Rob Shaw: BC Greens’ continued COVID focus raises questions about party’s political well-being

The BC Greens are moving to shore up their credentials on the health care file, by naming a high-profile surgeon to be deputy leader of the party.

It’s not a bad idea, and it might help the Greens increase their relevance ahead of the next election – or, just as easily, it could devolve into a mess that pushes them further to the fringe.

Both potential outcomes were on display Monday when Furstenau announced she’d hired Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi, the former chief of paediatric cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at BC Children’s Hospital, to serve as the party’s second deputy leader.

On the one hand, Gandhi’s credentials immediately allowed the Greens to jump into the debate over an ER-doctor shortage in Port Hardy, with Gandhi calling on the government to hire physician assistants to help alleviate the crisis.

“Absolutely, 100 per cent, categorically, no doubt that we should have PAs (physician assistants) in British Columbia, not just for Port Hardy but everywhere for Metro Vancouver,” he said.

“I worked with PAs for 17 years in the United States. They are active in other parts of Canada. They’re a phenomenal resource.… Why we don’t have them in British Columbia is beyond me.”

It was a solid response and a well informed critique of government health policy.

“I’ll fight for the people of B.C. with the same energy I gave to sick kids and their families,” added Gandhi, in one of the best lines of the day.

But then, just as suddenly, the Greens veered sideways – during one of several tangents by Gandhi – into why the NDP government had bungled the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Despite what many would like to think, we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic,” he said.

“Partly, that’s the virus’s fault, but primarily it’s ours. We have not embraced the changing science. Though we’ve acquired knowledge about SARS-CoV-2, we haven’t used that knowledge appropriately.”

The government has failed to properly educate people, mitigate the risk, give people the right information and focus on clean-air policies like HEPA-filters in all school classrooms, he said.

Oh, and everyone should be forced to return to wearing masks indoors for the indefinite future, he added.

“I think in closed indoor public spaces we should have mandatory masking,” said Gandhi.

“And people are to say, ‘Well, are you going to mask forever?’ I don’t know. But I certainly think that during the winter season it’s something that we ought to consider from here on in.”

B.C.’s current policy is that masks indoors are encouraged, but not mandatory. The vast majority of people seem happy with that.

It’s not clear if forcing people to wear masks again is something the BC Greens intend to present to voters as a campaign issue. Furstenau stood behind Gandhi and nodded while he said it at an event she billed as a campaign-readiness press conference. She announced him as someone who helped her understand COVID-19, and someone who will help craft health policies for her platform.

“The important thing is we will be prepared whenever that election is called, and this leadership team is core to that preparation,” she said.

The two health issues in the press conference highlight the political choice in front of the BC Greens when it comes to relevance in the eyes of mainstream voters.

Polls continue to show that the larger issue of post-pandemic health care (including a family doctor shortage) is considered a top issue of concern for British Columbians, with 52 per cent of people surveyed by Angus Reid last month calling it the most important issue facing the province.

On that, the Greens can clearly use Gandhi’s expertise to backstop a serious policy agenda, which would offer practical solutions for the health-care crisis and grab the broader public’s attention, raising the Green party’s profile.

On the other end of the spectrum is COVID-19. Few voters appear to care about it anymore. The issue consistently ranks near the bottom, with only seven per cent identifying it as important in the same Angus Reid poll.

And yet, the Greens can’t seem to let it go.

The party has long been preoccupied with COVID-19. Furstenau was the first politician to publicly break with Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry in 2022, saying she’d failed to do her job and was wrong in her decisions.

Since then, her Greens have flirted dangerously with a toxic social media crowd that delivers venomous personal attacks against Dr. Henry and peddles in conspiracy theories.

A quick search of Gandhi’s background suggests he, too, remains fixated on COVID.

His social media feeds show evidence of someone with an axe to grind against Dr. Henry, Health Minister Adrian Dix, the hospital he used to work at and several other key players in the health care sector for, according to Gandhi, unfairly silencing him and forcing him out of the profession. He spends a great deal of time on Twitter, writing long threads about the issue.

All of this presents both a problem and an opportunity for the Greens.

The problem is that the party has a leader, and now a deputy leader, fixated on an issue that voters don’t particularly care about anymore, which has only served to push the party into fringe territory and won’t do anything to make Green candidates relevant in the next election outside the two ridings the party already holds.

The opportunity is to retool that energy and expertise into something more politically productive, in the form of bold, innovative ideas to tackle the broader issues of health-care wait times, nursing shortages, the family doctor crisis and more.

Furstenau opened the press conference Monday saying she wanted to challenge the notion that the BC Greens are only focused on climate and the environment.

“The BC Green Party is much broader,” she said. “But if we are fundamentally focused on one thing, it is health and well-being.”

The party’s health and well-being depends on it moving on from the pandemic and becoming more relevant on the issues voters are worried about. The longer the Greens wait to do that, the further the party falls behind.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

rob@robshawnews.com