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NDP’s draft gag order could limit public dissent on party positions

B.C.’s governing New Democratic Party has crafted new rules that could prevent some members and officials from publicly criticizing the decisions of Premier John Horgan’s government.
B.C. Premier John Horgan.

B.C.’s governing New Democratic Party has crafted new rules that could prevent some members and officials from publicly criticizing the decisions of Premier John Horgan’s government.

A draft of an internal NDP code of conduct, obtained by Postmedia News, shows it would require members of the party’s provincial executive and committees to sign non-disclosure agreements that forbid them from publicly disagreeing with party or government policies.

“Individuals agree that they shall, in all public statements (either written or verbal), promote the positions taken by the party through its duly constituted bodies and shall refrain from public criticisms of the party, its positions, or its elected officials,” reads the code of conduct. Any criticisms should be expressed only through internal channels, it reads.

The document also says all matters dealt with in party meetings are confidential and not to be discussed publicly.

The code is a draft, but could go before the NDP’s provincial council for a vote next month. It would apply to the provincial executive — which includes table officers and two representatives from each region of the province — and the NDP’s nine committees where members meet to discuss issues such as the environment, agriculture, women’s rights, youth, pride, people living with disabilities and Aboriginal representation.

Signed agreements could effectively act as gag orders for NDP members who disagree with the Horgan government’s decisions to approve the Site C dam, give tax breaks to the LNG Canada project and campaign in favour of proportional representation.

NDP officials argue the intention is not to silence people from speaking their minds, but instead to formalize what has been an implied obligation in the NDP constitution that people who represent the party — especially on social media — do not criticize it or break with its positions in an official capacity.

“Individuals will still be individuals,” said NDP communications director Glen Sanford. “I think you know the NDP well enough to know there will always be robust discussions and our folks really don’t hold back on how they feel about things. That’s not going to change. The clarity that’s being looked for here is ensuring there’s procedures and lines of responsibility and accountability for people who are representing bodies of the party.”

Sanford said the party has heard concerns from some members about the language used in the draft and the need to more explicitly state that people can still be critical of the party and government as long as they make clear it is their opinion.

The code of conduct, which also includes sections on conflict of interest and dispute resolution, is modelled after those used by federal political parties, unions and corporations, Sanford said.

Nonetheless, the code would be unique among B.C.’s political parties, where pressure to toe the party line is often real but usually unwritten.

The B.C. Liberals and B.C. Greens have confidentiality agreements for officials who have access to financial details, voter databases and the personal information of members and volunteers. But neither has a clause that requires members to support party positions or only voice dissent within confidential internal structures.

“When parties like the NDP use this heavy-handed approach, it makes you wonder what kind of disagreements they are having internally [that] they feel the need to suppress dissent to keep it from spilling into the public,” Liberal executive director Emile Scheffel said.

“To me that suggests a symptom of weak leadership. If you are willing to take this step to censor people, it suggests you aren’t capable of bringing them along internally and making them heard.”

Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver has said the NDP is losing environmental supporters to his party after its Site C and LNG decisions.

Some NDP MLAs campaigned against Site C in 2017, even though the official party position was to simply do a “review” of the project. That review resulted in Horgan announcing in late 2017 that the $10.4-billion hydroelectric dam near Fort St. John would proceed.

On LNG, many New Democrats fought against the previous Liberal government’s attempts to nurture the industry and opposed the pollution the LNG Canada project in Kitimat will cause. Yet Horgan’s government offered more than $5 billion in tax breaks to secure LNG Canada’s final approval this month.

Similarly, not all New Democrats support proportional representation in the November referendum. Horgan announced he will campaign in favour, and the party has followed suit with an aggressive fundraising and voter sign-up operation. But some New Democrats are in the campaign to oppose pro-rep, feeling the NDP is better positioned to win majority governments under the existing first-past-the-post system.

The code of conduct would insulate senior officials from blowback on party positions under a section called “mutual respect/inclusion” that says bullying, harassment and “questioning the motives of another member or staff” won’t be tolerated.