When the B.C. New Democratic Party caucus met over the summer, it faced a divisive resource debate that culminated with at least one MLA threatening to quit.
The topic was the $8.8-billion Site C dam. The New Democrats under the leadership of John Horgan want to rebrand themselves as a job creation party. By supporting Site C, the largest public infrastructure project in the province's history, the NDP would have had a chance to win back the support of the building trade unions that abandoned them in the 2013 provincial election.
Mr. Horgan, as he prepared to take over the leadership of the party in the spring of 2014, was aware of the possibility of being boxed in, again, by the B.C. Liberals, who successfully framed the NDP over its opposition to the Kinder Morgan TransMountain pipeline proposal during the last campaign.
"Christy (Clark) has demonstrated that she understands how labour can be used as a wedge in an electoral process," Mr. Horgan said in an interview at that time. "You counter that by being relevant to trade unions – and more importantly, their members … That means getting out on the road and throwing on a hard hat. In fact, I have one in the back of my car."
But on Site C, the environmental wing of the caucus would have none of it. Lana Popham, the NDP's agriculture critic, spent part of her summer paddling the Peace River in solidarity with opponents of the project. When it is complete, the dam will flood more than 4,000 hectares of once-protected farmland. Sources say she made it clear she would quit the caucus rather than vote in favour of the project. She wasn't alone. Other influential voices including George Heyman and David Eby stood with her in arguing against the project. The critics of Site C won the debate but the NDP did not take a public stand on the project until last week, when the B.C. Liberal government forced it off the fence by tabling a resolution in the legislature that required MLAs to vote yea or nay.
The resolution was designed to allow the Liberals to play wedge politics. Premier Clark and her caucus had buttons printed and ready to wear, declaring their support for the project. Once the vote was tallied, the premier was moving her ministers out of the way in Question Period to deliver her sound bite of the week, about "this opposition's opposition to jobs."
Tom Sigurdson, head of the B.C. Building Trades, got a heads-up call from the NDP before the MLAs filled into the House to vote. It was a courtesy call but he did not hide his disappointment, making it clear his members will remember this when the next election comes around. "I said, 'You've got to come up with a jobs plan.'"
Then again, the Liberal government has failed to deliver so far on jobs for his members, insisting on an open shop labour model for the project that so far has resulted in almost half of the jobs going to workers from outside B.C. "There are a lot of Alberta plates parked at the construction site, and my members are unemployed and looking over the wrong side of the gate."
So the wedge is not firmly secured yet, and Mr. Horgan maintains he still has plenty of time to develop a jobs plan that will bring the party's traditional labour allies back into the fold before the May, 2017 election.
He plans to use the NDP convention in November to lay out an alternative to Site C. "I'm going to be talking about how I would use BC Hydro to create employment and also a sustainable energy future," he said in an interview. "Then, we will build on that over the next 18 months to put before the people of B.C. a jobs and economic recovery plan."
What Mr. Horgan hopes to avoid is a project-by-project debate on jobs. They can be hard on a caucus with a history of deep divisions between environmentalists and supporters of resource development.
"The notion that every project is an ideological divide is wrong," he said. But on projects such as Site C, the die is already cast. And come election time, Ms. Clark will be standing at the dam site in her favourite hard hat to remind voters of the opposition's opposition to jobs.