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Are we sure it’s not personal?

The NDP seem intent on removing new Green leader Sonia Furstenau from the board.
House Leaders May 16 2019
House Leaders (L-R) Sonia Furstenau, Mike Farnworth, and Mary Polak address the media.

This week of the provincial election campaign was always going to be dominated by the two leaders’ debates. On consensus, still-new Green leader Sonia Furstenau impressed, with thoughtful answers on difficult questions, but also criticizing NDP leader John Horgan for breaking his word and forcing an early election.

Given that context, it raised some eyebrows when just a few days later, the NDP announced their federal leader Jagmeet Singh would be campaigning in Furstenau’s Cowichan Valley riding.

“The NDP are putting a lot of money and energy in this riding,” says Furstenau.

A federal leader and key figure in a minority parliament, Singh’s time is valuable. And it’s not like he’s helping out after hours around town; the NDP chose to deploy him across the Georgia Strait, and a decent drive from the nearest airport and/or ferry terminal.

It’s a clear sign of two things: First, they want the riding back. Badly. And second, they think they can get it.

“I’ve worked very hard, moved a lot of things forward, and will remain a deeply committed representative for the riding,” says Furstenau.

“One thing I find interesting is a question that will come up – there’s this effort to seed it – how could she properly serve the riding if she’s leader of the party? And I point out that we never hear that said about John Horgan or Andrew Wilkinson.”

“I do see that as something of a sexist comment. We don’t question a man’s ability to be a leader and representative.”

It’s not just Jagmeet Singh. The day before, the NDP released a video of Horgan talking on the phone with former Green leader Andrew Weaver, reminiscing and joking good-naturedly about rugby.

No, Weaver never specifically says “vote for this man.” But in the context of an election campaign, it’s awfully hard not to take it as an endorsement.

In one sense, it’s not surprising. After announcing he was resigning last year, Weaver was clear, critiquing his then-party’s organization, and saying he didn’t want to be seen and remembered as a Green, and that he had a hard time criticizing Horgan’s NDP:

“Honestly, I don’t know how I’d run against [the NDP]. And I don’t know how they run against me because I couldn’t look and get angry at John [Horgan] because we have a really productive working relationship. So it’s really weird, which is one of the reasons I feel good about moving aside.”

To be fair, the two have legitimately become good friends – and that’s never a bad thing. But the chummy video marks a stark contrast to Horgan’s characterization of “bickering” over the summer, citing Green intransigence as why his only choice was to trigger a snap election – one scant week after Furstenau became leader.

Weaver has been sharp in his criticism of his former party and Furstenau in particular. And the NDP have been happy to hint Weaver has formally endorsed them.

While nothing seems abnormal in 2020 or BC politics in general; a former leader more-or-less endorsing his party’s main opponent in the subsequent election is unheard of. Traditionally when party leaders exit the stage…they exit the stage. At least, for a while.

Asked about the video and her relationship with her former leader, Furstenau just sighs.

“It really is a question for Andrew,” says Furstenau, while pointing to record-breaking fundraising for the party in the last two weeks – and the three days since the TV debate in particular.

“For Andrew to so wholeheartedly throw his lot in with the NDP, who have demonstrated they’re willing to talk about climate, but their actions are literally the opposite of what we need right now – that’s on him. That’s a question for him to answer.”

From the outside, in the context of a landmark agreement to support a minority government, NDP-Green fighting may seem out of place. But on Vancouver Island, it’s become normal.

In last year’s federal election, the Island was fiercely contested between the two parties, with the Greens accusing the NDP of “dishonest and disgraceful” tactics.

Interestingly, in a happier place with provincial Greens at the time, Horgan preached fair play and sportsmanship. From the Vancouver Sun:

“Don’t close any doors,” Horgan said, when asked to give advice to federal parties. “My mom told me a long time ago once you burn a bridge you can’t use it again. The people you are condemning today may well be your colleagues next week.”

Reminded of the quote last week, Furstenau said “I think that’s quite a good quote. I think Mr. Horgan should be considering his past statement, which was very much about cooperation in the legislature.”

But was the 2019 election hinting at a deteriorating relationship between the parties?

“I met with John Horgan Friday before the election was called, and reiterated that we had a strong working relationship,” said Furstenau.

“The moment that relationship deteriorated was when John Horgan went to the Lieutenant-Governor.”

Whether or not it’s personal, it’s not hard to see why the NDP want her seat. Though they’re ahead in the polls, they still need to gain seats to remain in government. Of the three ridings that went Green in 2017, two were taken from the NDP. And in Cowichan Valley, Furstenau benefitted from NDP infighting.

Still, between the abrupt change in tone and language from the NDP towards their erstwhile partners, deploying Singh, and a video of Horgan and Weaver just days after the leaders debate, it’s hard not to see a pattern. The NDP are, rightly, campaigning to win wherever they can – maybe with extra mustard in Cowichan Valley.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca