Sunday, January 20, 2013

Rise of the Independents: Good for Democracy in BC

“I have enjoyed being an independent more than I can say. My integrity is intact, and oh my goodness, does that make your soul feel fine.” 
~ Vicki Huntington, the first independent elected as a B.C. MLA in 60 years

Independent MLAs enter untested waters

John Slater is about to learn just how easy he had it in 2009.

The MLA for Boundary-Similkameen jumped this week from the B.C. Liberal caucus – or, more accurately, he was pushed – and quickly made up his mind to run in the coming election as an independent candidate.

That mission, even with the support of members of his riding association who quit the B.C. Liberals along with him, will be a very different experience than his inaugural campaign under the party’s wing in the 2009 provincial election.

In that contest, Mr. Slater enjoyed a central ad campaign, a constituency war chest built up with several years’ worth of fundraising, and a coveted database that merges the voters list with known supporters. In Boundary-Similkameen, a swing riding, party headquarters would have provided a phone bank to help identify supporters and get them out to vote.

His campaign manager, financial agent and communications staff would have had training from the party. A riding service package would include goodies like office insurance and a ready-made, branded social media set-up.

In the next three months, Mr. Slater will be trying to replicate all that on his own.
But he’s not the only one. An unusual number of incumbent MLAs will be on the ballot in the May election without a political affiliation. That reflects tumultuous times in B.C. politics, but also the sense that a new political reality is opening up after the 2009 breakthrough of Vicki Huntington, the first independent elected as a B.C. MLA in 60 years.

“It has made it respectable to run as an independent,” said Ms. Huntington, who now regularly fields calls from people interested in running as an independent. She is blunt with them: It is tough to raise money, the paperwork to be approved as a candidate by Elections B.C. is onerous, and name recognition is crucial.

In 2009, she toppled a high-profile cabinet minister, Wally Oppal, in Delta South on a shoestring budget – she couldn’t even afford a campaign office. This time around, she sees even more reason for independents to be successful when voters head to the polls in May. “There is a mood out there for a change, and the independents can provide a middle road for the voter.”

Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson was dumped from the B.C. NDP caucus two years ago, and has used that time to prepare for the solo campaign ahead. In those two years, he has aimed to build the case that he is not running against his old party. “You have to get over the disaffected label,” he said. “The first thing people want to know is, are you really an independent? If you have a story to tell – not ‘they screwed me,’ but a story about proving politics can be done outside the party system – I think there is an appetite there.”

John van Dongen was elected five times as a B.C. Liberal before he defected to the B.C. Conservatives last spring. He is now sitting as an independent and has spent months planning a solo campaign. That has given him time to build profile as a critic, especially around the government’s handling of the B.C. Rail scandal. “There is no doubt it’s tougher to run as an independent,” he acknowledged. “But the more people look at the political situation in British Columbia today, the more interested they are in having a credible option.”

Those sentiments will carry them only so far if their former parties go all-in against them. The B.C. Liberals have sought to discredit their former MLAs – smear isn’t too strong a word – and Mr. Slater can expect no quarter.

After almost four years of toeing the B.C. Liberal Party line, he has to shift quickly to a new message. “I have done a lot for my constituents. I carry their voice to Victoria,” Mr. Slater said in an interview. That wasn’t always easy within the confines of the government caucus. “You go to Victoria and the grand pooh-bahs think something different – they think the MLAs are there to represent Victoria in their riding.”

Ms. Huntington predicts he will enjoy that new role. “I have enjoyed being an independent more than I can say. My integrity is intact, and oh my goodness, does that make your soul feel fine.”

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