Former NDP cabinet minister Harry Lali wore a trademark bright blue suit and pink tie when he visited the legislature this week, but, unlike his wardrobe, he got a decidedly muted response from most of the politicians there.
Lali visited the capital building to execute a rare political doublecross, jumping from the BC NDP to throw his support behind Kevin Falcon and the Opposition BC United party. The NDP was unimpressed, and even his new BC United colleagues weren’t sure what to make of the defection by what was once one of their most vicious critics.
“The reason I’m doing this is I’ve been looking at what has been happening to rural B.C., and I think, traditionally, you could count on the BC NDP under Dave Barrett, Mike Harcourt or Glen Clark to look after the interests of rural B.C.” said Lali, who lives in Merritt.
“This is the first government of the BC NDP that hasn’t done that. We’re going backwards.”
“I don’t see a future for rural B.C. under this BC NDP government,” he added.
Officially, the BC NDP adopted a ‘good riddance’ attitude to the floor crossing, noting in a statement that the party had revoked Lali’s membership in 2020 after he “actively undermined the indigenous BC NDP candidate in his riding” of Fraser-Nicola.
That indigenous candidate, Aaron Sumexheltza, is now BC NDP president.
“For several years, Mr. Lali has consistently put his own interests ahead of others in the BC NDP as well as the people of British Columbia,” provincial director Heather Stoutenberg wrote in a statement.
“It’s not a surprise to see him joining with Kevin Falcon and the [BC United] after his BC NDP membership was revoked.”
To twist the knife, Premier David Eby added a wry note at a press conference on Friday, inferring BC United has bit off more than it can chew with Lali. “I wish BC United the best of luck with Mr. Lali,” he said, dryly.
A polarizing figure
It’s tough to separate the message from the messenger when it comes to a flamboyantly loud and polarizing figure like Lali, who was a transportation minister in the 1990s NDP government.
On the one hand, he has a long history of feuding with leaders of his party, including rebelling against Carole James in 2010, a public flameout at Adrian Dix after the NDP’s 2013 election loss, and a verbal war with John Horgan in 2017 in which Horgan asked him to step aside in the riding of Fraser-Nicola for Sumexheltza (Lali refused, and lost).
If that history of leading internal wars against leaders gives BC United’s Kevin Falcon any pause, he wasn’t letting on Thursday.
“He actually approached me directly,” Falcon said of the defection. “He reached out and he essentially said that he felt the NDP had left him as a rural MLA and as a longtime labour activist, involved in the IWA labour, or the Steelworkers. He didn’t feel that that party reflected who he was or the interests of rural British Columbia and he liked what he was hearing about BC United.”
The NDP: a party of urban environmentalists
On the other hand, Lali is not the first to raise concern that the modern-day BC NDP has become a party of Lower Mainland environmentalists, with very little connection to the hard hat-wearing, small-town, workers who used to populate the mills, mines, forests and union trade halls that formed the backbone of the party.
Those days of the so-called ‘brown’ side of the NDP coalition are long gone, according to Lali, who is backed up by the NDP’s dismal voter support in the province’s interior and north.
“Part of it is the overrepresentation in the NDP caucus for the last 20 years or so from urban B.C. as opposed to rural B.C., but part of it is a lack of understanding or interest in issues beyond the community of Hope,” said Lali.
The result is alienation outside of a Metro Vancouver powerbase, he said.
“When John Horgan was premier… at that time he fully understood, but I think he got overwhelmed by the urban elites and the environmentalists and he decided to start saying no and not paying a lot of attention to what ails rural British Columbia,” said Lali.
“As an individual, I have a lot of respect for David Eby but unfortunately I don’t think he’s getting the right information,” he added. “Or if he is, he’s not acting upon it on the issues and challenges rural British Columbia towns face.”
The current NDP government has only six MLAs outside of urban centres.
Eby has said he’s looking for Finance Minister Katrine Conroy’s long history in Kootenay West to give him the “rural tough” advice he needs to win back supporters outside of Vancouver. But Lali said Conroy made few allies as the previous forests minister by curtailing old growth logging and other logging permits, which led to mill closures and job losses.
Lali also cited agriculture, fishing, wilderness tourism, mining, oil and gas and fruit-growing as areas the NDP have failed to advance in rural B.C.
Lali’s switch to another party ignited speculation he might try to run in the 2024 election under a BC United banner, and that his support was in exchange for a promised nomination in a riding.
Falcon denied any such deal had been made. “That’s not been a subject of discussion,” he said.
Lali said he simply intends to advise Falcon on any issues he can.
“He understands the issues of British Columbians in general, but also rural B.C.,” he said.
“I like the vision he’s putting forward and believe if there’s any salvation for rural British Columbia, where I proudly live and have been for 57 years, it’s not going to be with the current BC NDP.”