Past issues may plague B.C. NDP

When the NDP formed government during the 1990s, it found itself constantly on the defensive when dealing with two major power blocs in B.C.: the environmental movement and doctors.

I suspect if the party wins the election in May, it may find itself reliving history with at least one of those groups.

The environmental movement was a major headache for the NDP government. The two fought pitched battles over forest practices and land-use decisions, and it's fair to say the environmentalists won a lot more than they lost.

The protests over logging in Clayoquot Sound, for example, gave B.C. an international black eye, and the NDP government was forced to back down and implement a complete overhaul of forest practices. The government was also pressured into not approving Alcan's Kemano II project, and it was forced to ban mining and other activities in the Tatshenshini watershed in the northwest corner of B.C.

Environmental protests on the legislature's front lawn were commonplace, and one even turned violent when the crowd broke through legislature security to smash a window in the chamber as the lieutenant-governor read the throne speech.

But with many of its forestry aims accomplished, the environmental movement has now shifted much of its focus to another natural resource industry: oil and gas.

The NDP is certainly onside with the enviros on the issue of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project. Both want the project halted.

The environmentalists have also targeted the Kinder Morgan pipeline and are starting a campaign against increased coal shipments out of Vancouver's port.

The NDP has yet to take a position on either project, but both are potentially problematic. Another potential headache is fracking, which uses immense amounts of water and chemicals to free up natural gas deposits deep below the earth's surface.

There is a growing movement by environmentalists to place a moratorium on fracking, but so far the party has only agreed to study the issue. This could very well be the biggest problem the environmental movement poses for an NDP government.

Party leader Adrian Dix has vowed to stick to policies that will allow the party to win re-election, and that means it can't simply be an anti-development or anti-industry government.

And this sets the stage for a potential replay of the fractious 1990s.

On the other front, there are talks set for this fall with B.C.'s doctors to allow a "re-opener" on a number of contract issues, not the least of which is financial compensation.

The government's current position is there has to be some kind of reduction in some areas. That simply isn't going to wash with the B.C. Medical Association.

The NDP government of the 1990s repeatedly clashed with the association over how much doctors should be paid. It lost every battle.

If Dix wants an assessment of the folly of taking on the association, he just needs to talk to his health critic, Mike Farnworth, who was the health minister for much of the fighting with the association. He came out of those skirmishes badly bruised and has said the battles weren't worth it.

It's hard for any government to take on the medical profession. For one thing, the general public is far more supportive of doctors (and nurses) than politicians.

But there's another problem for government: the association is not a trade union and therefore doesn't negotiate as such.

The association is essentially made up of several thousand private business people who are paid with public funds.

Getting them to agree internally how to divide up the financial pie is difficult enough, but getting them to agree to reduce their payments is basically impossible.

I suspect the NDP will tread carefully when dealing with doctors, and don't be surprised if they adopt a more conciliatory path than the B.C. Liberals if they win the election.

History shows environmentalists and doctors win a lot more battles than they lose with government.

Dix and his colleagues should be mindful of that if they win in May, or they'll suffer some long and never-ending headaches, just as they did in the 1990s.

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