Skip to main content

What's left of British Columbia's old NDP government fits into a cramped office on the first floor of the legislature with a view of the building's ventilator.

The door is marked "Opposition MLA Offices." The word "official" has been left out on purpose after much bickering with the new Liberal government.

"The double 'O' scares the heck out of them," says NDP Leader Joy MacPhail, one of only two NDP MLAs re-elected in May.

A few months ago, Ms. MacPhail was the deputy premier, with a spacious office overlooking the capital city's scenic inner harbour.

Today, the 49-year-old Vancouver MLA makes up half the opposition. She and Jenny Kwan, also a former NDP cabinet minister from Vancouver, share tight quarters with a researcher, a receptionist and two aides.

The four-room office is decorated with shabby mismatched furniture that Ms. MacPhail jokes are relics from "the days of W. A. C. Bennett." The smell of French fries wafts up from the basement's cafeteria at lunch time.

Ms. Kwan and Ms. MacPhail are surrounded by a sea of 77 Liberal MLAs, who wiped out the NDP after a decade in government marked by financial fiascos, scandals and the resignations of two premiers.

The job of rebuilding the party as the Liberal government forges ahead with its ambitious New Era program falls largely to Ms. MacPhail. She was appointed leader by the NDP after most of her political colleagues, including former premier Ujjal Dosanjh, lost their ridings.

"There is a feeling of huge responsibility just by being a survivor," she said. "And I will confess to moments of despair by the enormity of the task."

She has lots of work to do in the weeks ahead. The Liberal government, which has already cut corporate and personal income tax in B.C., plans to use its majority to rush through legislation to deliver on campaign promises to overhaul labour legislation and make education an essential service.

"I am on a very steep learning curve about what the role of the opposition is," said Ms. MacPhail, who was first elected as a government MLA for Vancouver Hastings in 1991.

But the 5-foot-2-inch Ms. MacPhail is a formidable foe. Even her critics say the sharp-tongued politico, known for her trademark cropped red hair and stylish wardrobe, will keep them on their toes.

"I don't think anybody has ever been able to keep Joy MacPhail quiet and I don't expect we'll be able to either," said Liberal House Leader and Finance Minister Gary Collins.

Ms. MacPhail and Ms. Kwan were denied official-opposition status by Speaker Claude Richmond in a ruling last month supported by Premier Gordon Campbell. In his ruling, Mr. Richmond cited an obscure encyclopedia of parliament that states the official opposition must "be prepared to form government."

As a result, the NDP receives fewer resources and Ms. MacPhail does not qualify for an extra $39,000 in salary she would have had as opposition leader. The party has been given $300,000 for staff and accommodation, as well as a Vancouver office. The B.C. Liberal caucus has a budget of $4.3-million.

Mr. Campbell has taken the unusual step of inviting other elected officials in B.C., including mayors and school-board officials, to submit written questions to be read in the legislature during Question Period.

"Different," is how the Premier, who spent eight years as opposition leader, described being grilled in the legislature by Ms. MacPhail now that the tables have turned.

The two NDP MLAs have been treated as parliamentary pariahs in the Liberals' first full legislative session.

"There is not even a veneer of cordiality," Ms. MacPhail said.

As a former minister of finance and B.C. Ferries, she takes much of the heat for the former government's foibles. She declared the $440-million fast-ferries project a disaster and put the three vessels up for sale.

She also gained notoriety in the legislature when she was involved in placing a wind-up plastic penis on the desks of some male colleagues during debates.

Liberal MLAs have mercilessly heckled the two NDP MLAs during Question Period. When the NDP Leader recently asked Labour Minister Graham Bruce what he planned to about the province's continuing dispute with health-care workers, he blasted Ms. MacPhail and Ms. Kwan for being part of "the most incompetent government in British Columbia."

In another exchange in the House over the dispute with nurses, Mr. Bruce couldn't resist gloating. "Seventy-seven seats to two," he reminded her.

Not surprisingly, Ms. MacPhail prefers to look forward. "This government has received a huge mandate and I have said over and over again I accept that," she said.

"You will not see Jenny Kwan and me standing up and saying 'the voters got it wrong,' " she said.

"The voters got it right. But there is so much change being brought forward in a very hasty way by this government, it's incumbent upon everybody to start examining the current government. We have to move on."

The divorced mother of one is taking some advice from one of her staunchest political supporters, her 12-year-old son Jack.

"He said 'Mom, a lot of people are still angry at you and you've got to accept that. Just get used to it.' "