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Ousted MLA elicits toughness from James

Vaughn palmer In Victoria As MLA Bob Simpson told it in the blog entry that led to his ouster from the New Democratic Party caucus, party leader Carole James gave a lacklustre speech last week to local government leaders. He's right.

Vaughn palmer

In Victoria

As MLA Bob Simpson told it in the blog entry that led to his ouster from the New Democratic Party caucus, party leader Carole James gave a lacklustre speech last week to local government leaders.

He's right. Judging from the text of her remarks, she had "little concrete to offer" in a speech characterized by a "lack of specifics," other than "a commitment to be more consultative" than the B.C. Liberals.

Still, Simpson was out, dumped by James late Wednesday evening after a round of consultations with her advisers and key MLAs. He fought back on Thursday morning, claiming that the most he'd expected was "a slap on the wrist" for his comments on the leader's performance at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Whistler.

The severity of the penalty, he argued, was out of proportion to the mildness of the offence. It also sent the wrong message regarding a party that prides itself on "free speech."

But James, for her part, had invited him to retract his comments and continue on with the team.

"I gave him that opportunity to apologize for going public," she told my colleague Jonathan Fowlie. "Then let's meet next week and let's talk about his issues and concerns. He said he wasn't interested in that. So that was a pretty clear choice."

Simpson put the offer more grudgingly: "I was asked to retract my two sentences and offer a public apology - I declined as I don't believe my assessment of what happened at UBCM is either inaccurate or misleading."

Those two sentences weren't the issue. The showdown had much more to do with the concerns he's been raising in party circles for some time - the kind of Bob-knows-best musings that have earned him a reputation for impatience and going it alone in the Opposition caucus, the kind of things he volunteered publicly on Thursday.

"It's the worst kept secret in B.C. that among NDP members and among the public, there is a serious concern whether Carole James has what it takes to be premier of the province," he told broadcaster Bill Good on CKNW.

He also went on at length about the supposedly lamentable lack of policy specifics coming from the James-led NDP.

Ironically, had Simpson chosen to take a step back from the brink and apologize, he would have been in line to attend a scheduled two-day caucus retreat in Vancouver next week, where his colleagues will begin thrashing out some of the policy concerns he finds lacking.

As well, he was recently caught justifying the need for caution on the policy front regarding the contentious Prospect Mine project in the Cariboo region. Simpson, the MLA for Cariboo North, has been calling for a government-appointed task force to bridge the controversy because for him to take a strong stance one way or another would be premature.

"I'm supposed to be available to all parties, whatever the circumstances," he told the Williams Lake Tribune last month. "Taking positions closes doors."

But judging from what he said Thursday, he'd sooner his party climbed off the fence on matters not in his own political back yard.

"We've been riding the HST gravy train since the last election," he complained, adding that the party has "not been telling a good enough story" about itself in terms of vision and policy alternatives.

Sure enough. In the 14 months since the Liberals blundered into the harmonized sales tax, the New Democrats have been little more than spectators, leaving the heavy lifting to their unlikely comrade, Bill Vander Zalm, and his associates.

Still, most Opposition parties would see this opportunity as an undisguised blessing. Having just lost their third election in a row, the New Democrats were facing several years of navel-gazing and recriminations. Along came the HST, and they were pretty much off the hook.

To be sure, Simpson is riffing on a theme evident from the opinion polls. People do say they don't know enough about James, her vision and policies.

But one of the most reliable rules in politics also says that when a government is busy falling apart, the main job of the Opposition is to stay the heck out of the way.

Specifics at this point would only provide something for the Liberals to shoot at other than the usual target of their own feet.

Not surprisingly the Liberals welcomed the Simpson-James clash as a pleasant distraction from their own mostly self-inflicted troubles.

Time was when they used to smart at Simpson's periodic reminders of how he quit their party in the mid-1990s because of Gordon Campbell's heavy-handed policy-making.

But now that he's gone maverick on James, they've taken to admiring his outspoken qualities with the same logic -- "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" -- that has seen so many on the left fellow-travelling with Vander Zalm of late.

James and her supporters have to hope this controversy fades quickly. But at least she's provided one answer to a common complaint about her leadership, the one she herself cited in a speech two weeks ago: "'She's nice, but she's not tough enough for this game.'"

Not tough enough? Just ask Bob Simpson.