The B.C. NDP is just over two weeks away from choosing a leader to succeed Carole James, who resigned from her post on Dec. 6 after seven years at the helm of the party.
The candidates are Adrian Dix of Victoria, Mike Farnworth of Port Coquitlam, John Horgan of Victoria, Dana Larsen of Vancouver and Nicholas Simons from the Sunshine Coast.
Mike Farnworth appears to be leading in the polls followed by John Horgan, although the story so far has been the fact that the candidates are in agreement over most issues.
The leadership election will take place on Sunday, April 17 with at an assembly at the Vancouver Convention Centre. You had to register with the party by Jan. 17, 2011 to be able to vote, and every member gets one vote. You can also vote in advance by telephone or on the web.
The candidates are currently appearing at a total of nine debates on different topics. The next debate is Saturday's "Environmental Sustainability Leadership Debate" in Vancouver, followed by debates on energy on April 4 in Prince George and jobs on April 6 in Terrace.
Lyle Fenton, the NDP chair for the West Vancouver-Sea to Sky riding and a former candidate, said he hasn't picked whom he personally will be backing.
"Right now I'm watching (the race) and trying to figure out who would be in a little stronger when it comes to the policies I believe in - who could lead and be a good spokesman for the party," he said.
"Right now they're all being good, there hasn't been any blood-letting and there's nothing that jumps out at you. They're all speaking fairly kindly to one another."
Dawn Black is currently serving as the interim party leader until a new leader can be named.
Fenton said the candidates have been mostly silent on two issues that he thinks are important, namely the privatization of public services and a larger free trade issue of water licenses versus maintaining public ownership of our waterways.
"The Liberals will tell you they haven't privatized BC Hydro, but they have and BC. Hydro is in bad shape because of it," said Fenton. "That's why our rates are going up. It's their commitment to IPPs (independent power projects) to buy power for more than market value so they can pay their mortgages and make a profit.
"And now the province is in the process of privatizing water."
Fenton was referring to the B.C. government's proposed Water Sustainability Act, which among other things would allow for the creation of water markets as a conservation tool. The markets would, according to the province, allow for trading and transfers between water license holders in areas where water is in short supply. The province has said there are no plans to privatize water or sell off water rights to the highest bidder.
However, Fenton said the market approach would essentially turn water into a commodity, which means that it could be traded according to rules established by the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"Once you make it a tradable commodity, so you can buy and sell water licenses, it's no longer in the public trust; it becomes owned by those with water licences," said Fenton. "I have nothing against free enterprise but some things like utilities and our water... should remain in the public trust."
He also has an issue with the privatization of B.C. Ferries, the sale of B.C. Rail, the water rates set for IPPs, and other privatization efforts by the Liberal Party.
"What's happening is that the Liberal government is divesting itself of the ability to raise money," said Fenton. "It's not just a matter of reducing taxes, it's all these other things. There's less money coming in so they have to cut programs."
Fenton said the timing of the NDP leadership election was unfortunate because it cost the party all of the gains that the NDP made at the expense of former Premier Gordon Campbell's sinking popularity. At one point the NDP were leading the Liberal Party in popularity by 25 percentage points, but since NDP leader Carole James stepped down and Christy Clark stepped in to replace Campbell as Liberal leader, the Liberals have gained it all back. The most recent poll by Angus Reid put the Liberals ahead 43 to 38, a shift of 30 points in the Liberal Party's favour.
However, Fenton said the election could restore some of the party's practices like polling ridings before making decisions and policy.
"Our party is quite democratic that way, but we sometimes forget that," said Fenton.