Published in the Lower Island News (Victoria), June 2005
With 33 MLAs in the BC legislature, five MPs in the House of Commons, and hundreds of activists in local governments, the BC NDP is a powerful force. We must remember, however, that power is never enough on it own. Inspired by recent electoral success, New Democrats must ask the hard question: For what purpose—and toward what ends—do we seek political power?
In Port Hardy, on the north-east coast of Vancouver Island, unemployment has hovered over 50 per cent for nearly a decade. This community suffers a range of social problems tied to the economic situation: violence against women and children, alcoholism and drug abuse, malnutrition, a lack of opportunities for youth, out-migration. Billions of dollars of timber, minerals, and fish have been exported from coastal communities, to the point of depletion, but Port Hardy—like Tahsis, Zeballos, Gold River, Port Alice and dozens of other towns are crippled by unemployment and its effects. Among First Nations, these inhumane conditions are the norm. The natural environment has been ravaged, while people lack any economic security. Only the logging, mining, and fishing companies have benefited consistently from the coast’s resource wealth.
From 1991 to 2001, the BC NDP held the reigns of political power in BC. Our party was in a position to make changes that were necessary to provide economic security in BC’s resource and aboriginal communities. But sadly, elected New Democrats lacked a long-term vision of social change. Guided by short-term considerations of winning and maintaining power, those at the helm of the BC NDP sought to ‘govern from the centre’, and looked with suspicion at those who advised a more bold legislative strategy. To many New Democrats in the 1990s, power became a goal in itself, rather than a means of improving society. The historic objective of the social-democratic movement in Canada—transferring wealth from the top to the bottom of society, and extending social ownership as an alternative to corporate power—was lost in the opportunistic drive for respectability. The alienation of environmentalists at Clayoquot Sound in 1993, and the corresponding rise of the Green Party, was the logical outcome of ‘governing from the centre.’ In 2001, when voters relegated New Democrats to the wilderness, the structure of BC’s economy had not changed. Exploitation, poverty, and environmental degradation continued as though the NDP had never been in office.
In 2005, the BC NDP is again approaching political power. We must plan now to ensure a better outcome the next time around. ‘Moving to the centre’ and ‘ending political polarization’ may sound attractive at a time when the BC Liberal party has drifted so far to the right, but this is a dangerous course. Such language ignores the reality of BC’s economy, where power and wealth are polarized between the affluent and the marginalized, between settler populations and aboriginal people, between urban areas and the rural hinterland. Polarization arises from real-life economic conditions, not some abstract agenda or theory. A centrist political strategy offers no mechanism for altering these basic imbalances. Centrism, by its refusal to offend the interests of economic elites, rules out the possibility of improving the economic system through democratic means.
The BC NDP has reached a critical juncture in its history, when the membership must decide whether they desire to be a small ‘l’ liberal party of the centre or remain a democratic socialist party of the left. As the Preamble of the BC NDP’s constitution states, “the application of democratic socialist principles to government and the administration of public affairs” offers the only real possibility of social, economic and political progress. The Preamble asserts that economic institutions should be directed to meet the “needs of people and not for profit,” and supports “the extension of the principle of social ownership.” Nowhere in the constitution is the NDP described as a party of the ‘centre.’
We owe it to the generations of women and men who built the NDP in BC to abide by the constitution and apply the principles of democratic socialism and social ownership to public policy. Without bold vision and a willingness to confront economic power, New Democrats will fail to make the changes that are necessary to provide security for people and protect the environment. Without bold vision and a willingness to confront elites, New Democrats would never have extended social ownership into the field of medical care, or established the Agricultural Land Reserve and the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia. Today, we need this kind of bold, aggressive vision to confront the problems facing BC’s resource and aboriginal communities, combat poverty in our urban areas, and stop the corporate exploitation of our natural environment.
The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), predecessor of the NDP, advocated “a planned and socialized economy in which our natural resources and principal means of production and distribution are owned, controlled and operated by the people.” Applying the principles of democratic socialism to public policy, the CCF sought to replace the arbitrary power of private corporations with cooperatives, crown corporations, and other forms of social ownership. Today, examples of social ownership include the Federated Co-operatives Ltd. sawmill and plywood plant at Canoe, BC, and Community Forests at Revelstoke, Mission, and North Cowichan.
In Port Hardy and across BC, social ownership and community control of the forests, mines, energy resources, and fishery—in cooperation with First Nations, and with a strong environmental code in place—offers a practical and lasting solution for economic security. Social ownership of BC’s natural resources, and the development of secondary, ‘value-added’ industries, offers the most reliable source of revenue for necessary social services. Under the terms of the Expropriation Act, the provincial government already has the power to extend social ownership over natural resources. NAFTA is a complicating factor, but not an insurmountable barrier; fines levied by the trade body can be absorbed through the taxation system, especially once public opinion is mobilized behind the NDP program.
Wealth must begin to flow to local communities, rather than shareholders of transnational firms. This is hardly a ‘centrist’ political strategy, but from an electoral and moral standpoint, this policy should be embraced as the BC NDP organizes for power in 2009.