Conventional wisdom would suggest there’s little an Independent MLA can do make an impact on government. Throughout the past term, BC’s three sitting Independents – Bob Simpson from Cariboo North, Vicki Huntington from Delta South, and Abbotsford South’s John van Dongen – have proven the pundits wrong, injecting new energy and ideas into a Legislature ordinarily dominated by caucus discipline.
All three are running again in Tuesday’s provincial election. Joined by a few other Independents with “long – not impossible – odds,” as Martyn Brown put it recently in The Vancouver Sun – this unprecedented batch of serious candidates without a political party promises a more interesting contest and intriguing possibilities should their campaigns lead them into office.
With polls tightening in the final days of the campaign, it’s not unthinkable that a handful of Independents could hold the balance of power in a minority government.
Among the 38 candidates running as Independents around the province, Arthur Hadland, from Peace River North, is of particular note, posing a serious challenge to incumbent Liberal MLA Pat Pimm. Hadland ran in 2009, losing by just nine points – the next best showing by an Independent to Delta’s Huntington. A lifelong resident of the Peace Valley, Hadland is a respected multi-term director of the Peace River Regional District and has been a strong voice against the proposed Site C Dam.
The three sitting Independents have shaken up the Legislature in surprising ways in recent years. From confronting important energy issues in ways neither party would, to torpedoing a recent forestry bill – making effective use of social media – and raising electoral reform in the lead-up to the provincial election, they are showing the power Independents can wield.
Being an Independent poses its challenges, without the benefit of caucus resources for researching and interpreting the avalanche of legislation that comes their way. “You have to look at every bill yourself,” Simpson explained a recent all-candidates debate on environmental issues in Vancouver, noting that he doesn’t have the luxury of voting along party lines.
Huntington became just the second MLA elected as an Independent in the history of BC’s legislature (and first woman to do so) when she narrowly defeated former Attorney-General Wally Opal in Delta South in 2009. Simpson, after being booted from the NDP caucus over mild public criticism of then-leader Carole James, decided to strike out on his own, rather than apologize. The incident would prove the straw that broke the camel’s back for James’ leadership, paving the way for the party’s resurrection under Adrian Dix.
Van Dongen is easily the most controversial of the bunch. The longest-serving BC Liberal MLA in the Legislature until his resignation from the party in March of 2012, he made more turbulent an already rough patch for the Liberals. His path to independence included a pit stop with John Cummins’ BC Conservative Party, becoming its only sitting MLA, until a very public falling out six months later that saw him go Independent. His departure and the manner in which it occurred seriously hampered Cummins’ efforts to breathe new life into the party – the effects of which linger to this day.
Huntington and Simpson have teamed up to bring issues like natural gas fracking to the fore in the Legislature. Their call for a science-based investigation into the controversial practice appears to have yielded results, as the NDP have committed to such a program if elected.
Van Dongen has been a wild card, bringing plenty of palace intrigue to the Legislature. It wasn’t just his two defections and the embarrassment of a suspended driver’s licence while Solicitor General that produced tabloid headlines. In hiring a private lawyer to investigate the Campbell Government’s paying off the lawyers of convicted bribers Dave Basi and Bobby Virk, Van Dongen proved he could still kick up a fuss.
The three sitting Independents would also join forces to push for electoral reform. The six-point platform they announced in February includes some laudable suggestions like campaign finance reform, giving bi-partisan legislative committees real power, moving the fixed election date to the Fall so as to not interfere with the Budget, and free votes in the Legislature, to minimize the stifling effects of caucus discipline.
The fact that high-profile, effective politicians like these folks are choosing the independent path reflects growing discontent with the current party system.
Though few of the province’s 38 Independent candidates stand a real chance, any one of these four serious contenders – Huntington, Simpson, Van Dongen, Hadland – could well pull off a surprise victory on May 14. And with what is shaping up to be a tighter-than-expected race between the Liberals and NDP, even a few Independents could wind up holding the balance of power in Victoria.
In any event, their presence enriches this election campaign and an otherwise predictable, often undemocratic Legislature.