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Worse than the Mushy Middle

  Carole James, the new leader of the BC New Democratic Party, may not be who the province needs to disgorge Gordon Campbell's neo-conservative disease from our land.

  The party machine had practically anointed her by the beginning of the late November weekend leadership and policy convention with endorsements from Jenny Kwan and both BC NDP MPs (predictably and appropriately, outgoing leader Joy McPhail declined to offer any endorsement). Her candidacy finances appeared most extensive with the largest campaign support material around all weekend: the largest, most colourful handouts, plus banners, signs, table placards, shirts and even "Carole" yellow scarves adorning hundreds of convention delegates.

  Her pleasing personality, outgoing demeanor, calm public speaking style and accommodating style of engaging people certainly demonstrate her years of politicking and her honed skills at communicating with people around the province, precisely what she plans to continue while being the leader of a party, yet not sitting in the legislature.

  Her win on the second ballot of voting was decisive, but she and her campaign strategy has weaknesses that she and the party need to address in the 17 months before the May 15, 2005 election.

  The first evening of the convention featured the 15th in a series of debates the party conducted around the province. The panel structure of the final "debate" and the debate at the Vancouver Playhouse in September had two advantages: first, candidates did not directly engage with each other—merely delivering statements and responding to questions—allowing them an opportunity to proactively describe (or not) their relative distinctiveness; second, those attending could see all the flavours of ideology and personality the party had to offer without any distraction of candidates pointing to each other's failings.

  Granted though, the build-up to a leadership convention is not the time for divisiveness and animosity, but for promotion and inclusion.

  However, this format kept candidates from demonstrating their ability to deal with any truly critical challenges to their particular skill set and weaknesses. Further, it modeled a tone in the hall of avoiding conscious critique of what at times were glaring holes in candidates' leadership campaigns.

  This is the area that Carole James is weak. She avoided direct answers to some significant questions.

  At the 15th debate, she didn't respond to the second question: what would the candidates do about First Nations treaties? Leonard Krog explained the importance of addressing Nanaimo land claims initially to develop a model for dealing with treaty issues involving urban areas. Carole James merely explained why we have to stand up for treaty rights.

  When the candidates were asked how they would "expand the tent" to include more people in the party, she replied with the importance of including youth and progressives, but she didn't explain how.

  When asked about how she would fix the problem of less ethnic diversity in the party than a decade ago, she replied that it was important for the party to represent British Columbians, but she didn't explain how here either.

  Months ago at the leadership debate at the Vancouver Playhouse in early September, the second question to the candidates explored what they would do to reconcile human activity with environmental preservation. While one spoke of triple bottom line economics, another of alternative energy sources and another of forest tenure reform, Carole James replied that Gordon Campbell took the environment out of the environment ministry so it is important to beat the Liberals.

  The seventh question was on what the candidates would do about early childhood education and child care funding. James responded with an attack on the government, that Gordon Campbell removed the BC Child Care Act.

  The eighth question was about improving drug education and drug treatment for youth. James restated the importance of the issues without explaining how she would make any changes.

  Once the election campaign formally begins, though, James will have to debate the premier in what will surely be a feast of rhetorical mangling. Will she be able to handle the confrontation without evasive, non-specific answers?

  Her debate trend is disturbing. While certainly answering many questions directly, she completely dodged specific answers that would distinguish her from other candidates. Instead she declared her concern for the issues themselves: admirable, but evasive.

  Most of her evasive answers kept to traditional NDP party ideology of caring and compassion for victims of social injustice and a pledge to improve the lives of all: a very safe strategy. No one could fault the core of her answers, though she behaved in an all-too-typical political fashion.

  A dominant theme in the NDP convention was to regain the trust of the electorate after the fast ferries and Glen Clark's back porch. The party strategy is to work throughout the province to reconnect with people: while the Liberals have supporters with deep pockets and large corporate media interests, the NDP has humanity and a bond with people themselves.

  But there can be no humanity when the leader's responses to specific questions are to merely restate the significance of the issue. While enough people didn't see through her evasiveness at the convention, the public will eventually, perhaps quite soon because of the public's skeptical attitude about the party.

  During the NDP leadership campaign, former MLA Steve Orcherton publicly extolled his labour, ordinary British Columbian, socialist roots and opposed the mushy middle of enlarging the tent by watering down traditional NDP principles and embracing centrist views, a position promoted by Nils Jensen.

  In his speech on the second day of the convention, Mehdi Najari explained a vivid critique of global neo-liberal corporate imperialism that is undermining representative democracy and the need for a strong socialist, democracy-saving response. Despite a few standing ovations, the delegates were often distant and unresponsive during his speech.

  In committing to very little beyond safe party platform and expressing compassion for social injustice, Carole James used silence to win while other candidates fought the socialist-centrist battle.

  But even more disturbing is the coincidence between James' strategy and Gordon Campbell's campaign in the 2001 election.

  Campbell campaigned on a tax cut favouring lower income earners, keeping his hands off BC Hydro and respecting public sector labour contracts, though he lied about all three. But most importantly, he kept silent, not committing his party to many other policy decisions, allowing the public's disdain for the NDP to slingshot him into office.

  His was a successful strategy too.

  Ultimately, Gordon Campbell's neo-conservative disease is not an isolated phenomenon; its roots reach back to Thatcher's Britain, Reagan's USA and New Zealand in the 1980s. It manifested in the FTA, NAFTA, FTAA, APEC talks, the failed MAI in the late 1990s and current WTO, World Bank and IMF policies of reducing the ability of democratically-elected, representative governments—and many not-so-democratic governments—to exercise their sovereignty by regulating non-representative transnational, multinational and global corporations.

  Terminating Gordon Campbell's participation in the free trade over fair trade orgy may not stop the global trend from steamrollering our province anyway. That wouldn't be Carole James' fault, though.

  But the party failing to elect a new leader who explicitly speaks for an ideology and set of principles that the NDP was founded on—ideologies that are required to make any meaningful stand against corporate imperialistic globalization—may ensure the party's irrelevance as populist civil movements continue to move into the forefront of saving our democracy.

  Carole James has charisma, leadership potential and a will to travel the province to listen to people and their suffering, but unless she can answer specific questions about specific plans the party has to solve real problems, she—and the party—will not regain the trust of a public that is desperate to believe in politicians who as well as not lying, will also not be evasive.

Stephen Buckley
Copyright 2003

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