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One unto the breach

Sonia Furstenau is the first to declare in the race to succeed Andrew Weaver as BC Green leader.
House Leaders May 16 2019
House Leaders (L-R) Sonia Furstenau, Mike Farnworth, and Mary Polak address the media.

Yesterday, Sonia Furstenau became the first officially declared candidate to replace Andrew Weaver as BC Green leader.

The party, which hasn’t had a contested leadership campaign since 2007, faces an uncertain electoral future; junior partners in minority governments have an unfortunate history of getting trampled. For a party with precious few safe electoral harbours, a credible leader who can hold their own against skilled debaters like John Horgan and Andrew Wilkinson is a must.

Beyond that, a party that needs to differentiate itself needs a different sort of leader, so in that respect Furstenau’s launch was interesting – but to look at her campaign site, largely free of detail.

Beyond a few generalities you can hear from the Greens, NDP and BC Liberals alike (invest in clean tech, focus on things that unite us) and things every Green candidate will say (stop “investing in fossil fuels”) – so far, there’s not much to distinguish Furstenau from her speculative competitors.

There are some hints. On her site, prospective supporters are asked to check off their priorities. They’re all quite neutral and anodyne (even “LNG Industry”), with one notable exception: healthcare.

Wellness, not “Healthcare” Our “Healthcare” is really “Illnesscare.”

The phrasing and faintly hostile quotation marks suggest a fairly comprehensive rethink of healthcare, the largest expenditure of this or any provincial government. This may or may not be a good idea, but you’d think it would be worth laying down a big, concrete marker that Furstenau has big, concrete ideas for it.

As the only sitting MLA running, Furstenau would appear to be the presumptive front-runner.

Still, it’s early days – and she still doesn’t know for sure if she has any rivals. Keeping her powder dry may have been the right call.

As the only sitting MLA running, Furstenau would appear to be the presumptive front-runner – but this advantage may not be as comprehensive as it first appears.

The leadership race coincides almost exactly with the annual spring marathon session. This will keep Furstenau glued to Victoria for long stretches, away from wooing potential supporters elsewhere. And with Andrew Weaver stepping away from caucus to deal with family health challenges, Furstenau and colleague Adam Olsen will be even more tied up with things like stakeholder meetings, Question Period prep, and – especially – committee work.

Such is the additional workload that comes with official party status. It’s more than enough work for four people – which just happens to have been the threshold before it was changed in 2017.

It’s hard to say whether Furstenau’s Cowichan Valley base will be a problem. Weaver’s December comments that a leader from the Lower Mainland would have an easier time was (almost certainly) not meant as a rebuke to his then-colleagues, but simple electoral math.

If she wins, Furstenau would be a very different leader than Weaver.

The party’s leadership contest is a straightforward one member, one ballot system; the Lower Mainland has exponentially more potential voters. Someone from Metro Vancouver with no obligations in the legislature – like much-rumoured candidate Jonina Campbell – would have a much freer hand to campaign and sign up support.

If she wins, Furstenau would be a very different leader than Weaver. Privately, she’s known around the legislature as a passionate Shakespeare aficionado – but publicly, it’s quite different. Best known for her crucial role in the Greens’ negotiations with the NDP and BC Liberals, and having made no secret of her very, very strong preference for the NDP, even appearing at an event with Carole James. This may have reflected how she felt, but almost certainly undermined her party’s negotiating position – like telling the salesman you need to buy this car before discussing price and extras.

She projects a serious, quietly intelligent, perhaps unswerving profile. “Quietly intelligent” is hardly a criticism, but all the world’s a stage. In a social media and soundbite-driven world of sound and fury…it – unfortunately – might be a comparatively more difficult sell.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca