The Politics of Choosing

Historic Opportunity

Nothing in the world is static. The second law of thermodynamics states that disorder in the universe always increases. Biological forces such as natural selection and competition for scarce resources compel organisms to evolve, transform themselves or risk being taken over.

The same is true in politics. Politics belongs to those who organize themselves and show up. By mobilizing people who share common values, one can influence the policies of institutions, including governments and political parties.

It usually takes a lot of energy to move the “change” needle a few notches towards the world we aspire to. Occasionally, however, opportunities arise when larger changes are possible. Now is one of those times. Given the leadership vacuums in both leading political parties in BC, there is a unique opportunity to change the game. Who the leaders of the two major political parties are in this province will determine what is possible to achieve for the environment for perhaps the next 10 years. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the course of our province for the better because both parties are at historic lows in membership.

Swift Changes

Swift changes are not unusual in politics. In fact, wrestling control of political institutions from people holding one view by out organizing them is the norm. Stephen Harper built his support first by out organizing other factions within the former Reform/Canadian Alliance party, and later by incrementally out organizing and ultimately ingesting the more centrist Progressive Conservatives.

In British Columbia this happens frequently. Remember when Glen Clark’s supporters moved out Premier Harcourt? Or when Ujjal Dosanj out-organized his NDP opponents to become Premier in 2000?

It happened 17 years ago when Gordon Campbell wrestled control of the BC Liberal Party from then more moderate leader Gordon Wilson. Beginning in 1987 Mr. Wilson, who later became an NDP Minister of Finance, resuscitated the BC Liberals as a centrist party by severing ties to the locally unpopular federal Liberal Party and all other provincial Liberal parties across the country.

Gordon Campbell took over leadership through a sophisticated bloodless coup d’tat in 1993. Rumours abound that Mr. Campbell’s faction manufactured the leadership crisis by leaking the fact that Mr. Wilson was having an affair with another MLA, Judy Tyabji. Mr. Campbell’s sophisticated operators then took control of the party executive, changed the membership and leadership voting rules, and packed the membership with more conservative supporters largely in the lower mainland.

It wasn’t pretty. But the result was clear. A few Campbell supporters with different views than the party mainstream took over and reformed it in their image. Now is the time to try it again and put the environment at the top of the agenda for both parties, no matter their record.

Strategic Voting

Whether we like it or not, in a few days a small group of self-selected people will determine who the new leader of the BC Liberal Party is and by default BC’s next Premier. Between the BC Liberals’ leadership race and that of the BC NDP taking place shortly afterwards, who occupies BC’s Premier’s seat for up to the next decade may be decided in the next three months.

This is not very democratic, but it’s the way it is, so each of us has a choice: We can choose to try and influence that decision or sit on the sidelines and leave it to others.

The good news: environmentally-minded voters, particularly active No Tankers supporters, could be the balance of power in the leadership races because thousands of people in key ridings across the province stepped forward to engage in the political process.

The recent changes in the BC Liberal leadership voting rules mean each Liberal riding association now has an equal voice in selecting the next leader. This means that a few organized people can deliver a high proportion of seats to a candidate willing to stick his or her neck out for the environment.

Leaders of political parties have a lot of power. Too much I say, but that is a subject for a later post. Leaders generally have de facto veto power over policies and determine the priority given to issues. Their power increases dramatically when their party forms government. The new leader of the BC Liberals will have an extraordinary amount of power to reboot the party in his or her image. For the next two years, they will be able to set the agenda for land use and water protection, climate policy, resource extraction and a host of other issues that matter to each and every one of us.

This could be good or bad. It means that with the proper leverage a leadership candidate could be pushed to commit to bold policies, such as supporting a ban on oil tankers, approving new funding for public transportation or residential energy retrofits and not approving new coal mines. However, I can virtually guarantee that if people like you – who care deeply about building a just, equitable and sustainable province – don’t engage, the results will be bad. It could mean more inequitable tax cuts, more gutting of environmental laws, and more fast-tracked resource extraction.

Isn’t this going too far?

People have asked me: “Won’t this somehow help the BC Liberal Party in the next election?”

And I tell them, simply, “No.” Signing-up to pick the next Premier will not mean that folks are obligated to vote for the Liberal Party in the next election. We are part of a coalition made up of intelligent people who understand that this is a strategic voting opportunity, not an effort to build support for the BC Liberals or any other party. This is a democratic tool available to us, and we are going to use it.

I believe all political candidates and parties should be approached on a “What have you done for us lately?” basis. No party should own the votes of environmentally-minded people. To create change at the pace and scale needed to avoid the worst of the biodiversity, climate and fiscal crises on the horizon we need to push all parties to compete for environmental and progressive votes. We need to stop making decisions based on what happened in the past, but on what candidates are willing to do in the future.

Dogwood Initiative is a non-partisan organization; we will not endorse specific political parties or candidates. But non-partisan does not mean non-political. Indeed, we are explicitly political. In fact, one of our stated goals is to “Inspire an informed and engaged citizenry at the local level.” So we work hard to encourage, cajole, educate, and pressure all politicians and political parties to adopt policies that invigorate democracy, promote equality and justice, sustain the planet, encourage collaboration and create healthy, prosperous communities. We are not afraid to take a controversial stance, or take strategic direct action to move forward on an issue.

Be a Part of the Solution

Building a party membership base of people who care about environmental issues was a first step. Now Dogwood and groups like Organizing for Change (of which we are a member) and Conservation Voters of BC will work to pressure leadership candidates in both the NDP and the Liberals to step in the right direction on environmental policies. Ultimately, success will depend on whether any viable candidates pledge to support environmental policies and make commitments to protect our air, land and water and the communities that rely on them.

Unorganized people are powerless in our system. The world belongs to those who show up. These two aphorisms highlight why I hope people will step slightly outside of their comfort zone and seize the opportunity to choose the next leaders of our province.

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