Monday, January 17, 2005

Nominations posing risks for both parties

VICTORIA - No one was likely sadder than the Liberals to see Steve Orcherton lose his bid for an NDP nomination in Victoria, just as the New Democrats were sorry to see that Cindy Silver couldn't bump off sitting MLA Dan Jarvis.
Both parties know that nominations are being watched as one indication of which party is moving closest to the centre.
The burden is lightest for the Liberals. Their position is defined in voters' minds, and a majority of candidates are known quantities - sitting MLAs running for re-election. As a result, LIberal nomination battles are few and have less significance.
But they're not irrelevant. Media attention has focused - a little excessively - on Silver, and Mary Polak as indicators that the Liberals are shifting to the right on social issues.
Silver has worked for Focus on the Family and the Christian Legal Fellowship of Canada, and is against same-sex marriage. She's seen as a social conservative, and makes many small 'l' liberals nervous about the party's direction.
Her emergence as the lone challenger to any sitting Liberal MLA, in a safe seat, had people wondering whether she had some unofficial party blessing. (Especially because the government was miffed last year when Jarvis said building BC Ferries ships in Germany was a stupid idea.)
Jarvis won the battle by a small margin, with 168 votes to Silver's 138, a turnout that doesn't reflect well on either hopeful's organizational skills.
Polak is known for her role on the Surrey school board that spent $1 million on a legal fight to keep three books depicting same sex couples out of elementary schools. She was also the losing candidate in the Surrey byelection last fall. Now she's jumping boundaries, trying to get the nomination in Langley hoping for a better shot there.
The federal Conservatives showed how many votes could be lost when 'social conservative' candidates are seen as out of touch with mainstream voters. Still, one candidate hardly makes a trend.
The NDP has a more serious problem. Carole James has to convince voters the party has changed. The most concrete evidence will be the candidates who emerge from the nomination process. If they are the same people who were part of the incompetent government that was turfed by the voters in 2001, it will be hard to argue that this is a new NDP.
That's why James is glad Rob Fleming, a Victoria city councillor seen as a moderate, beat Orcherton. The former MLA makes no bones of his strong loyalty to unions, and ran against James for the leadership urging that the party stay on the hard left of B.C.'s political spectrum. Likewise it's good news for James that Helmut Giesbrecht, another New Democrat from the bad old days, lost the nomination battle in Skeena on the weekend.
But James already has candidates who are a liability to the party's overall effort. Harry Lali, a former NDP cabinet minister, a hardliner and fierce Glen Clark loyalist, is already nominated in Yale-Lillooet. Clark's top political advisor Adrian Dix has the nomination in Vancouver Kingsway. The Liberals can point to both as proof the party hasn't changed.
I feel kind of bad to be writing this column. In many ways there would be merit in parties that embraced candidates who shared a few core values but reflected a wide range of views. They could them come together and work our a consensus on policy and action. The wider the debate, the better the ultimate decisions should be.
The alternative risks group-think, with a flock of candidates who share the same ideas, almost always those of the leader.
But the reality - for now - is that parties need to reassure voters that whether they are on the left or the right, they will stay within a broad mainstream. The candidates they nominate will be the critical in providing that reassurance.
Footnote: Former NDP cabinet minister Ted Stevenson has won the nomination in Vancouver-Burrard. Stevenson's personal reputation means he doesn't carry much baggage from the Clark years. The battle between Stevenson and Liberal Lorne Mayencourt, who won by 4,000 votes in 2001, should be one of the toughest in the province.

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