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Rob Shaw: BC NDP leadership race an embarrassing mess for all involved

The party’s 42-person provincial council voted Wednesday night to back an investigation by its chief electoral officer and disqualify David Eby’s only competition.
David Eby

What. A. Mess.

There’s no other way to describe the BC NDP leadership race, which limped over the finish line on Wednesday evening, a jumbled tangle of self-inflicted wounds, bitter internal fights and spectacular implosions.

In the end, party officials did what everyone had always expected them to do: Disqualify David Eby’s only competition, climate activist Anjali Appadurai, and hand Eby the job of NDP leader and premier of the province.

The decision short-circuits an actual race, which would have gone until Dec. 3.

It also avoids the potential possibility that Appadurai signed up thousands more members than Eby and could have actually won – an outcome which would have been catastrophic for an NDP government in which almost all the caucus and cabinet supported Eby. Such a scenario would have sparked a constitutional crisis within the NDP, and likely an early provincial election for the province.

“I think that what happened here is that I entered the race, wasn't considered a threat, went on to sign up thousands of new members to the party, and at a certain point it became clear that the number of memberships that I had brought into the party exceeded that of my opponent,” Appadurai said in an interview Tuesday.

“And so until that point, this race was welcomed by everyone involved. But as soon as there was leverage of a potential win, I believe that the pieces were put in place to disqualify me from the race.”

There is truth to that.

Appadurai was always supposed to lose – her victory simply was not tenable in a party where almost all the MLAs and cabinet ministers had endorsed the other guy.

The problem was, her campaign was stronger than anyone expected. And Eby’s campaign was weaker than anyone expected. All those MLAs who endorsed Eby failed to do their jobs and sign up members for him. And Eby failed to do his job by unveiling new policies that excited the members. As a result, Appadurai out-worked, out-hustled and out-organized the entire NDP caucus and cabinet. 

Eby campaign co-chair Ravi Kahlon attempted Wednesday to defend the effort.

“The campaign actually signed up thousands and thousands of people,” he said.

“If we were going to not follow the rules, of course, we could have signed up a lot more people. But we chose to follow the rules. That's the fundamental difference.”

It’s also true that Appadurai and those around her appear to have played fast and loose with the rules, according to an investigation by NDP chief electoral officer Elizabeth Cull.

The biggest problem was the Dogwood Initiative, a non-profit environmental organization that Cull said used its paid staff to sign up members for Appadurai, including through paid social media ads and a phone bank (against the rules, because they are considered in-kind donations to Appadurai).

Not only that, Cull found Dogwood and Appadurai’s campaign had coordinated (also against the rules). And Cull said the thousands of members Appadurai had signed up had “tainted” the NDP’s membership list because a high degree were found to also be members of the BC Greens (yes, you guessed it, also a violation of the rules).

Dogwood knew what it was doing. Communications director Kai Nagata publicly admitted he carefully designed a strategy that took advantage of what he thought were gaps in B.C.’s election laws and party race rules. He miscalculated.

Appadurai, meanwhile, denied all the allegations. She said Cull’s findings were just part of the NDP “building towards a predetermined conclusion.”

“I don’t believe these grounds of disqualification are strong, I believe they are tenuous at best,” she said.

“And I believe that the race should go on and members should decide.”

Not surprisingly, the NDP’s 42-person provincial council felt differently. It voted Wednesday night to back Cull’s investigation and confirm Appadurai’s disqualification.

“This has been a challenging period for members of the party,” said BC NDP president Aaron Sumexheltza, in what is most certainly an understatement.

The vote means Eby wins the leadership race by default. He’ll be sworn in as B.C.’s 37th premier, replacing John Horgan, in a matter of weeks.

New Democrats from far and wide will rally around Eby, and spin past the controversy. They’ll slowly attempt to recast the history of what happened, to make it sound like Eby cruised to a decisive victory, backed by a united party.

But make no mistake: This was an embarrassing mess. For the party. For Eby. For Appadurai. And for an increasingly complacent and arrogant BC NDP government, which has nobody to blame but itself for the trouble it’s in.

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Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.