New Democrats are largely taking former premier Mike Harcourt's decision to quit the provincial party as an urgent signal that they have to act on his parting suggestions that the NDP bridge rural and urban B.C. and do better to win government.
Earlier this week, Mr. Harcourt said he was done with the party he led to power in 1991, citing concerns that included an "astonishingly stupid decision" by leader Adrian Dix during the 2013 election campaign to reverse position on expanding a Kinder-Morgan pipeline between Alberta and the Lower Mainland.
Mr. Dix went into the campaign with a neutral position, then declared opposition to the project, a shift Mr. Harcourt said cost the NDP seats in rural communities, where blue-collar workers concluded the party opposed resource development that creates jobs.
"Mr. Harcourt is leaving the party over support for a pipeline, an oil pipeline," Mr. Dix told reporters in Vancouver on Tuesday amid astonished reaction to the decision the former premier announced in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
"I guess that's his choice. It's absolutely fair for him to do that if he wants to."
He suggested Mr. Harcourt supported his view during the campaign. Mr. Harcourt rebuffed the jab in an interview on Tuesday, noting he had spoken "during the heat of a campaign" and that he supported the process for reviewing Kinder-Morgan's plans.
But Mr. Dix added Mr. Harcourt served B.C. in three terms as Vancouver mayor and five years as premier, and he hoped he would return to the NDP.
Other New Democrats were more in sync with the view that the party needs to take up Mr. Harcourt's challenge.
"His views are really echoing what a lot of us in the B.C. Interior are saying about what went wrong in the 2013 campaign," said Tom Friedman, who ran unsuccessfully in 2009 and 2013 in Kamloops.
Mr. Dix made his Kinder-Morgan campaign announcement in the Interior city about 325 kilometres east of Vancouver.
Mr. Friedman said the issue was larger than the Kinder-Morgan reversal, and had a lot to do with the NDP failure to articulate a policy on responsible development. He said the party platform was not effectively sold to regional audiences.
"There's a collective responsibility. I am not laying this entirely at Mr. Dix's feet."
Mr. Friedman said he was sad to see Mr. Harcourt go.
"Mike Harcourt has been seen as a very strong, moderate individual," he said.
"It's a loss to the party because I think we should be paying attention to people like Mike Harcourt. He seemed to have a vision that did include the whole province, even though he came from Vancouver."
Mr. Friedman, an English professor at Thompson Rivers University, said MLAs John Horgan and Mike Farnworth, the only candidates so far to succeed Mr. Dix, should aspire to build a party that welcomes people like Mr. Harcourt.
The leadership vote is on Sept. 28.
Mr. Horgan said in an interview that "the reverberations" of Mr. Harcourt's comments are being felt across B.C., adding "the caucus is concerned, as you would expect."
In his exit interview, Mr. Harcourt did not endorse Mr. Horgan, but described him as a "very capable guy" based on work for the NDP government of the 1990s – praise Mr. Horgan welcomed.
"I think this is just the sort of challenge that the party needs and to have someone of Mike's stature lay it out so clearly strikes me as a good thing," he said.
Mr. Horgan, who has the support of 15 of 34 NDP MLAs, said New Democrats remain in shock over the 2013 election, which the New Democrats were expected to win due to massive polling leads. The Liberals won a fourth straight majority mandate under Christy Clark.
Mr. Farnworth, a former NDP cabinet minister, said in an interview that it was clear New Democrats will continue to lose elections without an economic message that all voters can trust.
Party president Craig Keating called Mr. Harcourt's announcement an "unfortunate development" balanced by the good news of 800 people joining the party in the past 60 days. The BC NDP has 20,000 to 21,000 members, he said.
Mr. Keating said he is "determined" to bring Mr. Harcourt home to the NDP – although he conceded he had not called him on Tuesday. "He was a great NDP premier of the province – someone we need to reach out to."
With a report from Mark Hume in Vancouver
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