Adrian Dix on the way ahead for B.C.’s NDP

Published in Rabble.ca | December 19, 2011 | Circulation: 140,000 unique monthly readers

Adrian Dix. Photo by David P. Ball.

After 10 years exiled from office in British Columbia. — and a decade of severe cutbacks under the BC Liberals — the NDP says it is ready to take back power in 2013.

Earlier this month, 700 New Democrats from across B.C. gathered for the party’s 50th anniversary and annual party convention. The convention saw no leadership race — everyone attending wore a lanyard bearing, on orange string, the name of Adrian Dix. Rewind a year, and you’ll recall some of the most bitter infighting in the party’s history, with former leader Carole James — whom Dix cites as a personal mentor and inspiration — resigning after a mutiny.

In an interview with rabble.ca, Dix describes how the party intends to push forward in 2012 and beyond.

David Ball: What did you want people to hear from your speech this weekend? The news headlines implied you have reduced your ambitions — that you’ve set more modest goals for the NDP. Would you say that’s true?

Adrian Dix: I think the key issues of our time — in British Columbia, but not just here — are whether we have a sufficient economic growth, along with increased equality and sustainability. Those are pretty significant goals, and those are the issues I highlighted in my speech.

DB: What do you make of the Can’t Afford Dix website and the approach the BC Liberals have taken? How are you responding to that?

AD: They’re launching personal attacks, and what I think they’d like us to do is get down with them and do the same. What we’ve done is hold them to account for the failures of their government, but also to continue to be positive. I made a speech for an hour, but I didn’t attack the premier. If you’re going to continue to run that way, you have to have faith, and respect for the electorate — and to have a mandate for change. If it’s the whole matter of who runs the best negative ads, sometimes you win those kinds of elections, but not in the long run.

DB: I was talking to [B.C. political journalist and former provincial NDP strategist] Bill Tieleman the other day, and he said that negative ads work — it’s one of the things that nobody likes them, but when it comes down to an election, they can really stick. Are you concerned about that?

AD: You have to have faith in people. The only way to address that is to appeal to the better angels of people’s nature.

DB: If you were to pick the one thing that you think would resonate with voters and really make them want to get rid of the Liberal government, what would it be? What would that touchstone be?

AD: I think the touchstone is inequality, the fact that people are being pushed down much more now. This is creating fundamental problems for our society, for the way our economy works.

DB: What’s the strategy leading up to the election? It’s a ways away — what’s going to be the big push in terms of getting your message out to voters, holding that ground and building pressure?

AD: It starts with holding the government to account, and presenting positive solutions — being frank with people about what we can do and what we can’t do in a four-year term — and then letting the chips fall where they may.

We’ll try and mobilize voters. You know, I think we’ve seen an increasing distance between voters — especially young voters — and the political process. We’ve got to narrow that gap; we’ve got to be out there connecting people. I’m going to be spending a lot of time focusing on getting people to run, to participate in politics — to get involved in our campaign, but also getting ready to vote. And I think that’ll be a key question in the campaign. The truth is, the majority of people eligible to vote didn’t vote in the last election, and we have to give people a reason to vote — and to vote NDP.

DB: What would you say is the biggest barrier to people voting NDP that you’d like to overcome?

AD: I think there’s a lot of cynicism about politics in general. For example, when young people vote — you see this in polls — they vote NDP, but they just don’t vote in large numbers. There’s a disconnect between decisions that are made. Partly, it’s being clear on where we stand and working and motivating and engaging people who aren’t powerful in the process but who we want to get involved.

DB: Some rabble.ca readers might wonder if some of the cynicism comes from having had NDP governments and feeling like things hadn’t changed as much as they’d hoped – that activists were still fighting policies while NDP governments were in power, for instance around forestry, labour, First Nations. How would you respond to that?

AD: There’s a tendency, I think — this also distances us from activists — there’s a tendency for people involved who see their activism through the lens of a political party, to see the political party as the sole means of activism. And equally, there’s often a lot of activists who don’t like the political party, who don’t think it has any role. The truth is that we need to involve everybody in the political process — people need to get involved.

It’s not all about supporting the NDP — that’s not the be-all and end-all of progressive politics in Canada or anywhere else, to support the social democratic party. And, equally, we have to be more open-minded on our side. To achieve political change from the cabinet room alone, you’re bound to be somewhat disappointed. You also have to have a context where people understand that change is necessary.

I encourage activism of all kinds in politics. Sometimes when you’re in government, and you’re the NDP, that can be irritating — and sometimes people get irritated with an NDP government. I think we’ve got to try to be generous with one another, but also have high standards — if we do that we can move forward in a good way. I mean, NDP governments of the past haven’t been perfect in B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba or wherever, but they’ve done great things for Canada. We have to work on that, and we have to ensure that if people want change beyond what we do, they have to get involved and advocate for that change as well.

DB: One thing I heard at the NDP convention was people referring to “triple bottom-lining” around the environment, economy and people — bringing social justice into an environmental understanding. I think a lot of environmentalists — not just activists but other voters as well — felt disillusioned when the NDP was in power because they were the ones fighting environmental change . I’m talking about the 90s, with Clayoquot Sound and…

AD: …Well, I think you have to look back to those times — an environmental assessment process that was highly respected, the creation of more parks than any other times in our lives, solving many of the battles in the woods, protecting drinking water. These were the initiatives of the time. Even on the issue of alternate fuel, the NDP government at the time was ahead of California in promoting awareness and policies in that regard. The party had made real progress in the 1980s — there was pressure on them. What you see during NDP governments, frequently, from the environmental movement is more pressure than under Liberal governments, because, strangely enough, people have more optimism that pressure would bring change [laughs]. This is the reality of it.

DB: Which is a good problem to have?

AD: That is what it is. All I know is that there’s significant differences between the NDP and the Liberal party on the environment. We’re going to bring real change to make the world more sustainable — it’s one of the reasons we need to open our minds to different options. I think the issues of equality and sustainability are strongly linked.

DB: I have a few questions of specific policies. As premier, what would you do about affordable housing and homelessness in B.C.’s cities?

AD: One of the things with municipal governments like Vancouver is trying to bring people together. Often we look at things as different issues — there’s social housing, there’s affordability. We’ve got a major crisis in Vancouver on that issue around equality. These are the central questions of our time, and we have to work with everybody to try to increase not just social housing, but affordable housing. There are lots of good ideas in doing that, and I think that our government will come to the table and assist that.

DB: Speaking to [Vancouver city councillor] Geoff Meggs about housing issues, he said it often comes down to the provincial government not stepping up. Would you step up?

AD: I think we would. This is the difference between the ’90s and now — what happened in the ’90s is the federal government bailed out and the provincial government was left alone. Even though we were contributing, less was happening because the federal government was incredibly involved up to then, and stopped being involved. Absolutely there are things we can do together, and it will involve much more than just government investment — there’s lots of steps we can take. We’ll need all three levels of government to be involved — the cities have a lot of control over zoning and other issues. We might not get all three governments committed right now… but without the federal government, two is still better than one.

DB: You would commit to increasing provincial funding for housing?

AD: Well, we put forward some specific ideas in the last election that would be a major part of an equality agenda.

DB: What about the pipelines — what’s your approach going to be on tarsands pipelines?

AD: We’ve been pretty clear what we think. Governments of all stripes in B.C. and Canada have opposed tanker traffic in the exclusion zone – the idea that we’re going to have unrestrained tanker traffic there seems improbable. So some MLA’s will be involved in the hearing process. The premier said yesterday that the B.C. coast doesn’t belong to B.C., it belongs to all of Canada. It doesn’t just belong to the oil and gas industry. Governments for a long time have believed that that area is not, in spite of the economic things going on there, is not a good place for increased tanker traffic, or for tanker traffic period. I don’t see any evidence that would change that position.

DB: What’s your response to the Clark government’s denial of funding to community groups in the missing women’s inquiry?

AD: When Christy Clark became premier, that’s the first thing I asked her in the legislature. She expressed contempt to the question — she didn’t think that was a relevant question to ask her. It’s really disappointing that, because of all the issues involved here, this is the most important public inquiry we’ve ever had in B.C. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says about it, this inquiry hasn’t met that test — people have been denied access, and there have been issues between the commissioner and the government. We should expect better than this — this should be an inquiry which brings forward major recommendations. Instead, it’s been mired in questions about its legitimacy, about the participation of groups. I think they should have supported the participation of groups that got standing, and they didn’t. We pressed the government to do that. The credibility of the inquiry rests on the confidence people have in it. Instead we have the [attorney general] criticizing the commissioner, the commissioner criticizing the A.G. about process issues. I think people should be incredibly disappointed about that. It’s not treating this inquiry with the value and respect it deserves.

DB: What can First Nations expect from a new NDP government in B.C. — how would things change?

AD: If you look broadly at the questions of equality and inequality, many of those issues are First Nations issues — whether it’s training, access to jobs, whether it’s the resolution of land claims, whether it’s respect for First Nations, which has been lacking over time — I think they’ll see real change. On the treaty process, some First Nations have invested so much in it without a level of result that is adequate. On many fronts, we have to improve relationships and focus on the issues First Nations and we’ll be seeing that over the next number of months. One of the first things I did when I was leader was go out to Tsilhqot’in country and talk to them about the importance of that issue. That has been a central part of what I’ve done so far — engaging with First Nations in their communities, not just on our terms.

DB: I was just going to ask you about Tsilhqot’in [First Nation, currently fighting mining in its territory]. The fight over that mine is heating up, and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs is saying this is a symbol of what’s coming in terms of more conflicts with First Nations over resources, particularly in light of Clark’s abandonment of the treaty process.

AD: Look, the first thing she did was ask the federal government to overturn its E.A. [environmental assessment] process in the case of the Taseko (Mine) project… The decision of the company and the government to alienate the Aboriginal people was part of that. You would have thought after it was over if they wanted to move forward was to change their approach, but they haven’t. The truth is, they’ve divided people, they’ve caused a lot of upset and guess what… there’s no mine. So on no front did their strategy of trying to push past First Nations people and their interests have any positive effect.

DB: Presumably in government, you would inherit whatever resource struggles were going on under the Liberals. What could First Nations expect differently from an NDP government in terms of their land rights and their control over resource extraction on their territories?

AD: The first is respect. The Taseko case shows how divisive these matters can be. The truth is there is a lot of resource extraction from First Nations — there are major impediments to a real sharing of economic growth in the province.

DB: What gets you up in the morning?

AD: I think a lot of young people today aren’t going to have the opportunities that my generation had. We have to change that. Sometimes when you move away as we have for 10 years from the things that have made Canada successful in the past, it’s hard to get them back. We have to address this issue of equality now with the resources we can apply to it, or we’re going to be paying the price for a generation to come. Those are the issues I work on in my neighbourhood, in my city and in my province.

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