As Anjali Appadurai’s campaign for leader of the B.C. New Democrats has surged, observers inside and close to the party are warning she is being subjected to smear tactics aimed at disqualifying her candidacy.
Until early September, former provincial Attorney General David Eby looked to have an easy route to victory—and the premier’s office—with Appadurai viewed as an inconvenient protest vote.
However, reports that Appadurai has signed up the largest number of new members has appeared to spark anxieties among the party’s establishment and abruptly shifted the tone of the campaign.
Over the last few weeks, a combination of MLAs and lobbyists close to the party have amplified messages on Twitter, email, on talk shows, and through phone calls that amount to what some members are calling a “smear campaign.”
They’ve ranged from claims of a “Green party takeover,” vague assertions that the campaign is “not grassroots,” and unsubstantiated allegations that Appadurai’s campaign and those of her supporters are flouting NDP rules and B.C.’s election laws—which have prompted an ongoing investigation both by the party and Elections BC.
Some of those leading the public attacks are part of an emerging class of NDP-connected lobbyists, who appear to be worried they could lose their insider access under an Appadurai government and be unable to deliver for their clients, many of whom are fossil fuel companies.
The Breach spoke to supporters of both campaigns, people close to the party, and long-time party members. Due to heightened tensions and fear of reprisals, most requested to remain anonymous.
Although concrete numbers aren’t known to anyone outside party officials and the inner circle of the Eby campaign, reports by a Vancouver Sun columnist indicate Appadurai’s campaign signed up as many as 10,000 new members, with David Eby’s camp bringing in around 6000.
With approximately 11,000 existing members of the party, the new member signups could sway the outcome of the race.
Both the party and the Eby campaign declined to answer questions from The Breach about new sign-ups to the party and membership totals.
Throughout the race, Eby has benefited from a large team and the canvassing support of 48 of the NDP’s 57 MLAs, while Appadurai has run a campaign championing bold policies and the support of grassroots social movements.
Appadurai’s campaign has not yet submitted her application to be recognized as a leadership candidate—when it does, the party’s provincial council must approve her candidacy.
Many worry that the concerted attempt to tarnish Appadurai’s candidacy will set up an eventual disqualification after she submits her application, preventing party membership from getting to vote.
The investigation of Appadurai’s campaign, which followed a complaint to Elections BC, is based on allegations that Dogwood, an environmental organization, violated election laws by encouraging their membership to join the NDP and participate in the race, as well as fundraising to set up a phone bank and run online ads.
Although the investigation has been widely reported, no details to support allegations that laws or rules were broken have been made available.
While an investigation could take months to complete, Dogwood insists it didn’t break the law.
The organization’s staff say they corresponded closely with Elections BC earlier in the summer to ensure their activities would be permissible.
Establishment vs. insurgency
The two campaigns are a study in contrasts.
“British Columbians shouldn’t expect any radical departures if I’m successful,” Eby told reporters during his campaign launch. “People are happy with our government, they’re happy with the direction we’re going,” he added.
That direction has nonetheless alienated a large number of the party’s supporters.
John Horgan’s government attracted wide-spread criticism when it approved over a billion dollars in subsidies to Liquid Natural Gas infrastructure, approved the Site C dam, proposed repressive measures to address an overdose epidemic that killed thousands, and presided over a militarized raid to clear the way for a natural gas pipeline on Wet’suwet’en territory.
Then-Attorney General Eby’s office was the target of protests when the province pursued criminal charges against land defenders.
Appadurai’s campaign set out to recruit disillusioned NDP supporters, former party members, climate activists and those who have stayed away from politics by promising to “put the health of people and planet first.”
“Health care, housing, the toxic drug supply or the climate: our public systems are in crisis,” the longtime climate justice activist said in her leadership pitch. At the top of her campaign promises: declare a climate emergency and bring BC into full alignment with the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples.
Last year, The Breach reported on stonewalling tactics party officials used over a two year period to prevent party members from voting on a resolution calling for an end to government subsidies for the fracked gas industry.
A group of former NDP officials-turned-lobbyists with connections to Eby and to the fossil fuel industry have been leading the attack against Appadurai.
Michael Gardiner, a former Executive Director of the BC NDP and current president of lobbying firm 360 Strategies, has been active on Twitter and in the media criticizing Appadurai’s campaign. He has lobbied the BC government on behalf of the Tourmaline Oil Corp, the Pembina Pipeline Company and Telus, among others.
Jeff Ferrier, who ran communications for the B.C. Minister of Health for much of 2021, is a Senior Vice President at Hill and Knowlton and has criticized the Appadurai campaign on Twitter and a well-known BC politics podcast. He has lobbied the BC government on behalf of Chevron Canada, Kinder Morgan, Ferus Natural Gas Fuels, and Uber Canada, among others. Hill and Knowlton was criticized in 2021 for their public relations work for multiple fossil fuel giants.
Raj Sihota, a former Executive Director of the BC NDP and current Vice President of 360 Strategies, has told reporters that long-time NDP members are uneasy about new members joining. Sihota has lobbied the BC government on behalf of Western Forest Products, Telus, and Google.
Another Vice President at Strategies 360 is Stephen Howard, who formerly served as a senior aide to David Eby.
Eby has been criticized for not closing lobbying loopholes when he had the opportunity as Attorney General, preserving plum consultant positions for a slew of former NDP officials.
Eby, whose website mainly focuses on the candidate’s credentials, features a list of policy tweaks from his time as the province’s Attorney General, targeting corruption and mismanagement.
Upon Appadurai’s entry into the race, Eby’s reaction was “frustration” that his ascent to power would be delayed.
In what could mark a shift in his once iron-clad confidence, Eby himself responded to a journalist’s question about the allegations against her campaign, calling them “serious”.
Current BC NDP leader John Horgan has also weighed in, saying he is “seriously concerned.”
A spokesperson for the party told The Breach that the BC NDP’s Table Officers “have signed neutrality agreements and are committed to remaining neutral in this race.”
“The NDP is eager for Appadurai to submit her application so she can be dismissed on a technicality,” says one source in the party, and that the smear campaign “gives the NDP cover” for disqualification.
The process for approving leadership candidates takes place behind closed doors, and little justification is required.
As a result, the main concern—if the party ultimately rejected Appadurai’s candidacy—would be whether the public saw the move as justified.
The deadline for applications is October 19th.
Multiple members have reported they were contacted by NDP MLAs and asked whether they were current or former Green Party members. Some were told fear-raising comments about a possible Green takeover of the party.
“Under the direction of the CEO, the BC NDP is conducting spot-checks of members to confirm the accuracy of the information provided on their membership applications,” an NDP representative told The Breach.
A source within the party sees Appadurai as “a candidate who can overcome the false chasm between labour and environment.”
They expressed concern that misrepresentations of the Appadurai campaign could lend the party a pretext for disqualifying her as a leadership candidate.
“I hope we will have a chance to vote, but it seems like the old guard is trying to disqualify her and take away our voices.”
A source within the BC NDP’s provincial council described the mood within the party as “very strange and strained” since the leadership race became a contested one.
“As soon as the membership deadline hit, all of a sudden a few things were noticeable—Twitter trolls, the Dogwood controversy, insinuations that Anjali is a Green Party plant,” they said. “I think most of it is coming out of the Eby camp.”
“I think the strategy is to control the race and discredit her because they don’t want to go up against her, because she has a good chance of winning.”
The Eby campaign sent The Breach a brief statement acknowledging that the party has “many new members.”
“It’s critical that this leadership race is conducted in a way that members and the general public can have confidence in the integrity of the process and results,” the Eby’s statement read, adding that Eby has complete confidence that the party “will address any issues.”
The coronation, interrupted
“This was an assumed transition of power, without obstacles or speed bumps,” a source close to Party leadership told The Breach. “And then Anjali puts her name forward and all of a sudden it’s a potentially big obstacle.”
“The party probably has a relatively low membership base, so with a few thousand sign ups, things can get difficult.”
They argue that the party has for years shared a fraught relationship with environmentalists.
“Rather than welcome them, some of the caucus and leadership—the old guard—resent the fact that they’re recruiting young environmentalists.”
“In theory the party should be very happy—this was a great opportunity to grow the party and shift the focus of the party to stronger climate action.”
Trent Derrick, a party member for the last 12 years, supports Appadurai’s campaign and believes she has lots of support among current or recently disillusioned members.
“There’s been frustration brewing within the party for a long time,” said the former Prince George school board trustee and 2015 Federal NDP candidate. “There have been a lot of promises made, not a lot of action carried out.”
“There are numerous members that I was able to re-sign up because they have that hope and someone to rally behind to really fight climate change to really fight the drug epidemic and for Indigenous issues.”
Like many, Derrick saw an abrupt shift in tone at the membership deadline, but sees the excitement over perceived irregularities as one-sided. He references a letter sent to members of at least one Steelworkers local that does everything that Dogwood has been accused of.
“I haven’t seen a big uproar from the party about the Steelworkers supporting Eby.”
Rule nuance sparks flames
A media firestorm erupted after Global TV aired footage from an Instagram Live chat where, as part of a pitch to encourage others to get involved, a campaign supporter offered to pay the cost of membership for viewers that couldn’t afford it. Such payment would have been a violation of NDP rules. In the Global report, Appadurai herself corrected the mistake and expressed regret for not catching it instantly.
More than ten days later, however, analysts were still discussing how the Instagram gaffe was bad for the campaign, finding transgressions by supporters not employed by the campaign. In some cases, attacks blurred crucial distinctions between unsanctioned activities of supporters and the campaigning conducted by Appadurais’s official staff.
Appadurai unknowingly fueled the outrage when she stated in an interview that while paying for someone else’s membership was clearly against NDP rules, it was allowed under certain conditions under BC elections law.
The Elections Act does state that individuals can give other people money to sign up, but must count that contribution toward their own donation limits.
Some lobbyists and MLAs saw that as plenty of reason for a new round of attacks.
“[Appadurai] said ‘buying memberships for someone else is A-OK’,” the ministerial communications director turned lobbyist Jeff Ferrier told the listeners of a CHEK radio podcast. Appadurai had, in the same interview, said the campaign did not condone buying memberships for others.
Ferrier’s reaction was typical of an NDP response that spanned multiple channels, many making reference to guidelines posted on the BC elections website, which does not outline the nuance that is contained in the Act itself.
Environmentalists see high stakes
“Eby is a departure from the party establishment in some ways,” says Dogwood’s Energy and Democracy Director, Kai Nagata.
But there’s little to suggest he’ll take interlocking environmental and social crises seriously.
“The unravelling of the climate and public institutions, our healthcare system, our housing market… the consequences for working people in BC are extremely dire.”
“What we are seeing now is how far the party is willing to go to avoid the debate about oil and gas expansion, fracking, and pipelines.”
“The party as an organization is willing to attack its own members and demonize one of its own candidates in order to avoid having this debate.”
In the storm of criticism directed his way, Nagata sees desperation and deflection.
Dogwood, he said, contacted Elections BC in the summer to discuss what kind of support for candidates was permissible as a third-party.
“We pushed them on a number of hypotheticals, and we were advised that sending our supporters to join the BC NDP is not a contribution to the party, or to a candidate—even if we explicitly endorse them.”
“There’s nothing unusual or new about this strategy—unions, churches, and businesses all do it.”
“If you stand at a pulpit and tell people to ‘vote for X’, that’s not a political donation.”
He says that since Horgan took over the party in 2014, the NDP has lost an estimated 9000 members. In Nagata’s view, key causes of the exodus were the armed raids on Wet’suwet’en territory, ongoing support of old growth logging, and oil and gas expansion.
“I just hope British Columbians can see this for what it is: an example of power defending itself.”
CORRECTION: Raj Sihota was incorrectly described as a former MLA. She is a former Executive Director of the BC NDP.