From rookie to NDP point man, David Eby takes centre court

NDP MLA David Eby has been one of B.C.'s loudest voices on housing affordability, pushing for a foreign buyers tax before the governing Liberals got religion. He'll be a key point person for his party in next May's election

NDP MLA David Eby has been one of B.C.’s loudest voices on housing affordability, pushing for a foreign buyers tax before the governing Liberals got religion. He’ll be a key point person for his party in next May’s election

By the summer of 2016, home prices in Greater Vancouver had, over a five-year stretch, jumped by more than 50 per cent. Through it all and despite howls of protest, the free-enterprise government of Christy Clark maintained an official policy of disinterest—denying, specifically, that soaring prices had anything to do with an influx of foreign capital. In a 2015 letter to Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, Premier Clark wrote: “Industry experts estimate that most of the real-estate speculation taking place in the region is being done by local investors.” She added that “any method of new taxation with a goal of driving down the price of housing could have the unintended effect of hurting current homeowners across the region.”

There were many who disagreed. For example, just as the premier was brushing off Mayor Robertson, three economists from UBC’s Sauder School of Business were sending the BC Liberals details of a tax plan that they thought would help solve the housing issue. Thomas Davidoff, Tsur Somerville and Sanghoon Lee suggested a 1.5 per cent surcharge on all homes, with exemptions for everyone who actually pays income taxes in British Columbia. They estimated that such a surcharge would raise a fortune—$90 million a year in Vancouver alone. This could then be used to build a BC Housing Affordability Fund to help new buyers get into the market. But once again, the Liberals gave it the brush-off. Says Davidoff: “We got a polite letter—it was a nice letter—but that was all.”

So Davidoff sent the tax plan to his Vancouver-Point Grey MLA, David Eby. “I wasn’t expecting anything,” he says, “but David phoned right away and said, ‘Let’s discuss this over coffee.'” Eby liked the plan and said he was sure that his NDP caucus would like it, too. And he encouraged Davidoff to develop the details. Which Davidoff did, soliciting advice and support from fellow academics. And Eby used the resulting paper, signed by 47 economists from UBC and SFU, to create the Speculator Tracking and Housing Affordability Fund Act—which, upon its introduction in the legislature on March 17, 2016, was sent directly to the recycling bin (par for the course for private member’s bills). With an accusation that their proposal targeted foreign buyers unfairly, Finance Minister Mike de Jong admonished the NDP: “We won’t help you build that wall.”

Well, that was then. On July 25, Premier Christy Clark made the surprise announcement that her government would begin charging all foreign buyers of real estate in the Greater Vancouver region a 15 per cent tax—because, she said, “I want to keep home ownership within the grasp of the middle class in British Columbia.” Eby—one of the loudest voices for government action—says he was “blown away by the about-face,” and then he adds one of the withering gotcha lines for which he is well known in the B.C. legislature: “I guess if anything overcomes ideology, it’s political self-interest.” While he argues the new tax is “one of the least effective options” the government had at its disposal—both misdirected and too easy to evade—Eby admits that he’s delighted Clark succumbed to the political heat.

“I’m really glad now that we can have the debate about how we approach the issue of international money flowing into this market,” he tells me in an interview a week after Clark’s announcement. “Now that it’s been decided that government can be involved, we (the official Opposition) will be able to help force continued reform. We can refine this measure to make it work.”

For the record, the Liberals bristle at any suggestion that they moved on this issue because of pressure from the NDP housing critic. While neither the premier nor housing minister Rich Coleman could be reached for this profile, Minister of Advanced Education Andrew Wilkinson, Eby’s closest legislative neighbour as the MLA for Vancouver-Quilchena, says: “We didn’t need David Eby to tell us about concern over the run-up in housing prices.” And while dismissing Eby’s proposal as “totally unworkable” and “fundamentally bad policy,” Wilkinson says that the Liberals’ ultimate response was, by contrast, “decisive and effective.”

Still, it’s clear that Eby gets under the Liberals’ skin. Wilkinson calls Eby’s ideas “half-baked and lacking in substance” and criticizes him for “chasing headlines.” Vancouver Sun political columnist Vaughn Palmer notes that the premier, as a sort of backhanded compliment, likes to refer to Eby in question period as the “the incoming leader” of the NDP—partly as a way to bait current leader John Horgan but also, adds Palmer, because Eby “appears to have got her number.”

After all, Eby came within a hair of beating Clark in the 2011 by-election when, as the new Liberal leader, she contested what was supposed to be the safe seat of her predecessor, Gordon Campbell. Then, in the 2013 general election—which was a stunning victory for Clark on every other front—Eby stole the Point Grey seat from under her, forcing Clark into another by-election in Westside-Kelowna. Depending on how next May’s general election plays out—and which party leaders are left standing—a Clark-Eby title match might not be far off.

(Left to right) Brothers Matthew Eby, David Eby and Patrick Eby

Looking back over his record of activism and politicking, it’s easy to argue that David Eby has been preparing for this role his whole life, even if he denies any childhood ambition to political power: “I wanted to be a detective. Or maybe an entomologist.”

The son of a Kitchener, Ontario, personal injury lawyer, Brian, and a grade school principal mother, Laura, Eby was the eldest of four (three boys and a girl) and, according to his youngest brother, grew up as the leader of a large and orderly neighbourhood gang. In a time and place where there were no backyard fences, “David brought us all along,” says Matthew, the 32-year-old founder and CEO of New York-based marketing and advertising agency Anthro. “There was a whole group, and we all hung out and played games together. He was the convenor. I always looked up on him and his friends as the coolest things that exist.”

Then again, just about everybody looks up to Eby: he’s 6-foot-7. “I broke a lot of hearts in high school,” he says wryly, “but most of them were basketball coaches.” They’d see him stride into the room and start making plans for the provincial finals—and then they’d see him play. “I was so uncoordinated.” So Eby turned his attention to student politics, campaigning, humorously and self-effacingly, as Super Dave (after Super Dave Osborne, the comedic “failed” stuntman whose slapstick TV show was popular at the time), becoming president of St. Mary’s High School in his senior year. He went on to study English (and a bit of science) at the University of Waterloo and, upon graduation, got a job “writing loss-prevention materials for a communications firm”—apparently not tempting as a long-term career choice.

The Eby household was rousingly political. Eby’s father was a long-standing and prominent federal Liberal who “always enjoyed sparring on public policy issues.” This, the eldest son says, “enhanced my capacity to argue against his contrarian and super-annoying ability.” Eby continued his political involvement outside the house and was particularly active in the anti-globalization movement in the early oughts—protesting the free trade negotiations at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001. It was in Quebec that he witnessed lawyers working in support of that movement and was immediately hooked on the potential of legal activism. He gained entry to Dalhousie Law School that fall and graduated in 2004.

Eby blames (or credits) “a cute girl” for tempting him to the West Coast—he’d met her in Toronto while still an undergrad and, after his first year at Dalhouse, he followed her to her hometown, Vancouver, taking a summer job with the Law Foundation of B.C. His first major project was to research and write The Arrest Handbook: A Guide to Your Rights, which was ultimately published by a future employer, the BC Civil Liberties Association. He lost the girl but kept the town, returning every subsequent summer to work for the Foundation and then for the federal Department of Justice, where he was accepted as an articling student after graduating from Dalhousie. There he spent most of his time prosecuting small time criminals—poor, drug-addicted women who “were doing what they had to do to get drugs or food.” He says now: “I have great respect for my colleagues and I respect the need for that work, but I couldn’t do it.”

So he was delighted, on the day he was called to the B.C. bar in May 2005, that activist lawyer John Richardson offered him a job at the Pivot Legal Society—a still-new organization that had been founded, according to its literature, “to use the law to address the root causes of poverty and social exclusion.” Eby’s six-month contract—paying only $18,000—turned into four years at Pivot and was followed by five years as executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association. “You don’t see many wins in that kind of low-income human rights work,” he says. “Most people think if you were shot by the cops, you probably deserved it.” But it was excellent training ground for politics: “You learn pretty quickly that you can’t do anything without community buy-in.”

It was during his days at Pivot that Eby started to think that he might have more impact in elected office. In 2008, he ran for Vision Vancouver and missed the 10th council seat by fewer than 50 votes. And while he later brushed off the notion of running again, telling Vancouver magazine in 2010 that he was more interested in international human rights, the people who were close to him were not convinced. Said John Richardson at the time: “Look back at rabble-rousing lawyers of 30 years ago, like Mike Harcourt. Those luminaries were once outside the fold, raising a ruckus. Dave is like that. He’s just in his apprenticeship right now.”

Sure enough, in 2011, the NDP convinced Eby to stand as the assumed sacrificial lamb against the popular new leader of the BC Liberals—and Eby stunned the field by coming up just 550 votes short of winning. (“She didn’t show up for any of the community debates,” he tells me, and she paid the price for “taking the community for granted.”)

Then, in the 2013 election, Eby won. People started pointing to him, aged only 36 at the time, as a potential successor to the humiliated NDP leader Adrian Dix. But before the “race” to replace Dix could begin in earnest, Eby found out that his then-partner (now wife), Cailey Lynch, was pregnant (their son, Ezra, has just turned two). Eby waved off any attempt to draft him as a leadership challenger, signing on instead as John Horgan’s campaign co-chair.

That, perhaps, explains why Horgan is unflustered by suggestions that Eby is after his job. When asked about it, Horgan responds with what can only be described as a verbal shrug (“I don’t look at my role as a permanent one”), and then he goes on to sing Eby’s praises: “He’s my go-to guy, and every time I give him another file he’s just as impressive.” Horgan says he’s delighted that the current NDP caucus has an emerging group of “30-somethings who get it,” including Michelle Mungall (Nelson-Creston), Spencer Chandra Herbert (Vancouver-West End) and Melanie Mark (Vancouver-Mount Pleasant)—”and David is the leader of that pack.”

Eby also shrugs off the leadership question, noting that the position is not, in fact, open and isn’t likely to be anytime soon. If the NDP were to lose the May election—”and we’re not going to”—well . . . Eby trails off, but few people doubt that he’s the crown prince.

The last NDP leader to be elected premier, Glen Clark, considers Eby “the future of the NDP.” Clark, who was once a young radical himself (B.C.’s youngest-ever cabinet minister at 33) and now the more cautious president of B.C.’s largest private business, the Jim Pattison Group, says Eby is “the prototypical leader—a young, smart professional.”

“Given the pace of change in the world, we need to have people who are not afraid of that change,” says Clark, now 57. While it’s usually hard to coax him back into the public spotlight to discuss politics, Clark says he’s happy to talk about Eby, who he says has three characteristics that are essential for good leadership. You have to work hard, Clark says—and by all accounts, Eby is a workaholic. You have to master your file (“The days are gone when you could skim the surface of a briefing note and make a speech. Young people are too savvy for that today.”). And, perhaps most of all, you have to have something to say. “I don’t always agree with him, but he has a viewpoint,” says Clark. “He’s not just spewing sound bites.”

The Sun’s Vaughn Palmer, again, says it’s no surprise to hear the former premier speaking favourably. “Eby has the same drive, the same incredible work ethic,” that distinguished the young Clark. Palmer also agrees—with no hint of faint praise—that Eby is the odds-on favourite to replace Horgan, whenever the moment comes. “John Horgan is under no illusions about the implications of losing the next election,” Palmer says. “They’ll give him one shot—and if they don’t win, the party will turn to David Eby.”

David Eby in his office at the federal Department of Justice as an articling student

Of course, not everyone is so enthused about Eby’s promise or prospects. One critic is Brad Zubyck, a principal at management consultancy the Wazuku Advisory Group. Zubyck, who was an early organizer with Vision Vancouver and has managed backroom campaigns for both provincial and federal Liberals, has been watching Eby for years and agrees that the Downtown Eastside was a good training ground: “Eby gets the game of politics very well.” But apart from being “the only person on that side of the house who can generate news, I don’t think he solves any problems for the NDP.” Zubyck says the party is still divided between environmentalists and union supporters who actually want development. And their policy book, he adds, is “an incomprehensible mishmash. I don’t think they know who they are.”

Whatever future Eby does have in provincial politics depends upon him continuing to win what is clearly a swing seat, Vancouver Point Grey—on which count the nominated Liberal candidate, James Lombardi, is eagerly belligerent. “What we need in this riding is a new vision,” says Lombardi, the former head of Global Business Development at charity Free The Children and nephew of Vision Vancouver School Board chair Mike Lombardi. “Less division and frustration. We need positive and meaningful solutions—not hype and headlines.”

Still, even people like Liberal stalwart Bob Rennie—whom Eby attacked this past summer as a likely beneficiary of an early tip about the 15 per cent foreign owners tax—sees the MLA as someone with a sense of the community’s pulse. “In a city of sound bites, David is bringing up some real concerns,” says the prolific condo marketer. But on an issue like housing affordability, and in a neighbourhood where you could get crucified for standing up as an enthusiastic promoter of higher-density living, “it will be interesting to see if David is going to offer solutions that get him elected—or solutions that cool demand and increase supply.”

An equally interesting question may be whether Eby can grow his level of support—in one of the region’s highest-income neighbourhoods—while acting as a champion of government itself. Old-fashioned interventionist policy-making—the kind of thing that Eby promotes, and which the Liberals have largely avoided—has long been out of style. The ideologues who attack the legitimacy of government have been dominating the conversation for decades, notes Eby, adding that every scandal and every self-confirming outburst by a Rob Ford or a Donald Trump just adds to the cynicism.

But “government is a very powerful tool,” says Eby. “It’s all of us working together. It’s not inherently evil or problematic. It has been abused, but it’s a tool like any other.”

As he delivers this line, leaning over a very exposed desk in his storefront constituency office at Broadway and Macdonald, the MLA sounds philosophical and a little plaintive. But then he gathers himself up for the big takeaway: “If there was one dominant unchallenged assumption about politics that I would like to change,” he says emphatically, “it’s that. Because I think we need significant government involvement if we are going to solve the housing crisis, and we can’t do that if people believe that government is poisonous from the very beginning.”