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B.C. NDP could pay dearly for making Mike Harcourt feel scorned

Former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt has let provincial New Democrats know what can happen when the wisdom and counsel of an erstwhile leader is no longer sought or valued: that person can quit the party in a very public, and damaging, huff.

Mr. Harcourt announced to The Globe and Mail this week that he's let his membership in the NDP lapse, a decision he said he made as a result of a series of disconcerting developments in the party he once so proudly directed. The former Vancouver mayor was one of the most popular leaders in NDP history, marching the party to power in 1991 after 20 years in opposition.

But the former premier was forced out before he'd completed one term, a victim of a party fundraising scandal that was not of his making. He also fell prey to the NDP's infamous proclivity for devouring its leaders, an occurrence that left a bitter tang in Mr. Harcourt's mouth of which he was never able to rid himself.

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Mr. Harcourt told The Globe that his feelings toward his old party began to turn in 2009 when it came out against the Liberal government's carbon tax; it was surely one of the most ludicrous and inexplicable moves the NDP ever made. His vocal opposition to the decision was ignored. He was next repulsed by the coup that cost Carole James her job as leader in January, 2011; an internecine rebellion that was nasty and unseemly and no doubt revived bad memories for him. In the leadership contest that ensued, Mr. Harcourt endorsed Mike Farnworth, who didn't bother to even phone him to say thanks.

But by this point, the thoughts and opinions of Mr. Harcourt, who lectures around the world on sustainable cities among other topics, had long been considered immaterial to the NDP. He was not seen as anyone who could be the least bit helpful to modern-day progressives. Rather, he was considered an embittered former pol who preferred to trade in nostalgia, someone who clung tightly to the belief that his decidedly centrist position on the economy and social issues was the only recipe for the NDP if it wanted to return to power.

Mr. Harcourt's public break with his party is not without complications, however. For instance, he said the "last straw" for him was Adrian Dix's decision during the past election campaign to come out against the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline project, which betrayed an earlier promise to wait until the application process has played out. Mr. Harcourt said that move sent the wrong message to resource-based communities that were once the backbone of the party. He said it cost the NDP 20 seats in the May vote.

Okay, fine. But then why did he come out in the dying days of that same election campaign and say that Mr. Dix and the NDP were best to lead the province? Why did he say in media interviews about that endorsement that he believed Mr. Dix would be a "good premier" who would address, in a positive way, the most important issues facing the province? And what were they?

"You know, the environmental issues about pipelines and tankers …"

He said Mr. Dix had a much more "sustainable and balanced" approach to the economy than the Liberals. "Yes we want to have a prosperous economy," Mr. Harcourt told CBC radio at the time, "but not at the expense of our pristine and wonderful environment here in British Columbia." Which was pretty much Mr. Dix's rationale for coming out against Kinder Morgan.

Mr. Harcourt was asked in interviews Tuesday about this apparent contradiction between his position last May and his position today. He didn't do a very convincing job of explaining the inconsistency. This fact will certainly be used by his detractors to illustrate why Mr. Harcourt's split from the NDP should be disregarded; i.e., he doesn't know what he's talking about.

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That, however, would be a mistake. Despite the problem he has today defending his earlier praise of Mr. Dix, Mr. Harcourt's central thesis is not wrong: Mr. Dix's position on Kinder Morgan alienated blue-collar supporters in resource-based communities throughout the province. Without that demographic onside, the NDP will never win.

The former NDP leader has only drawn attention to a dilemma any sensible New Democrat understands: To gain power you often have to swallow some of your so-called principled positions. The NDP can only win by widening its tent, not making it smaller. Mr. Harcourt always understood this.

Follow me on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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