A local take on the Burnaby South by-election

Guest Shot – by Adam Pankratz.  2015 Liberal candidate in Burnaby South.

Burnaby South has been in the news a lot lately. Burnaby? In the news? Not something we used to read very often, but Burnaby residents have gotten used to the spotlight lately. Whether it’s Kinder Morgan in the north, or Jagmeet Singh in the south, Burnaby’s ridings have been the focal points of several major news stories for 2018 and 2019.

Political observers are talking about how Jagmeet Singh will fare in his bid to gain a seat and become an MP as he deals with turmoil within the NDP. Win or lose Mr. Singh will face serious headwinds…but lose and he’s finished. Will the voters of Burnaby give him his victory and a chance to lead the NDP into the next general election in October?

Kinder Morgan – it’s the issue everyone wanted to talk about 6 months ago, and Jagmeet Singh opened his candidacy by attacking the “leaky pipeline.” I said then that Mr Singh missed the mark with Kinder Morgan, which is a minor issue in Burnaby, and not one that would decide the by-election here. The current situation in Burnaby, despite all the attention heaped on it through the summer and fall, is that no candidate is focused on Kinder Morgan. Burnaby residents are ultimately practical and realistic on Kinder Morgan, as are most Canadians. Responsible resources extraction is necessary for the Canadian economy and the residents here recognize that. It is a very loud minority who made it the issue it was.

What the candidates have all zeroed in on is the major issue in Burnaby of housing. It is the issue which sank Derek Corrigan, the four-term mayor of Burnaby, who lost to current mayor Mike Hurley last October.  Once again, the issue is front and centre. Like all the Lower Mainland, Burnaby is expensive and residents here want to see more action taken at all levels of government.

These issues are in many ways similar to the ones I came across doorknocking and speaking with residents during my 2015 federal election campaign. During that election there was also serious concern about the Harper Government and their impact on Canada’s image and sense of ourselves as a compassionate society. Canadians want a government that listens to them and understands their concerns and Burnaby residents are no different. That is why I always thought, and still do, that Mr Singh’s major challenge this by-election is gaining local credibility with Burnaby voters.

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Pankratz campaign: won Election Day, but could not overcome strong NDP machine delivering support to the advance poll.

Mr Singh clearly thinks Burnaby is an NDP slam dunk or he wouldn’t be here. History is on his side, but will Burnaby voters deliver what Mr Singh expects? “All Burnaby” ridings (that is, ridings entirely within Burnaby, not split over city boundaries) have gone NDP for over 40 years. Mr. Singh and the NDP clearly are hoping for a repeat of the voting pattern in October.

There is, however danger in this. Burnaby is changing and the 2015 general election proved that. In that election Burnaby North Seymour went Liberal and in Burnaby South the incumbent Kennedy Stewart narrowly hung on to best me by 547 votes. But the larger gamble the NDP and Mr Singh are taking is assuming that Burnaby residents are the same as they were 40 years go (they aren’t) and thinking they will readily accept a candidate who parachuted in, with no community connections.

I believe Burnaby residents want an MP who knows the community and understand them. I remember distinctly that the most common response to our team in 2015, an election in which we doorknocked for over a year prior to Election Day, was “No one has knocked on my door since Svend was our MP.” “Svend” is, of course, Svend Robinson, who served Burnaby for 25 years as MP. Like him or hate him, Svend was someone who understood Burnaby, worked tirelessly to be present locally as an MP and develop personal relationships with his constituents. Svend’s rival at the time, Bill Cunningham (Liberal) and successor (Bill Siksay) also had deep, long standing relationships with Burnaby. Burnaby misses this. It is no doubt one of the key reasons our election campaign did so well in 2015, despite the entrenched NDP history. Local wins here. The fact that recent NDP representative Kennedy Stewart resigned as MP and immediately began touting that he was from Vancouver and always wanted the job of Vancouver Mayor has only deepened the desire of Burnaby residents for a long-term MP intent on local priorities and issues.

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Svend: Knocker of Doors, also now on Twitter (photo: CBC)

What can we expect of this by-election?  At the outset my opinion, bluntly put, was that Jagmeet Singh should have lost Burnaby South decisively. However, current events have conspired to make that loss seem unlikely.

Due to the close race in 2015, the story everyone (sensibly) made was that this would be a tight race between the Liberals and the NDP. However, the former Liberal candidate, Karen Wang, was forced to resign due to comments she made on WeChat regarding Mr Singh. This botched campaign start, followed by the scramble to replace her has hurt Liberal credibility locally. Now, the national Liberal scene is being shaken by the SNC-Lavalin affair. Does this mean the Liberals are cooked in Burnaby South? No, but they have made their lives significantly more difficult than it ought to have been.

One party not being talked about at all is the Conservatives in Burnaby. They have flown under the radar in this by-election despite strong results in 2011 (40%) and even 2015 (27%), given the circumstances. In my mind they were a dark horse contender until the People’s Party of Canada was founded. This long shot is now essentially non-existent.

The PPC is running an ostensibly strong candidate in former local school trustee candidate from 2018 Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson. Ms Thompson has been controversial for her anti-SOGI comments and stance on similar issues, yet still received over 15,000 votes in the 2018 municipal election. While campaign signs don’t mean anything at the ballot box, it’s hard not to notice the disproportionately high amount of PPC signs around Burnaby, given the party is supposed to almost be a fringe joke nationally. If Ms Thompson can rally her supporters from 2018, I would watch for the PPC to seriously surprise people and perhaps even see Burnaby South legitimize the PPC as a minor party.

Jagmeet Singh meanwhile continues to be at best an unknown, enigmatic figure for most Burnaby residents. He talks in bland platitudes, doesn’t have a clear stance on anything and equivocates when asked direct questions. At his first press conference he claimed to be “All in on Burnaby.” He isn’t. His strategy seems to be “Burnaby will vote NDP no matter what.” Past that, it’s hard to see any notable impact he has made on the community or its residents.

In the end, despite his lack of connection to the riding and lack of understanding as to what makes Burnaby tick, I foresee Mr Singh and the NDP pulling this one out on the basis of history. The Liberals did themselves no favours in the run up to or first half of the by-election and simply have too much ground to make up. The Conservatives will be split by the PPC and fade away.

So the surprise is that the Liberals and Conservatives do not look like they can take advantage of a weak NDP leader with no connection to Burnaby, while the upstart PPC might have a boost that puts fuel in its tank.  Politics is always interesting in BC.

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Whither JWR?

A chain of events has cascaded upon the federal government and Liberal Party of Canada over the past week.

How will this end?

First, where are things at?

  • Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould resigned from Cabinet.
  • She has not resigned from Caucus.  She remains a Liberal MP.
  • She is the presumptive Liberal nominee in Vancouver-Granville for the 2019 federal election, having been ‘green lit’ by the Party in 2018.
  • She has not voted against the government on a whipped vote.  In fact, as a senior member of Cabinet, she helped shape the government’s agenda over the past three-plus years.

As far as I know, the only ‘difficulty’ that exists is disagreement, and related events, stemming from the SNC-Lavalin issue.

Thus, I am going to assume that Wilson-Raybould remains a Liberal in the partisan and ideological sense.  An assumption, but I see no evidence to the contrary.

So, what next?

In Canada, we have not demonstrated a lot of tolerance for public dissent within political parties.  The media punishes political parties for dissent, treating it as a sign of weak leadership.  Dissent certainly exists privately.  Every political caucus in Canada has a wide range of opinion about what its party leadership should be doing and usually a considerable amount of complaining.  It mainly stays inside the room.

In major political parties, not everyone gets along. Uneasy alliances exist, in fact, they are essential to the growth and success of parties. Chretien-Martin.  PET-Turner.  Mulroney-Clark.  Harper-MacKay. Cabinets and caucuses don’t have to like each other to work together. In the UK, dissent is much more of the norm and widely accepted.  MPs routinely challenge and speak out against leadership.

It doesn’t always have to be bunnies and rainbows in order for people to serve together and to campaign alongside together.  A common enemy unites, come election time.

Whither JWR?

Had the shuffle not happened, I assume she would still be Minister of Justice (and the fact the shuffle did happen in the way it did will go down as one of the top unforced errors of the first term).  This would be playing out behind the scenes.

It seems the reactions to the public disagreement exacerbated the situation to the point where she resigned from Cabinet.

Is it possible for her to remain as a Liberal MP?

If, as outlined above, she remains a ‘Liberal’ and continues to support the broad policy agenda of the government, not only should she remain a Liberal MP if she chooses, but she is basically untouchable.  Party leadership would have to proactively rescind her candidacy, which I am sure they would be loath to do.

The support of her local membership is not a requirement, however, it is probable that she is well supported locally.

There is an assumption held by many that the only meaningful way to contribute in politics is to serve in Cabinet. But one can make significant contributions outside Cabinet, especially an MP who has a strong national profile.

Over the past week, Wilson-Raybould has enhanced her stature in Canada. She has a constituency of support out there in the country.  When she speaks on an issue, she will be heard.  She would be a force to be reckoned with in Parliament.

Most Liberals are unhappy about these events, and some have come to the public defense of the PM, and others to ‘Team Jody’. Such controversies compromise the ability of colleagues to get re-elected, and may even jeopardize the survival of the government.  It’s also fair comment that almost all Liberal MPs are all there because of one guy – Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau – who rescued the Party from oblivion and led them to an improbable majority in 2015.   In fact, the sense of invulnerability has contributed to the magnitude of this issue. Yes, Liberals do owe Justin Trudeau. But, they also owe him their honest opinion, for the good of his leadership and the party.

Wilson-Raybould staying in Parliament, serving as an MP, running for re-election as a Liberal is not something that is really being contemplated publicly in the current context.  It seems to be assumed that this is leading to a break-up.  By staying put, Wilson-Raybould would have presence in Parliament and serve as a moral conscience from outside Cabinet. In time, who knows where the road will take her?

She could cross the floor and serve with another party.  But if she continues to identify as a ‘Liberal’, that doesn’t work, and where would she cross to, anyway? Neither the Conservatives nor NDP would seem to be attractive options for her.

Or she should could leave federal politics, but that would be regrettable.  She has barely started, and Vancouver-Granville voters permitting, should have more runway ahead. This is about more than one MP’s political future  Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould is the first indigenous woman to ever be elected from British Columbia.  It took 148 years to get there.

Making room for disagreement and dissent is messy, and as a former political manager, it made my life complicated and could be very frustrating.  But, it’s ultimately good for the system.

Let the events of SNC-Lavalin play out.  Changes can be made, lessons can be learned, people will move on to other issues once that has all taken place.

“How this ends” could well be JWR on the ballot as a Liberal in October 2019.  In fact, it would be a new beginning, for everyone.

(photo credit: CBC)