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COMMENTARY · 20th April 2012
John Twigg
NDP's strong campaign wins both byelections, Liberals relieved to be ahead of Conservatives

The results of the two B.C. byelections are now widely known but the debate about what they mean will go on for months and possibly all the way to the next provincial election in May next year.

The B.C. New Democrats' wins in both Port Moody and Chilliwack were breakthroughs notable in their own right but perhaps more significant to the long-term political trends in the province was the contest between the B.C. Liberal Party and B.C. Conservative Party, which some have tried to portray as merely a "split" of the so-called free-enterprise vote but which really is something a lot more complex than that.

To get right to it, the Liberals finished a clear second in both constituencies, with about 30 per cent of the votes in a mere 40% turnout of voters, which is a bit better than what they had been getting in recent opinion polls, and quite a bit better than the 15% the Conservatives got in Port Moody and the 25% they got in Chilliwack.

Calls to oust Clark may ease

That should be enough to quieten some calls for the immediate ouster of Liberal Premier Christy Clark but to keep her job until the new year she probably will have to engineer a party name change in the fall and implement a major policy reform package in the February budget aimed at assuaging the thousands of Liberal supporters who for various reasons have defected to the New Democrats and Conservatives.

B.C. Conservative Party leader John Cummins claimed to be "quite pleased" with the results, about 25% in Chilliwack and 15% in Port Moody, given that the party's campaign team was starting from scratch, got outspent five-to-one and didn't have enough volunteers to get its vote out, and he pledged to be more competitive and ready in the provincial election. He also noted that the votes confirmed poll findings that his party is a serious contender.

Clark and other Liberal apologists were quick to cite the Conservatives' vote-splitting but Cummins was having none of it and the vote results tend to support him: NDP candidate Joe Trasolini in Port Moody-Coquitlam pulled in a surprising 54% per cent, which means the popular ex-mayor would have won in a two-way race too, while in Chilliwack the NDP's hard-working Gwen O'Mahony won with a solid 41% while Conservative John Martin scored a solid 25%, many of which were anti-Liberal protest votes, so if Mahony had been in a two-way race against a Liberal she probably would have still won.

Dix says positive campaign helped NDP

As NDP leader Adrian Dix noted in post-election comments, some 70% of voters sent a message against the Liberals in the byelections and he's looking forward to seeing that repeated in the next provincial election.

"We had the best candidate(s) and we ran a positive campaign and I think people responded to that," said Dix, perhaps downplaying the impact of his party sending many outside volunteers into the two campaigns and overlooking the reality that the main trend at work was the decaying of the Liberal support, some of which declined to vote, some of which went to the NDP and some of which went Conservative.

A good example of that was Conservative candidate Christine Clarke in Port Moody, who in the 2009 election was a volunteer worker for successful Liberal candidate Iain Black, who last year resigned as MLA to take a job with the Vancouver Board of Trade.

The New Democrats by contrast not only held onto to all of their support (roughly 35% in 2009) they also pulled all of it out to vote plus they pulled a few defectors from the Liberals plus they probably drew some former B.C. Green Party support too because that party chose to not run candidates, while the Cummins Conservatives have been taking in droves of Liberals fed up with Liberal shenanigans, notably Abbotsford South MLA John van Dongen who crossed the floor of the Legislature early in the campaign, which helped boost the Conservatives' profile and credibility.

Liberal support decays due to HST

So why is the Liberal vote decaying? Interestingly interviews with exiting voters by CKNW's Shane Woodford revealed that the hated Harmonized Sales Tax was still sparking a backlash, but more generally the protest votes seemed to be against the Liberals' perceived arrogance and corruption and mismanagement of too many major issues, such as the corrupted giveaway of B.C. Rail, deconstruction of the Agricultural Land Reserve and several questionable moves involving B.C. Hydro and other Crown agencies (not to mention that the Auditor General found that former premier Gordon Campbell had illegitimately cooked the province's financial books prior to the 2009 election campaign).

Though Clark as Premier has had more than a year to turn around such problems, the opinion polls and now the byelection results prove that she has so far failed to do so, and if her party had finished third in both byelections she probably would have been ousted by August, but now it seems she will be given a few more months to try to restore the so-called free-enterprise coalition that has governed B.C. for about 50 of the last 65 years. A major test will be a major fundraising dinner in June which is critical to the party's pre-election fundraising.

Clark statement cites vote-splitting

Clark watched the results from her Vancouver office then issued the following statement: "Voters know that by-elections are not about changing government. Itís never been clearer that only a unified free enterprise coalition can defeat the NDP. Thatís why we are focused on strengthening our coalition so that in the next general election voters will have a clear choice between the free enterprise coalition and the NDP. A choice between higher income taxes, reckless government spending and runaway debt or our free enterprise coalition that is keeping taxes low, restraining government spending and keeping our economy growing with jobs for B.C. families."

Cummins however was having none of that: "The Liberals have their heads in the sand - people are walking away from them in droves. The Liberals say we are vote-splitting but we offer the best hope for the so-called free-enterprise vote," he said.

"We're on the way up and they're on the way down and I think that will continue . . . we expect to do well when more people understand what we're all about," he continued, dismissing any thought of a merger with "a discredited organization like the Liberals."

"The B.C. Conservative Party are a sort of brand without any policy - they are NOT the federal Conservative Party," said former Liberal communications official Mike Morton in an interview on CKNW, which further focused on the byelections' message that it showed the B.C. Conservatives also have a lot of work to do before they will be able to offer voters a viable alternative to the NDP, which under Dix is trying to appear as moderate and non-threatening as possible despite its sometimes radical policies and activists in its ranks (e.g, gender quotas for candidates, opposition to resource projects, etc.).

Fall sitting of Leg to be dropped?

One other notable impact of the byelections could be the cancellation of possible plans for a fall sitting of the legislature, because the defection of only four more MLAs would deprive the Clark Liberals of their majority.

The two byelection wins give the NDP 36 seats while there are 3 Independents (one being van Dongen) and now 46 Liberals, one of whom is Speaker. Thus if three Liberals defected the Speaker could have to vote to break a tie, and if four defected it wouldn't matter what the Speaker did, except maybe to advise the Lieutenant Governor to stay near a phone in case he was needed to trigger an election or - gasp! - give Dix a chance to govern instead!!

That probably won't happen but there is talk of several other Liberal MLAs considering defecting depending on the byelections and other matters and the way to thwart that is to simply not let the Legislature sit in the fall.

While a fall sitting is not a necessity nor even a tradition, it often has been used when governments want to introduce policy shifts for consideration by the public and special interest groups, which appears to fit Clark's plans for introducing a new policy direction prior to the next election.

So I was intrigued when Liberal MLA Ralph Sultan (West Vancouver - Capilano) tweeted after the Sun Run that he was looking forward to a six-week run of the Legislature (with one week off) and then "prorogation" - meaning the formal ending of the Session. I sent him an email wondering whether he meant to say adjournment but he did not reply.

There is a bit of an anomaly insofar as the current sitting was not a new session but merely was a continuation of a session begun last fall as a sort of new policy direction by Clark, which is why there was no Throne Speech this year, and which could be why the sitting and the session will de facto end at the end of May (though technically the formal prorogation usually doesn't happen until the morning before a new one starts).

Another wild card in the deck is the possibility that the Legislature might have to be called back in August in order to force striking teachers back to work, and/or possibly to deal with other pending public-sector labour disputes.

Anyway, the byelection results gave the Dix New Democrats a boost, they gave Clark and the Liberals a warning and a bit of time to make repairs and reparations and they give the Cummins Conservatives a clear message that they need to work both harder and smarter if they're going to become a serious option in the next election.

So really there's no big deal, B.C.'s turbulent politics is merely unfolding as it should.