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At a towering 6-7, David Eby knows what it’s like to cast a shadow. But if his first year as the leader of the BC NDP and premier of his province is any indication, the political shadow he’s casting might be about to get much, much bigger. His recent string of bold policy choices, and the easygoing way in which he communicates them to the public, show he’s one of the most important politicians British Columbia has produced in a very long time.
Eby’s rise to power and prominence was hardly foretold. As a lawyer who worked with the Pivot Legal Society and later served as executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association suggested a more activist bent to his political leanings. Instead, he entered politics and ran in Vancouver-Point Grey, the well-heeled political home of B.C. Liberal premiers Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark. Eby, it seems, has always tried to conquer the highest mountains he could find.
In 2013, he managed to do that, knocking off Clark in an election her party actually won. But rather than play it safe and try to consolidate his new political perch, Eby began talking openly about the existence of a housing crisis and the measures needed to fight it — ones that would negatively impact many of his own home-owning constituents. “The fact that prices are so out of whack with what people can get paid here means the government needs to start taxing and regulating international money in our housing market,” he told me in a 2016 Q&A I did for Vancouver Magazine.
Eby was re-elected by a far bigger margin in the 2017 election, which saw his party form government for the first time since 2001. He went on to become B.C.’s longest-serving attorney general in more than three decades, went after the money-laundering problem that had clearly been infiltrating and inflating the real estate market in Vancouver, won a fight with the province’s powerful trial lawyers association over the introduction of no-fault auto insurance, and sued major opioid manufacturers over their role in the growing drug crisis.
As it turns out, he was just getting started.
He marked his first 100 days as premier with a flurry of announcements and decisions, from new BC Hydro and affordability credits to the elimination of rental restrictions in stratas and additional support for health-care workers and foreign-trained doctors. He also made it clear that business as usual on the Downtown Eastside was not going to be acceptable. That meant the province taking fuller ownership of the scale and scope of the problems it faced, and putting an end to things like temporary encampments.
Eby even suggested that removing people from the street against their will was a step he was willing to consider. “Any kind of movement in that direction will have to be undertaken very carefully,” as he told a Postmedia reporter. “But I fundamentally disagree with the idea that it is respectful of someone’s liberty and human rights to release them into the street to die of an overdose.”
This is the essence of Eby’s political appeal. He is at once thoughtful and adaptable, principled and pragmatic. He speaks in full sentences about complex issues at a time when most politicians retreat to the comfort of canned talking points. He doesn’t resort to rhetorical grandstanding to make his points, like so many of his provincial colleagues right now, but instead relies on a lethal combination of facts and dad jokes. His recent intervention around Ottawa’s carbon tax carveout and the costs associated with climate change for his province was more coherent and compelling than anything the federal government has said about its own policy in a long time.
Most importantly, he’s not afraid to take big swings when the moment requires them. That clearly applies to housing, which has been at the top of the political priority list for as long as Eby has been in politics.
David Eby is a lot of things: the premier of British Columbia, the MLA for Point Grey, and Canada's last competent defender of carbon pricing. Is he also the federal NDP's leader-in-waiting and the person who can finish the work Jack Layton started?
Over the last month, his government tabled five different bills that will impact every aspect of the housing market — from buying and building to renting and regulations. They effectively ban the short-term rental companies that have gobbled up inventory in the Lower Mainland, neuter previously powerful NIMBY groups and their capacity to slow-roll new development applications and eliminate single-family zoning and its suffocating impact on urban density. “We’ve never seen a government target any particular sector or problem with this many new laws, this quickly,” longtime B.C. political journalist Rob Shaw wrote. “Even if it fails to work, you can’t blame the premier for lack of ambition or intent.”
If the federal NDP is looking for someone who can take them to the promised land of political power, they ought to have their eyes fixed squarely on Eby. He might not want the job, given his loyalty to his adopted home province and the work that still needs to be done there. Then again, as someone who clearly enjoys a challenge, he might be drawn to the idea of finishing the work Jack Layton started and replacing the Liberals as the first choice for most Canadian progressive voters. If anyone can do it, it’s probably David Eby.