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B.C. NDP caught in jobs-or-environment conundrum

Mike Farnworth, seen here during the NDP leadership debate in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tuesday, March 1, 2011.

Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

Buy low. Sell high. The investing principle has come to describe the approach some in the province's environmental movement are taking to the embattled B.C. NDP as it faces restructuring after being defeated in an election last spring they were expected to win.

In political terms, that means getting into the conversation as the party chooses its next leader in September to make sure the NDP emerges brightly green on the issues. Defeat, goes the thinking, has made the NDP more flexible than the governing B.C. Liberals, who are comfortable with the policies they carried to a fourth straight majority mandate last May.

Although the NDP is in a post-election slump now, it has governed B.C. in the past and may do so again in the future. Party boosters have also noted the 34 seats they won – compared to 49 for the Liberals – is a solid foundation for future success.

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For the green movement, attention in the leadership race will mean meetings with candidates, and holding them to account, laying out policy priorities and talking to party members. Straightforward logistically, but possibly challenging because some say the NDP was on the wrong side of the jobs-versus-the-environment divide from voters.

There's also some caution in the movement because of scrutiny by the Canada Revenue Agency, which has conducted audits of green groups to make sure they comply with rules restricting political advocacy. Their charitable status could be revoked depending on the outcome of such reviews.

Still, the effort is worthwhile, say some environmentalists. "There is an opportunity definitely now to shape the future of the New Democratic Party in British Columbia," says Ben West of ForestEthics, an organization committed to forests and their wildlife, among other issues.

"The NDP leadership race is definitely a big moment," he says, noting the winner will have a "big microphone" on issues of interest to the environmental movement.

"There are many environmentalists inside the party and outside the party who want to see bold leadership that really has a vision for the future that's positive and progressive and really works for both jobs and the environment."

Mr. West says it remains to be seen how involved ForestEthics will get in the leadership race, but they are keeping an eye on the process.

NDP environmental promises in the 2013 campaign included using a portion of carbon-tax revenues to expand transit, bolstering funding for BC Parks operations and protecting "significant" ecological areas like wetlands, estuaries and old-growth forests.

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But no issue resonates more in the history of the campaign than a mid-campaign decision by NDP Leader Adrian Dix to reverse course on his stand on an expanded Kinder-Morgan pipeline between Edmonton and Burnaby. He had been willing to let the project go through the review process before taking a stand, but decided to come out against it.

The move has been deemed a political disaster that tarred the NDP with a flip-flop image. Former cabinet minister Mike Farnworth, the only declared leadership candidate so far, has deemed the course change a mistake.

Mr. West says the NDP could have better handled the issue, more eloquently explaining it and illustrating opposition to the pipeline. Instead, he says the NDP played the 2013 campaign like the Vancouver Canucks in the lead. "They kind of circled around hoping they wouldn't make any mistakes and got scored on," said Mr. West.

Mr. West says people have blamed the environmental movement for hurting the NDP's electoral prospects. "I've had friends of mine jokingly say, 'You guys cost us the last election.'"

While the NDP appears a good prospect now, Mr. West notes that B.C. was governed by the NDP during the legendary 1990s-era protests over clearcut logging in Clayquot Sound so the party does not have a perfect record despite its centre-left positioning.

Gwen Barlee, policy director for the Wilderness Committee, which aspires to protect wild spaces and their species, says she's hoping for truly meaningful stands on climate change, bolstering the environment ministry and protecting such endangered species as the spotted owl.

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"Definitely environmental groups have a role in the discourse that happens around elections and the discourse that happens around leadership campaigns – not doing that all in a partisan way, but contributing to an informed discussion."

So far, the leadership contest is a race with only one runner at the starters' line awaiting others to show up and make it a contest.

Several MLAs and MPs have talked about leadership bids, but all backed off except, so far, Mr. Farnworth, a suburban MLA.

In entering the campaign, Mr. Farnworth said he would be advocating "family-supporting jobs" while also protecting the environment.

In an interview Wednesday, he said there's room for debate on the environment, but it's early on in the race. "We have seven months for a leadership campaign. There will be plenty of time to discuss everything," he said, declining to get into specifics beyond his opening stand on the environment.

"To me, the big issue is we have to get away from (the debate) being either jobs or the environment. It's both. To me, it's got to be one of the central components we take into the next election."

Ian Bailey is a reporter in The Globe's Vancouver bureau.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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