The opening stop on what was John Horgan’s first official full day as leader of the B.C. New Democratic Party was at a shipping facility in North Vancouver – hard hats and work boots mandatory. To the extent that everything in politics is a calculated move, Mr. Horgan’s debut before the cameras at a job site where he could be photographed shaking hands with everyday working stiffs was carefully thought out.
The fact that the thick-bodied Irishman didn’t look at all out of place among the longshoremen working the docks at Lynn Terminal didn’t hurt either. You can expect Mr. Horgan to be making many more stops like the one he made Friday, in every corner of the province, at every job site that will welcome him.
The new leader of the Opposition knows better than anyone why his party lost the last election, and the one before that, and the one before that, and most of the general votes held in B.C. over the past few decades: the economy. The majority of voters haven’t been able to trust the New Democrats with that area of their lives.
In the previous election, Premier Christy Clark never took her hard hat off. And when then-NDP leader Adrian Dix came out against the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, she persuaded thousands of former NDP supporters in small resource towns in the Interior and north of the province worried about jobs to vote Liberal. Fact was, Ms. Clark looked far more comfortable in a hard hat and safety vest than Mr. Dix ever did.
That won’t be the case with Mr. Horgan, who once upon a time felt he was too old to lead the New Democrats; that it was time for generational change at the top. That was before it became apparent that no one else wanted the job except Mike Farnworth, who, like Mr. Horgan, had a political legacy tied to the NDP’s time in government in the 1990s. A legacy the Liberals exploited with Mr. Dix and will almost certainly try to exploit with Mr. Horgan. It’s a central part of their campaign playbook.
I think New Democrats may one day look back and realize how lucky they are that no one else wanted the job Mr. Horgan inherited by acclamation after Mr. Farnworth decided he didn’t have the desire to take on his friend in a long, drawn-out leadership campaign.
Mr. Horgan is probably the most charismatic leader the party has had since Glen Clark. He is smart and he is tough. He will be a formidable foe for the Liberals, who were privately praying that the much more genial Mr. Farnworth won the job.
They know they have their hands full now.
But Mr. Horgan has his hands full too – with his own party.
It’s easy for him to talk about a jobs agenda and about winning back supporters who deserted the NDP because of the cautious stance on resource development. But at some point he is going to have to take a position on some controversial projects, ones that could easily divide his party.
For instance, before the next election Kinder Morgan could raise its contentious head again; where is Mr. Horgan going to stand?
If he decides to support it, it will almost certainly come at an enormous cost with the environmental wing of both his caucus and party. But before that he may have to take a position on Site C, which is also enormously controversial inside the NDP.
But Site C also represents thousands of jobs in the north, over a span of several years. Still, any attempt to support it would likely get fierce pushback inside the NDP caucus. There are certainly some inside that room who feel strongly enough about the dam’s impact on the environment they would resign from the party over any attempt to support it.
Fracking is another issue that is going to produce heated debate inside Mr. Horgan’s caucus room. There are NDP MLAs for whom standing behind their beliefs around the environment are more important than obtaining power – which has always been an issue with the party. The Liberals, on the other hand, have always been more prepared to compromise their principles in the name of maintaining power.
Mr. Horgan has three years to introduce himself to British Columbians, most of whom don’t know the man. What they’re likely to discover when they meet him is that he is someone they can relate to, even like – which is a powerful asset for any politician.