The dust has mostly settled on the fraught British Columbia NDP leadership race that wasn’t, and today, David Eby will be sworn in as the province’s next premier.
I had a rather unique, and sometimes stressful, vantage point on the BC NDP leadership contest. Both Dave Eby and Anjali Appadurai are my longtime friends (although hereon in I will stick with the customary use of surnames). I’ve known Eby since his early days with Pivot Legal in the Downtown Eastside. Our families have spent holiday time together and have shared in celebrating major life events. I’ve known and worked with Appadurai for over 10 years, and we are currently colleagues at the Climate Emergency Unit. And, full disclosure, I am also a proud board member with the much and falsely maligned B.C. non-profit Dogwood.
While this up-close perch leaves me with many insights and feelings about the leadership contest, the race is over. So now what? Rather than rehash what went down — suffice it to say, I strongly disagree with the justifications for Appadurai’s disqualification — I want to offer some thoughts about what should happen going forward.
In their own ways, both Eby and Appadurai represent a new generation of political leadership. It wasn’t long ago that Eby was seen as the anti-establishment standard-bearer, while Appadurai’s bid was clearly an insurgent campaign (in the best sense of the word) seeking to shake up the party.
I am very fond of them both and want to share a little about what I admire about each of them.
Eby can be bold and fearless, and he has proven time and again that he is capable of skilfully taking on complex files. Among his most admirable traits is that, once convinced of an issue, Eby is willing to bring on fights with the powerful: unscrupulous landlords; wealthy homeowners who dislike the NDP’s progressive property tax increases; the trial lawyers who opposed his needed reforms to ICBC (B.C.’s public auto insurance company); and even the police back in his days with Pivot and the BC Civil Liberties Association. In a world in which too many politicians don’t like to ruffle feathers and want to be universally liked, Eby hasn’t shied away from doing what is needed and right, even if it means “welcoming the hatred” of some powerful vested interests (to borrow a phrase from Franklin D. Roosevelt).
Eby is also notable for the ways in which he is prepared to take responsibility and be held accountable. While we are surrounded by political “leaders'' who prefer to finger-point on problems and buck-pass on solutions, Eby has frequently been willing to step forward and assume real leadership. When handed the infamous “dumpster fire” portfolio of ICBC, bleeding money and staring down heavy rate hikes, he committed to fixing the ailing Crown corporation, and did just that within two years.
When given the housing portfolio just as the Strathcona Park homeless encampment in East Vancouver was reaching a breaking point and every level of government seemed to be deflecting blame and pleading impotence, Eby declared: “I am responsible” and committed to find housing for everyone in the park within a few months. And now again, as he assumes the premiership at a time of record homelessness and despair in the Downtown Eastside, there is Eby saying the problems are too far away for the federal government and beyond the capacity of the city to contend with, so his government will “bottom line” an action plan. “The opportunity here is for the province to take a leadership role and say we will take responsibility,” Eby has declared. “We will co-ordinate this.”
As a team leader, Eby is calm, funny and supportive, which likely explains why so many of his caucus colleagues were so quick to endorse him.
What has been missing from Eby’s record, however, is a clear demonstration that he genuinely understands the climate crisis and is prepared to confront it at appropriate scale. Indeed, he has been reticent to utter the words “climate emergency,” and when pressed on this issue, he has defaulted to tired government talking points. For whatever reason, Eby has not yet shown an interest in taking on the fossil fuel companies with the same vigour he has deployed against other powerful forces.
"I dearly hope David Eby takes a bunch of Anjali Appadurai’s bold ideas and makes them his own." @sethdklein writes for @NatObserver #opinion #BCNDP #ClimateAction
In his July speech launching his leadership campaign, Eby could have stated how climate policy under his government would be different than under John Horgan’s, thereby sending a bat signal to disaffected climate voters. If he had, Appadurai’s insurgent campaign likely never would have happened. Instead, he declared there would be “no radical changes” under his leadership. In that moment, the die was cast — Appadurai and her supporters were galvanized to launch a challenge.
As for Appadurai’s leadership qualities, well, they are formidable, and many now see and understand why her past and present colleagues adore and admire her.
She, too, has shown a consistent willingness to be bold and courageous. And in the face of this tumultuous leadership contest, Appadurai stayed unswervingly and remarkably calm, cool and collected.
Appadurai has deep knowledge of climate policy (domestic and international) and an uncanny wisdom about movement-building. She is an outstanding public speaker and meeting facilitator, bringing grace, energy and inspiration to such roles. The leaders we most remember in times of emergency are those who are both forthright about the severity of the crisis and yet still manage to impart hope. And Appadurai has a remarkable ability as a communicator to walk that balance.
Her brief campaign saw Appadurai put out transformative ideas on health and climate policy (and according to her, democratic reform and economic justice platforms are still forthcoming). Appadurai is a genuine climate justice champion. In short, she was/is a deeply inspiring candidate.
Among the things that make Appadurai politically attractive is that she doesn’t actually crave power; rather, she is called to service. In truth, she was highly reluctant to run. It took a whole lot of urging by a host of climate activists, particularly young ones, to convince Appadurai to throw her hat in the ring and be their spokesperson.
And here’s another insider truth: Appadurai didn’t expect to win. She wanted to force a needed debate, push the party and its next premier to the left, up the government’s climate ambition and end the incoherence that marks the NDP’s climate and Indigenous justice policies.
When Appadurai was still considering her leadership bid, I was nervous. Among my concerns was that she would be crushed; that she would lose badly, potentially exposing the climate movement’s political weakness. But whatever one may think of the outcome, that clearly did not happen. Quite the opposite.
By Labour Day, it was clear that, as strong as Eby’s support was on the inside — securing the backing of virtually the entire BC NDP caucus — his campaign had severely misjudged the outside game. Indeed, everyone had, even Appadurai and her team to a degree.
Appadurai sensed all along that there existed a well of untapped public support for visionary leadership, and she wanted to demonstrate that to Eby and the NDP. But what occurred went beyond expectations. Appadurai’s campaign sparked an organic explosion in new and returning BC NDP memberships. In a time of deep disconnect between the urgency of the crises we face and what our politics seems prepared to entertain, Appadurai tapped into a hunger for leadership prepared to speak the truth and meet these poly-crises at scale.
And Appadurai’s bid did indeed move the party and B.C.’s next premier. In Eby’s first press conference after being acclaimed the new leader, where he outlined what to expect in his first 100 days, he stated, “We cannot continue to subsidize fossil fuels and expect clean energy to manifest somehow. We cannot continue to expand fossil-fuel infrastructure and hit our climate goals.”
These are promising and welcome words we have not heard from the incoming premier before. And with numerous LNG expansion proposals up for imminent approval, the first tests of these new commitments will not be long in coming.
At that same event, Eby also said, “I am very much looking forward to continuing conversation with Anjali… I am very committed to working with those folks and delivering, not just for them, but for all British Columbians.” That invitation hasn’t come yet, but ideally will.
Rumour had it, just before the leadership race was terminated, Eby’s campaign was about to release his climate platform. But with Eby’s acclamation, that release didn’t happen. It would be great to still see that plan. Hopefully, it contains some exciting new measures that can help to retain the faith of the climate-anxious voters who joined the NDP.
How can Premier Eby signal to the climate movement that his government will be different from that of his predecessor? A few key yet transformative policies would make a huge difference:
- First, he could state clearly that B.C.’s climate targets leave no room for any new LNG projects. As numerous corporations and consortia continue to assemble LNG proposals for approval, Eby could let it be known that it would be disrespectful of their time and efforts to have them continue entertaining any notion that our climate plans can accommodate their bids.
- Second, while it will take some time to retrofit and fuel-swap existing homes and buildings to make them carbon-zero, Eby could announce that, as of 2024, no new buildings will be allowed to tie into gas lines, a policy that would have both climate and public health benefits.
- Third, he should acknowledge that, too often in B.C., the UNDRIP-enshrined rights of Indigenous Peoples have been violated by corporate interests. And going forward, when Indigenous rights and title are at odds with the desires of resource extraction and fossil fuel firms, the former will prevail.
- Fourth, he would proclaim that “no one will be left behind,” and make a commitment that major government investments in climate infrastructure will ensure all fossil fuel workers and reliant communities will have well-paying jobs as we transition our economy.
- And fifth, Eby should declare that his government will no longer be cozy with or captured by the fossil fuel industry. He will remove fossil fuel corporate reps from the province’s official Climate Solutions Council, and will no longer have fossil fuel lobbyists represent the party on major news and current affairs shows. Appadurai’s campaign exposed the outsized role of fossil fuel lobbyists within the BC NDP’s corridors of power; now Eby should toss them from the house.
There are, of course, many more climate policies I’d love to see. But combined, these five measures would send an important and electrifying signal.
British Columbians will be able to judge whether we have a new government in genuine climate emergency mode by the reaction of the fossil fuel companies. If companies like Shell Canada and FortisBC are expressing deep anxiety, then we will know a real climate plan is taking shape; if they remain calm and complimentary, then our climate plan is not fit for the task at hand.
In the ideal world, going forward, our new premier and Appadurai (and their respective supporters) can make common cause; they would unite to tackle the climate emergency and the growing impacts it is having on vulnerable communities and working people across B.C., and invite the enmity of the fossil fuel companies and their acolytes that seek to delay bold and urgent action.
Eby is becoming premier at an unenviable time. His desk will be piled high with priorities. His work tackling poverty, homelessness and a health-care system in dire circumstances will command virtually all his bandwidth.
Yet, the climate emergency must also claim some share of his attention, and not only because thousands of people desperate for action have joined his party and will either stay or quit based on how Eby proceeds. Extreme weather events, such as the devastating floods of a year ago this week, are only going to increase in frequency and severity. Years from now, this is the file upon which our children and grandchildren will judge us.
Some will no doubt say such an approach is too radical for the electorate. But politics is an unpredictable business.
Back in early 2013, every pundit and legislature reporter in B.C. were of the view that Adrian Dix could not lose that May election. Yet he did just that. His deeply uninspiring slogan — “One practical step at a time” — failed to offer a compelling vision and generated no constituency excited to go to the barricades. The same might be said of former Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart, who likewise just managed to steal defeat from the jaws of victory.
Young climate-concerned/panicked voters in the U.S. just played a pivotal role in saving the Democrats from a red wave in the midterms. Will a similar demographic do the same for the BC NDP in two years, or will they feel pushed away or abandoned? Eby inherited a party whose membership had dwindled to about 11,000 — people might have liked Horgan, but few were stirred to join his party. If Eby is going to take on a new round of powerful vested interests, he’s going to need a motivated movement of people inspired to back him up.
I dearly hope Eby takes a bunch of Appadurai’s bold ideas and makes them his own.
If instead, BC’s NDP government keeps meeting the defining crises of our time — the climate emergency, the health-care crisis, the deadly poison drug epidemic, the housing crisis — with more incrementalism, I fear they will lose the next election, setting us even further back on addressing these major interlocking crises.
They have two years to tell an exciting new story.