Off with his 'ead: On the Expulsion of MLA Bob Simpson

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On the Expulsion of MLA Bob Simpson
from the NDP Caucus
by Peter Ewart and Dawn Hemingway
Sometimes you wonder if we don’t live in some kind of absolute monarchy, one in which the establishment political parties are the 21st Century version of royalty.  How else to explain the expulsion of MLA Bob Simpson from the provincial NDP caucus? 

Simpson is a capable, thoughtful and hardworking member of the party, one of the few who has a definite grasp of forestry issues in this province. 

So what was his “crime”? 
 
Along with being critical of speakers from other parties, he also criticized the current “queen” of his party, Carole James, for “lack of specifics” in her speech to the Union of BC Municipalities convention last week.  “Off with his head” was the response of the NDP brass, all of which exposes the serious systemic problems in the political processes of this province.

British Columbia suffers under an extreme party-based political system whereby voters get to vote once every four years, but for the next 1400 days are under a kind of elected dictatorship, enforced by a “party whip” system that keeps MLAs meekly in line. 

On the surface anyway, MLAs are elected by voters to represent them in the Legislature.  In reality, candidates are selected by small, often secretive, highly-partisan organizations (called political parties) and, once elected, must kiss the ring of the party brass. 

Such a system does not favour the voters of the province, and it especially does not favour rural areas, such as the Central and Northern Interior, whose MLAs have their voices muffled, and sometimes even strangled, by so-called “Cabinet” and “Party” solidarity.
 
It is no accident that a number of MLAs, both Liberal and NDP, who were expelled from caucus or made the decision to leave their party in recent years, have come from this region, including Paul Nettleton, Blair Lekstrom, and now, Bob Simpson.

British Columbian politics have not always been this way.  When the province was established in 1871, the first impulse of voters was to have a non-party based electoral system, where, in effect, all MLAs were elected as independents.  After being elected to the Legislature, the new MLAs worked out the composition of both the government and the opposition. 

There were, of course, “growing pains” in those first years as the political process was being developed.  Unfortunately, the big establishment political parties came over the mountains from Eastern Canada and took advantage of troubled political waters in this still very young province.  They overthrew the “independent” electoral system in 1903 and established the extreme party-based and “backroom boy” system which has remained until the present time.

Over the years since then, these political parties have feathered their nests with numerous privileges and perks, and set up hurdles that make it very difficult for independent candidates, or even small parties, to be elected anywhere in the province.

Today, when we think about what has happened to Bob Simpson, Paul Nettleton and Blair Lekstrom – all of whom should be commended for their stands - we should also think about that original impulse of British Columbians to go for a system in which MLAs represented the people of their ridings and not the political parties.  That impulse still remains today, simmering below the surface, and it one of the main reasons so many people are angered by the “party first” behavior of their local MLAs, as well as the antics and partisanship of the two parties in the Legislature. 

Why is it that party riding associations, which often have at most a few hundred members (in ridings of tens of thousands of people), get to select the candidates who will run in the next election?  Why must these “selected” candidates be then given royal approval by the party leadership far way in Vancouver or Victoria?

There are alternatives, as the history of British Columbia shows.  We don’t need to go back to exactly the same system of long ago.  But we can certainly learn from, and even build upon, that system.

For example, instead of party riding associations - which are exclusive and highly partisan organizations - monopolizing the candidate selection process, we could have wide open, non-partisan candidate selection meetings, in which anyone in the riding could participate, irrespective of their political views, and decide who would be candidates.  Instead of running “their” candidates, the main role of political parties would be to educate voters about issues.

A range of four or five candidates could be nominated from such a riding meeting, and, subsequently, their names would be put forward on the election ballot.  Once elected, the successful MLA would be in a position to clearly and forcefully represent all the voters in the riding and not be under the thumb of some party whip in the provincial legislature or backroom “boys” at party headquarters.

We need a modern political system, not some moldy relic of feudalism and party monopoly.  One in which candidates can, first and foremost, freely represent their constituents and speak out on their behalf.  One in which no one has to undergo the indignity of having to kiss the ring of the party brass in Victoria.

Peter Ewart is a writer, columnist and community activist.  He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  Dawn Hemingway is a writer and educator.  Both are based in Prince George, British Columbia. 

 

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