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Mike Farnworth, seen here during the NDP leadership debate in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tuesday, March 1, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Mike Farnworth, seen here during the NDP leadership debate in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tuesday, March 1, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

politics

Farnworth has head start in NDP leadership race Add to ...

Mike Farnworth smiles when he’s asked to begin our interview by announcing his candidacy for the B.C. New Democratic Party leadership.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” he says.

But Mr. Farnworth has decided to remain coy about his ambitions. He says he’ll have something to announce next month, at a public event. Most will be shocked if he doesn’t step to the podium to reveal that he’s in – for a second time. The only real question now is whether he will have any company in the race.

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For his part, the Coquitlam NDP MLA does not believe he’ll win this contest by acclamation. “I’d be surprised if I was the only person in the race,” he says, betraying his ultimate decision. “Could it happen? Yes. Do I expect it to? No.”

Maybe not, but the only other person in the NDP caucus believed to have any credible shot at the party crown is Esquimalt MLA John Horgan, who ran for the leadership in 2011 and finished third, behind Mr. Farnworth and Adrian Dix. Mr. Horgan initially said he was not interested in running again, saying it was time for a generational change at the top of the party. Lately, however, he’s been waffling. Those who know him best can’t get a good read on what he’ll ultimately do.

But even if Mr. Horgan does run, many in the NDP believe Mr. Farnworth will be tough to take down. He’s already out signing up members even though he hasn’t declared. And he’s lined up financial backers for the months-long campaign. In other words, he has a head start and also a pretty clear idea of what his campaign will be about – the middle.

Unlike Mr. Dix, who won the last leadership with a left-of-centre policy platform, Mr. Farnworth is clearly a centrist. He doesn’t subscribe to the theory that the NDP needs to get more young people voting for them to win. He believes the party needs to appeal to voters 45 and older to achieve victory. And part of convincing them is addressing the New Democrats’ perennial Achilles heel – the economy and fiscal management.

“People have to have confidence that we have an economic message that they can have faith in and they can trust,” Mr. Farnworth said in an interview in his office. “I don’t think that should be in any way, shape or means the exclusive propriety of the Liberals because their own record hasn’t been very good.”

Part of convincing people the NDP can be trusted with the public purse is committing to balanced budgets, Mr. Farnworth said. He doesn’t think voters were persuaded by Mr. Dix’s pledge during the last election that the NDP would balance the budget over the legislative cycle – or four years. He thinks you need to balance it year after year.

He also thinks Mr. Dix’s decision to come out against Kinder Morgan during the campaign was a mistake. If he becomes leader, he’d let the environmental hearing process play itself out and then make a call on whether it should be supported or not.

NDP supporters in resource communities felt betrayed by Mr. Dix’s stand, which is why union supporters switched to the Liberals in droves in last May’s vote. Mr. Farnworth understands that. “You can’t say to towns like Mackenzie or Vanderhoof or Cranbrook, ‘Sorry, you’re not going to see resource development if we’re elected.’ That’s the lifeblood of those communities and will continue to be. And at the same time you can’t say: ‘Oh, the environment be damned.’”

Mr. Farnworth was a cabinet minister during the NDP’s decade in power, something the Liberals will surely try to exploit if he does assume the leadership mantle. He’s ready for it. He plans to respond by saying, simply, that he’s looking forward while the Liberals continue to look back. Maybe after 16 years – which is how long it would be since the NDP was in power when the next election rolls around – tying the NDP to the past won’t work. Then again, maybe it will.

People vote in their own self-interest and often their No. 1 concern is jobs and the economy. The Liberals have done a good job of scaring people with images of what they refer to as the NDP’s dismal decade in power. Why fix what isn’t broken?

One thing Mr. Farnworth assures he will do if he does become leader is fight the next election on the Liberals’ record. And that means attacking it as loudly and stridently as he can – something Mr. Dix decided not to do in 2013 – which Mr. Farnworth said was another mistake.

“It’s not about throwing dirt or mud – it’s about talking about their record,” he said. “That’s completely fair because they have a lot to account for.”

Sounds as if he’s in.

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