loyal and Good. Thus, the folks WITHOUT yellow scarves were immediately and publically identified as Disloyal and Bad.
It was awful. It was so unprecedented and unexpected (deriving, as it did, from a respectful and private meeting that everyone involved, except Carole, had intended to remain Private regardless of how she decided to respond) that none of us knew how to react, or feel, or think.
The meeting opened, as they all do, with a reading of the Party’s Harassment Policy. If I, or any of us, had had our wits about us, we would have responded by pointing out that the scarves, themselves, constituted Harassment of the worst kind. I am sorry to say that this appropriate response didn’t occur to me until some days later.
I think it fair to say that some of the present trauma can be said to have begun with the expulsion of Bob Simpson from the NDP Caucus. To many of the constituency associations in the Province, Bob’s expulsion constituted a symbol of the erosion of democratic principles that allow members of the Caucus or the Party to express their thoughts. Thus, constituencies (including the one I had come to represent) had sent in motions urging the reinstatement of Bob Simpson.
The motions urging the Leader to reinstate Bob Simpson were declared unconstitutional. It was determined, by the President, that the Party had no constitutional right to comment on that issue. This change to the agenda was simply wrong. Nobody in that room had wanted to “instruct” the Leader how to do her job. The motion simply said the Leader be “urged” to reinstate Bob Simpson. The Party has the right to “urge” the Leader to do anything they want. We could “urge” the Leader to stand on her head for an hour a day if we wanted, and she has the perfect right to ignore the advice if she sees it as wrong thinking or not in the best interest of herself or her Caucus or her Party. It is certainly unconstitutional for members of Provincial council to “instruct” or “demand” that the Leader take some action. It cannot, however, be unconstitutional to simply give advice. If advice from the members is unwelcome or unacceptable, then what is the Party for except to function as an electoral machine?
I can only guess that the President and the Executive did not want to have the motion concerning Bob Simpson to see the light of day so they declared it Unconstitutional and then voted down a challenge of the Chair, to make their judgment stick.
Yesterday, Jenny Kwan asked publically that her Leader call a Leadership Convention. She suggested that if Carol wants to keep her job that she ask for a mandate to do so in a “one member, one vote” open forum. I cannot imagine (and I have tried) how this difficulty, could be resolved otherwise.
Carole James has done something I never heard of before, which is to publicize and castigate MLA’s who, rightly or wrongly, thought they were acting in confidence and in the best interests of their Party. She could have told them they were wrong and stayed in her job. That has been done before in parliamentary democracies, probably hundreds of times. She could have accepted their advice and stepped down as Leader, perhaps while remaining as an MLA. That, too, has happened before, probably hundreds of times. Instead, she chose to do something that I have never heard of before (no doubt there is some historical precedent somewhere, although I don’t know about it and I can’t imagine that it turned out well) and publicly attacked those who came to her in confidence.
I don’t care if Carole wants to keep her job or not. Neither do I think this trouble is “about” Carole personally. I have, as probably every citizen does, thoughts about her leadership skill and style and believe they are irrelevant to the discourse. This is now about the democratization, or not, of how we do politics. It does not appear to be an issue that is limited to the NDP or even to B.C. I have heard similar thoughts about the erosion of democratic process and about the centralized control of political parties of late from members of the B.C. Liberal Party, the Federal Liberal Party, and the Alberta Conservative Party. It could be that this is a moment in our history when the political process is broken and reform and renewal are on the horizon.
As a New Democrat, I am heartsick at the troubles and I fervently wish Carol James had not orchestrated the public division of her Caucus. As a citizen, I am hopeful that the democratic process in Canada is being reborn. As her friend and supporter, I will go where Jenny Kwan goes, come what may.
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