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Rob Shaw: The unscripted David Eby goes for a campaign test drive, mostly

Expectations weren't high, but the premier met them, writes Rob Shaw
Premier David Eby speaks at an announcement for a new cancer centre at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital on Friday, May 26, 2023. GOVERNMENT OF B.C.

In the tightly-scripted world of politics, the most telling moments are the ones in which politicians have no control. Which is why the past week has been so interesting to watch Premier David Eby, while he navigated a live town hall and then mainstreeted with byelection candidates out in the real world.

The early conclusion? He’s surprisingly good in both scenarios.

It may seem like an odd thing to question when it comes to a politician who has been an MLA for 10 years. But winning a seat at the legislature, and carrying the weight of a political party on your own shoulders with your own brand, are two entirely different things.

One of the big unknowns Eby’s opponents have been eyeing since he became premier seven months ago is how a guy best known as a suit-wearing, serious-talking, lecturous lawyer would do when actually put one-on-one with the general public, in unpredictable scenarios, unprotected by the phalanx of staffers and briefing notes that swaddle modern-day leaders.

After all, Eby was chosen by party members to be premier based on his cold competence tackling big files like money laundering and housing, not on his charisma.

But the premier’s performance at both events will give his critics pause. He defied expectations to pull off the public encounters with ease, managing to display a sense of humour and casualness that many voters might not expect based on the version of Eby they’ve come to know from media coverage.

It’s no small risk to put a premier out in a live town hall — unless staff secretly limit invites to party members and screen the questions to eliminate anything controversial. Neither occurred when Eby took the stage at Camosun College last Thursday.

In the audience were representatives from community organizations, non-profits and businesses. Their questions were answered largely on a first-come, first-served basis, based on what they wrote when they checked in at the event.

A housing advocate got to tell Eby she earns a decent living but can’t afford her rent, and wondered what he’s doing to boost subsidized housing for people like her. The head of a local addictions recovery organization asked why Eby’s billion-dollar drug treatment plan fails to include a proper investment in recovery beds. A man questioned whether Ottawa’s recent bail reforms and B.C.’s prolific offender changes are truly enough to help people like himself feel safe walking downtown.

The speakers not only got to ask the questions directly, they were invited on stage to sit in a chair beside the premier and engage in a one-on-one conversation.

In some ways, it was remarkably risky.

You only have to look at how one disastrous unplanned encounter torpedoed the reputation of BC Liberal premier Christy Clark in the 2017 election to understand the ramifications of a public interaction gone wrong. Clark’s attempt to dismiss a critic named Linda Higgins while campaigning in a North Vancouver grocery store was caught on camera and quickly came to epitomize the arrogant unwillingness of her party to listen to frustrated voters.

The potential ramifications of a flub, misspeak or controversial moment during a live event are enough to give political strategists nightmares. It’s why the default position these days is to restrict public and media access to leaders as much as possible.

Yet it was Eby himself who came up with the town hall format during his transition into the premiership in November. He has pushed through the skepticism and warnings from some around him to make it a reality.

It turns out, Eby likes the risk factor of direct voter interaction. He views it as a way to break the cocoon that can envelop a premier and get more face time with the public.

Eby has held six town halls so far — one specifically for the civil service, two by telephone, two in-person, and one televised with veteran political columnist Vaughn Palmer. At several, he’s met people he’s followed-up with one-on-one. Ministries are instructed to answer everyone who had a question but didn’t get to ask it due to time constraints.

At a renters’ town hall in Burnaby in April, Eby met a senior who volunteered at a local school who was evicted by a landlord and can’t afford to stay in the community she’s called home for years. He’s told the anecdote several times at subsequent events, saying it reinforced his “urgency” on housing reforms and has contributed to the rapid pace of his premiership so far.

Immediately after the Camosun town hall on Thursday, Eby went campaigning in downtown Langford, on Vancouver Island, with NDP candidate Ravi Parmar.

He meandered through a local coffee shop, public library and barbershop, chatting up customers and joking about things like his own shaggy haircut and his “disturbingly tall” height with those who were surprised to see the 6’7” premier in town.

It was while observing this hour-long mainstreeting that you picked up the faint undercurrent of doubt from within the party about Eby’s ability to woo voters.

Parmar, a longtime John Horgan supporter, clearly wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to the new premier, so he stacked a coffee shop patio on the route with executives from his riding association and old friends to give Eby a soft landing for at least part of the event.

That same uncertainty manifested within Eby’s own staff during a visit to Nanaimo in April, where, worried about how he’d handle business owners upset about crime, the premier’s office barred media from his tour of downtown shops in case he was hit with a critical comment.

But Eby has proven he doesn’t need this kind of shielding. He might not be Horgan when it comes to folksy charisma, but observe him on the hustings or working a room and you’ll see a different kind of skill with the public at play.

Whether this is enough to counter efforts by the Opposition BC United to portray him as a radical, anti-police, ultra-woke activist intent on ramming his extreme ideological agenda down the throats of British Columbians, remains to be seen.

However, one thing is clear: You can expect to see more unscripted Eby in the next 16 months before the 2024 election. He seems intent to defy those who think he lacks the charisma of his predecessor by redefining his public persona in high-risk, high-reward events.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 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, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]