Special Report: B.C.'s NDP leaders down to the Final Four

British Columbia's New Democrats are in the final days of a leadership race they say is less about naming a new Opposition leader than it is about selecting the province's next premier-inwaiting.

Emboldened by the Liberal party's continued woes over the harmonized sales tax, the NDP is portraying its hunt for a new boss as the first step toward sweeping back into government in the next election -2013 or earlier.

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Around 27,000 party members will decide on April 17 who has the best chance of pushing the party over the top and into power.

There are four candidates: Adrian Dix, a former chief of staff in the last NDP government and current Vancouver-Kingsway MLA; Mike Farnworth, a former NDP government minister and Port Coquitlam MLA; John Horgan, another former NDP chief of staff and current Juan de Fuca MLA; and Dana Larsen, a marijuana activist.

Nicholas Simons, a former social worker turned Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA, dropped out Thursday and endorsed Horgan.

They all say they can unite the party and heal the wounds left from the bitter mutiny that pushed leader Carole James from office last year.

James, facing a revolt from as many as one-third of the MLAs in her caucus who wanted to select a new leader, stepped aside Dec. 6.

It's been a long road to recovery since then, but at least two of the candidates, Horgan and Farnworth, have earned endorsements from both dissidents and loyalists.

Still, compared to the attention devoted to James's ouster, the NDP leadership race has operated relatively quietly.

At times, the debates appeared overshadowed by the more glitzy Liberal coronation of Premier Christy Clark and the start of a federal election campaign.

Admittedly, it has not been the most exciting race. Political watchers looking for fireworks have instead been treated to cordial debates where most of the candidates agree with one another.

Horgan has jokingly called them party love-ins. "You're not going to get a lot of division from us tonight, we are united on these issues," he said during a Victoria debate March 31. "Our values are identical."

Identical values, perhaps -no one has, for example, gone against the party ideology and offered tax cuts for businesses or stripped unions of bargaining rights. But there are still differences in policy, ranging from what to do with carbon tax revenue, to the future of education planning and whether to resurrect the debate over proportional representation.

"We need to rid ourselves of the Liberals, not by saying, 'Vote for us we're not them,' but by saying, 'Vote for us because we have ideas,'" said Horgan, Vancouver Island's only candidate among leadership hopefuls.

rfshaw@timescolonist.com

Below is a brief summary of the individual leadership candidates' platforms. Where possible, we've included the financial costing of various promises with an outline of how the candidate proposes to pay -although that was not always possible if the candidate did not provide such details.

CARBON TAX AND ENVIRONMENT

Virtually everyone has abandoned the party's controversial "axe the tax" position on the carbon tax from the 2009 election campaign. It was a mistake, misread the public mood, brought about criticism from environmental allies and may have contributed to the party's election defeat, say the candidates.

Instead, the four candidates want to not only keep the carbon tax but increase it for industrial emitters by eliminating their exemptions and generating millions in additional revenue.

Horgan was first out of the gate on the issue, saying he'd toss the extra carbon tax revenues into a proposed Fair Tax Commission, to figure out the best way to spend the money.

Farnworth said he'll shift the revenues to public transit and green initiatives.

Dix proposes to make "strategic investments" with the money in transit, energy-efficient infrastructure and industry partnerships to achieve carbon emission reduction. That includes $14.5 million to resurrect a 1990s NDP program that employed 1,500 summer students on Environmental Youth Teams to clean parks.

Larsen said he also supports a carbon tax with a shift to penalize industrial emitters.

Most of the candidates agree that B.C. should have comprehensive species at risk legislation, prohibit the use of cosmetic pesticides and continue a ban on oil tanker traffic.

Horgan and Farnworth support legislation to protect groundwater, while Dix wants a groundwater review. Larsen has called for more sanitary drinking fountains in public spaces.

HST AND OTHER TAXES

The NDP have consistently opposed the harmonized sales tax -most of the MLAs even signed up as canvassers for former premier Bill Vander Zalm's anti-HST petition drive. Former leader Carole James took the view that, once implemented by the Liberals, it would be hard for future NDP governments to extricate itself from HST until renegotiations in future years.

With the June 24 HST referendum looming large over the issue, the NDP candidates are mostly hedging their bets, saying they oppose the HST and will advocate for its defeat in the referendum, but respect the wishes of the public if they vote to keep the tax.

Dix has laid out the most detailed financial accounting of his tax policies, including hiking corporate taxes back to 2008 levels, by reversing Liberal cuts. That would generate $268 million in extra revenue in 2011-12, he said. He also proposed resurrecting the corporation capital tax on financial institutions.

Dix said the extra money could be redirected to children's programs, transit, job creation, research, tax fairness and climate change.

Some of the money, around $53 million, would be used to cancel rate hikes for senior citizens in residential care homes, he said.

Horgan, meanwhile, has called for a comprehensive "fair tax commission" that would examine and report on the total impact of all provincial taxes, fees, licenses and royalties, including the HST, and look at their costs on citizens and businesses.

Larsen said he would also roll back corporate tax cuts and increase taxes 11 per cent for people with incomes greater than $250,000.

Farnworth has taken a more cautious approach, saying while the era of corporate tax cuts are over, he wants to see the outcome of the HST referendum before deciding how to change the province's tax structure.

For ordinary middle-income British Columbians, who worry their taxes might go up to pay under the NDP, there is little immediate clarity -most candidates won't rule out a tax hike to bolster government revenue.

EDUCATION

Perhaps not surprisingly, all candidates in the union-backed NDP support returning bargaining power on class size and composition to the teachers union.

They all want funding boosts for librarians, special education teachers, and arts, music and physical education programs.

Farnworth has gone furthest, promising a "provincial commission on education for the 21st century" to develop a plan that explores funding, affordability, fees, class composition, technology, early learning connections, access to post-secondary education and "preparing students for the realities of modern life and careers."

Larsen has advocated more rural schools and support for aboriginal children, who have a higher drop-out rate.

The province should freeze any school closures for three years, said Horgan as part of his platform that also calls for a made in B.C. child care system.

Dix and Farnworth also want expanded child care.

POST-SECONDARY EDUCATION

Post-secondary tuition is too high and the government should be providing more loans and grants to students, the candidates agree.

Dix, Farnworth and Horgan propose spending millions in nonrepayable student grants -Dix at $100 million, Farnworth at $34 million and Horgan at an undefined amount.

Horgan wants a freeze on tuition rates and an update of loan forgiveness criteria for certain rural and in-demand jobs. Dix wants to eliminate interest payments on student loans, while Farnworth has said the student loan interest rate should be prime minus one per cent.

HEALTH CARE

Dix, the party's longtime health critic, has perhaps the most comprehensive plan, including setting up nurse-practitioner clinics, lowering prescription drugs costs by expanding the Therapeutics Initiatives drug research group, creating a province-wide screening program for colorectal cancer, expanding insulin pump coverage for adults, beefing up cleanliness testing in hospitals and increasing research.

He's also proposing a rural health care initiative, worth almost $40 million, that would restore surgical services at Lady Minto Gulf Islands Hospital on Saltspring Island.

Horgan agrees on Therapeutics Initiative, and said he would expand public specialty surgery clinics to deal with wait list problems, integrate primary and residential care, increase nurse practitioners and review staffing levels and fees for long-term care.

Farnworth doesn't agree on Therapeutics Initiatives, but says he supports protecting public health care, promoting prevention, fast-tracking a new ER in Surrey, and increasing mental health services by converting an old Coquitlam hospital into a new mental health centre.

Larsen, the former founding director of the Vancouver Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary Society, said the province should license and regulate medical cannabis dispensaries to help the more than 100,000 people currently buying marijuana for medical purposes on the street. He advocates legalizing marijuana.

GAMING AND CHARITY GRANTS

B.C. should scrap its recent plans to expand online gambling, even if it means less gaming revenue to the province, said Horgan. Online gambling is distasteful and can't be condoned, said Horgan. But he said he reluctantly supports the continuation of other forms -casinos and slot machines for example.

The NDP has hammered the Liberals for years on cuts to gaming grants and the candidates support returning gaming grants to 2008/09 levels -which translates into about a $21 million annual funding boost, above and beyond $15 million announced by the Liberals last month.

Farnworth said he'd resurrect and honour a 1999 memorandum of agreement with charities to dedicate 33.3 per cent of gaming revenue to non-profits. It was Farnworth, as a minister, who originally signed the agreement.

LEGISLATURE REFORM

Farnworth has the most extensive platform here, with a wideranging set of promises to overhaul the legislature's committee and private member's bills process, including moving election dates to the fall. Most notably, Farnworth has called for another look at changing B.C.'s electoral system from first past the post to mixed member proportional representation -although voters have twice rejected changing B.C.'s electoral system in previous referendums. Larsen has made a similar promise.

Horgan, Dix, Larsen and Farnworth all agree on banning political donations by corporations and unions -and Farnworth has promised reforms for municipal elections too.

Horgan wants to expand the role of the conflict commissioner to include integrity complaints. Farnworth proposes whistleblower legislation.

The candidates agree on fewer fees and better access through Freedom of Information legislation, including proactive disclosure.

Larsen said he'd release all non-confidential government records in an OpenBC website, similar to Open Data Vancouver and the U.S. Data.gov site. And he'd reform B.C.'s referendum system to lower the signature threshold.

POLICE AND CORONER

None of the candidates support forcing squabbling municipalities to amalgamate police forces -like in Greater Victoria -apparently taking the same view as the Liberals in that it would be deeply unpopular among local governments if the province forced them to move against their will.

No one has made an outright promise at launching a provincial police force, but almost all express reservations about the RCMP's contract and auditing provisions.

The candidates are split on whether to make B.C.'s coroners service independent, after calls of political interference and the abrupt departure of the previous chief coroner -Dix and Farnworth back the move, Horgan does not and Larsen said he's not sure.

Larsen said he opposes new prisons and would allow sex-trade workers to unionize and form co-operatives.

POVERTY REDUCTION

The candidates have all called for increases to the minimum wage, but were upstaged by premier Clark who announced a hike last month.

Simons had the most comprehensive poverty-reduction plan, with nearly $3 billion for child care, early learning, affordable housing, legal aid, income assistance and disability increases. But he dropped out and endorsed Horgan.

It's unclear how many of Simons's policies will reappear in Horgan's platform. "I will carry his vision for poverty reduction forward if I am elected on April 17," Horgan said Thursday.

Horgan has called for a 30 per cent reduction in B.C.'s poverty rate within four years -75 per cent in 10 years -and a promise to "end all homelessness within eight years."

The candidates have proposed income assistance boosts, Farnworth at the rate of inflation, and Horgan as needed.

They all want legislated poverty reduction targets, with Farnworth proposing a dedicated minister in charge of such targets and Horgan saying he'd champion the issue from his office as premier.

They all promised to build more affordable housing units, with Farnworth's target of 1,000 units a year.

ENERGY AND FORESTS

There's widespread support for protecting and strengthening the NDP-created Agricultural Land Reserve. And most want a review, or halt, to independent run of river power projects as part of a comprehensive look at whether the public interest is being served in the province's energy strategy.

Horgan wants a shakeup in senior government forest officials, a comprehensive plan on strengthening forests and public oversight of public timber tenures.

Dix wants a long-term strategy for protecting old growth forests and improved environmental assessment legislation. Farnworth echoes Dix on the environmental assessment, but adds a massive program of reforestation. Both want restrictions on raw log exports.

OTHER PROMISES

The government should make public transit free for users, and pay for it by refocusing provincial resources away from subsidizing car drivers, said Larsen.

B.C. could use a jobs protection commissioner to support sustainable jobs, said Farnworth.

Tenants should be protected from renovations disguised as evictions, agree Farnworth and Dix.

Foreign workers need more support and protection, said Dix.

B.C. could use a women's advisory panel to discuss priorities for the 121st century, and expanded parental leave to 18 months with fathers eligible for additional months to help women re-enter the workforce, said Horgan.

Compared to the Liberal leadership race, the NDP promises are large and far-reaching. The candidates say on purpose, because they have to give some of the 1.4 million registered voters who didn't cast ballots in the last election an incitement to join the NDP.

"I think if we give people something to vote for on the economy, on health care, on public education, on the environment, we will win the next election," said Dix.

"But more important than that, we will have a mandate to change British Columbia."

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