The most ‘outstanding’ ridings

How many votes will be outstanding as of tonight? And which are the most ‘outstanding’ ridings? As of midnight Election Eve, almost 500,000 vote-by-mail ballots had been received with more coming today. Elections BC confirmed that representatives are stationed at the Canada Post sorting facility on Sea Island, ready to collect all available ballots before 8pm PT.

(Just wondering, is it just one guy in a 1991 Toyota Corolla picking up the ballots, and throwing them in the trunk of his car, or is there like a super secret Elections BC Swat team with laser guns, defending democracy against any external threat?)

It’s not just mail ballots either, there are also special voting ballots, absentee voting in and out of electoral district, absentee advance voting, and alternative absentee voting (in DEO office). Last election, those categories added up to over 173,000 votes cast. So, this time we can expect at least 600,000 more ballots to be counted after Election Night (500,000+ mail and 100,000+ absentee).

2017 election:

Which are the most ‘outstanding’ ridings? The other day, I posted about the ‘early birds’ – those voting in advance polls or by mail. Advance poll votes are counted tonight. Mail plus the categories listed above will be counted in November as part of the final count.

I was interested to know which ridings will have the most ballots to be counted as a percentage of ‘expected voters’. I calculated this by taking the current number of registered voters (7% higher compared to 2017) and multiplying it by the turnout percentage per riding from 2017. This is imperfect, but does help estimate how many will show up to vote this time if turnout rate is consistent per riding (it was 61% across BC in 2017, but ranged from a high of 74% in Saanich North & the Islands to a low of 47% in Richmond South Centre).

The ridings with the highest number of outstanding mail ballots will make November a bit more interesting, less certain, and a lot more nerve-wracking in ridings where there is a close race. The lower the number, the more certain one can be on Election Night about the final outcome.

My estimates of the proportion of outstanding ballots (vote-by-mail only) as as a percentage of the estimated number of voters per riding:

RidingMail as % of expected votes
cast per riding
Victoria Beacon Hill42%
Oak Bay Gordon Head37%
Vancouver Fairview36%
Vancouver False Creek36%
Victoria Swan Lake35%
Saanich South34%
Vancouver Pt. Grey34%
Vancouver Quilchena33%
Esquimalt-Metchosin32%
Vancouver West End32%
Saanich North & Islands31%
Vancouver Mt Pleasant30%
Parksville-Qualicum30%
Port Moody Coquitlam30%
Vancouver Langara30%
New Westminster29%
Langford-Juan de Fuca29%
Surrey South29%
Vancouver Hastings29%
North Van Seymour29%
West Van Capilano28%
Courtenay-Comox28%
Nanaimo27%
Vancouver Kensington27%
Richmond South Centre27%
Surrey White Rock27%
Richmond Steveston27%
Vancouver Fraserview27%
Richmond North Centre26%
Burnaby North26%
Coquitlam Burke Mtn26%
Surrey Cloverdale26%
Vancouver Kingsway26%
Port Coquitlam26%
North Van Lonsdale25%
Burnaby Lougheed25%
Kelowna Lake Country25%
Langley East25%
Burnaby Deer Lake24%
Nanaimo-North Cowichan24%
Coquitlam Maillardville24%
Langley24%
Penticton24%
Burnaby Edmonds24%
Kelowna Mission23%
Delta South23%
Cowichan Valley23%
Maple Ridge Mission22%
Maple Ridge Pitt Meadows22%
Surrey Panorama22%
Richmond Queensborough22%
Kelowna West22%
Abbotsford South21%
Kamloops North Thompson21%
West Van Sea to Sky21%
Chilliwack Kent 21%
Surrey Guildford21%
Abbotsford Mission21%
Powell River Sunshine Coast21%
North Island20%
Vernon-Monashee20%
Delta North20%
Surrey Fleetwood20%
Chilliwack20%
Surrey Newton19%
Mid Island-Pacific Rim19%
Surrey Whalley19%
Surrey Green Timbers18%
PG Mackenzie17%
Abbotsford West17%
PG Valemount16%
Boundary Similkameen16%
Shuswap15%
Nelson Creston15%
Kootenay West14%
Cariboo Chilcotin14%
Columbia River Revelstoke14%
Kamloops South Thompson14%
Kootenay East13%
Cariboo North11%
Fraser Nicola11%
Skeena9%
Stikine9%
Nechako Lakes8%
Peace North8%
North Coast7%
Peace South6%
Provincial average
(vote-by-mail as % of expected voters )
24%

Remember, I didn’t account for the other absentee and special ballots in this table so you can probably add about 5%, conservatively, to the number of outstanding provincial ballots. In Oak Bay-Gordon Head last election, there were over 2,400 absentee and special ballots (not counting mail) and in Courtenay-Comox there were almost 2,000, which happened to decide the outcome of government.

When you at your own personal Decision Desk tonight ready to ‘call it’, you might want to check my chart.

BC voters up with the roosters

As of October 23rd, over a million early birds had flocked to the polls in British Columbia – 681,055 at advance polls and almost 500,000 vote-by-mail packages have already been received. Combined, that’s over half the amount that voted in 2017 when about 2 million flew to the polls, mainly on Election Day.

Cock-a-doodle doo … time to vote

Province-wide, about 33% of registered voters have voted or their mail ballots have already been received. Last election, the voter turnout was 61% – so, likely half of the ballots this time are already in. The percentage of early bird voters will increase as mail ballots continue to arrive prior to Saturday at 8pm.

I looked at early birds riding-by-riding by calculating the percentage of advance poll voters per riding and adding the estimated number of mail ballots received per riding (as of October 22) to determine number of early bird voters. (The estimate of mail ballots is Mail Packages requested * 54% – the amount returned by October 22, province-wide). UPDATE – the number of mail ballots received as of October 23 is now 478,900 (66% of packages requested).

Where are the early birds? It looks like they are nesting on the Island. Two of the top three early bird ridings in BC elected Greens in 2017.

Riding
(Colour coded by winning party, 2017)
Adv% Mail ballot return estimateCombined Advance+Mail  (est.)   Oct 22
Parksville-Qualicum26%16%42%
(now 46%, Oct 23)
Saanich North & Islands24%18%41%
Oak Bay Gordon Head20%21%41%
Esquimalt-Metchosin25%16%41%
Vancouver Pt. Grey24%17%41%
Victoria Beacon Hill18%21%39%
Courtenay-Comox24%14%39%
Victoria Swan Lake21%18%38%
North Van Seymour22%16%38%
Saanich South19%19%38%
Vancouver Fairview19%18%37%
Boundary Similkameen29%8%37%
Delta South24%13%37%
Surrey White Rock23%14%37%
Penticton25%11%36%
Langford-Juan de Fuca22%14%36%
North Van Lonsdale23%13%36%
Cowichan Valley24%12%36%
Vancouver West End21%14%35%
Nanaimo-North Cowichan23%12%35%
West Van Sea to Sky24%10%34%
West Van Capilano20%14%34%
Port Moody Coquitlam18%15%33%
Nanaimo20%13%33%
Kelowna Mission23%10%33%
Maple Ridge Pitt Meadows22%11%33%
Burnaby Lougheed21%12%33%
New Westminster18%14%33%
Vancouver Quilchena17%16%32%
Surrey Fleetwood23%9%32%
Langley East20%12%32%
Columbia River Revelstoke25%6%32%
Port Coquitlam19%12%32%
Surrey South18%13%31%
Shuswap23%7%31%
Vancouver False Creek16%15%31%
Kootenay East25%6%31%
Surrey Cloverdale18%12%31%
Coquitlam Maillardville19%11%31%
Kelowna Lake Country20%10%31%
Mid Island-Pacific Rim21%9%30%
Coquitlam Burke Mtn19%12%30%
Cariboo Chilcotin23%7%30%
Kelowna West21%9%30%
Nelson Creston22%8%30%
Langley19%11%30%
Chilliwack Kent 20%10%30%
Powell River Sunshine Coast18%11%29%
Maple Ridge Mission19%11%29%
Fraser Nicola24%5%29%
Burnaby North17%12%29%
Delta North19%10%29%
Richmond Steveston16%13%29%
Surrey Panorama18%10%29%
Abbotsford Mission19%9%28%
Vernon-Monashee19%9%28%
Vancouver Hastings15%13%28%
Abbotsford West21%7%28%
Skeena23%5%28%
Kamloops North Thompson18%10%28%
North Island18%10%28%
Vancouver Fraserview15%12%28%
Vancouver Langara14%13%27%
Richmond Queensborough18%9%27%
Vancouver Kensington15%13%27%
Abbotsford South18%9%27%
Kamloops South Thompson20%7%26%
PG Valemount19%7%26%
Vancouver Kingsway16%11%26%
PG Mackenzie19%7%26%
Peace North23%3%26%
Vancouver Mt Pleasant13%13%26%
Surrey Guildford17%9%26%
Chilliwack17%8%26%
Cariboo North20%5%26%
Kootenay West18%7%24%
Burnaby Deer Lake14%10%24%
Stikine19%5%24%
Surrey Newton15%9%23%
Burnaby Edmonds12%10%22%
Surrey Green Timbers14%8%21%
Surrey Whalley14%7%21%
Richmond South Centre11%10%21%
Peace South18%2%21%
Richmond North Centre10%10%20%
North Coast16%3%19%
Nechako Lakes9%4%12%
Total19.4%11%
(now 14%, as of Oct 23)
30%
(now 33%, Oct 23)
*numbers may not add up due to rounding. Riding-by-Riding not updated for Oct 23.

It appears the advance polls of Michelle Stilwell’s riding were more densely packed than a Fanny Bay oyster bed. Just to be clear, the voter turnout there is already over 45% and they haven’t even got to Election Day. I realize that many ‘experienced’ voters on the Island like to go to bed after the 5:30pm Chek 6 News, but I’m beginning to wonder if they voted early in order to sleep through the entire weekend.

It’s not just Parksville-Qualicum, 7 of 8 early bird ridings are on the Island. By God, democracy is alive and well over there. There are probably a few factors at play:

  • The Island has an older population compared to rest of BC, and it has been clearly shown that older people are more likely to vote.
  • The Island population is not particularly diverse. In ridings with high populations of non-English speakers, language can be a barrier to participation. In fact, highly diverse ridings like Richmond North Centre, Richmond South Centre, Surrey Newton, and Surrey-Green Timbers have among the lowest early bird totals.
  • The Greens are much stronger on the Island, which helps boost turnout due to increased competition.

(Bryan Breguet – Too Close Too Call website – did some interesting analysis here and here. He spent more time number crunching.)

Northern ridings Nechako Lakes and North Coast are the bottom two. They appear to be saving it for Election Day. Stikine and Skeena had higher advance turnouts but low mail participation.

The top advance poll riding was Boundary-Similkameen (29% of registered voters), though they weren’t as big on mail there. Oak Bay-Gordon Head was huge on mail (#1), and had a pretty solid advance poll too.

There is some correlation to high turnout ridings voting early, however, that is not uniform. I looked at turnout in 2017 and it is not straightforward correlation between overall turnout and early turnout. You can see from the table above that there is quite a bit of variation between advance and mail. Rural ridings have a different pattern than urban, the Island is different, etc.

Is there a pattern here? Does this signal a partisan advantage? Public polls breathlessly report that vote-by-mail and/or advance voters are leaning this or that way. If that is the case, and early voters are skewed differently than general election day voters, then that factor will be more at play in the top half of the list than the bottom. In other words, ridings with a higher percentage of votes yet to be cast are potentially more volatile.

What’s the big lesson? Early bird gets the worm? With an estimated half-million early bird votes to be counted after Election Day, I would say don’t count your chickens late November.

Who’s voted? Who knows?!

Elections BC has been providing daily updates about who has been voting and one thing is clear – it should be a lot easier to get a parking space at the polls on Election Day. More people will have voted early than ever before.

Let’s break it down.

Mail. In 2017, a grand total of 6,517 British Columbians voted by mail (0.3%). This time, there is a more than 100-fold increase, with an estimated 725,000 British Columbians requesting vote-by-mail packages, representing more than one-third of all votes cast in the last election. So far, 304,500 packages (42%) have been received by Elections BC with four days to go. Some who requested packages will decide to vote in person, or won’t vote … hard to say how many, yet.

Elections BC’s vote-by-mail advisor has been busy

Advance. In 2017, 617,175 voted in advance polls prior to election night. With the mail-in ballot, it was a question as to how many would show up to advance polls this time. So far, advance voting this time is almost on pace with 472,354 having voted in the first five days, which is about 96% of the 2017 pace of advance voting. There is also an extra day of advance voting this time, so there will actually be more advance votes in 2020 than 2017.

When you add up Mail and Advance, it makes you wonder who’s showing up on Election Day.

Almost two million people voted in 2017 (1,986,374, actually). If 80% of those vote-by-mail packages requested are returned, and advance voting exceeds the level of advance voting in 2017, then I estimate around 1.25 million British Columbians will have voted early. If the same number of people vote this time as 2017, that accounts for about 63% of all ballots cast, leaving only 37% to show up on Election Day and vote. In 2017, two-thirds (66%) of BC voters voted on Election Day.

The number of registered voters in BC has increased by about 7% since 2017 so it is reasonable to expect that more will vote in this election, despite the fact that people say no one is paying attention. (I would say that 725,000 vote-by-mail packages shows that many are paying attention). If the total number of voters increases, then maybe 40% to 50% of all voters will vote on Election Day, but still quite a bit lower than what we are used to.

GOTV. Or ‘Get out the Vote’ for the uninitiated. Campaigns can mark off the 600,000 or so voters that have already voted, but they can’t track who has requested a mail package other than asking people if they have already voted. Therefore, campaigns are chasing voters that may have already voted. Let’s do some rough math. 2 million people vote. 600,000+ vote in advance (30%) – done, cross them off. Around 600,000 vote by mail (30%) and 800,000 vote on E-Day (40%). Campaigns will have a challenge on focusing on the voters that haven’t already voted.

I pity the poor voters who voted by mail but will still be called relentlessly by the local campaign because they are not marked off on a bingo sheet.

Election Night results. What will we know and when will we know it? On Election Night, general voting day ballots and advance poll ballots (most of them) are counted that night. In 2017, an estimated 91% of all ballots were counted and reported on Election Night by bedtime. Even still, it was inconclusive, but that was a bit weird – usually, you know who has won by 9:15pm. This time, they will only count about 70% of the ballots on Election Night by my estimate. That number could be lower if (a) a higher % of people cast their ballots by mail, and (b) there is a lower than expected turnout on Election Day.

Let’s go with 70%. With 30% of the mail ballots outstanding, it will be very hard to call close election races. About 22 of the 87 ridings last time were settled by a margin of 10% or less.

When we will know? As I wrote earlier in the campaign, they don’t even start counting mail ballots until November 6th under normal circumstances. We do not have normal, here. Elections BC has to vet and verify all of the 600,000 plus packages. For example, they have to make sure people don’t vote by mail and vote in person.

They have to count these ballots by hand. They might need to borrow some of those contact tracers.

Once they open the packages, what a delight. Many of the early mail ballots were cast before nominations closed so people could write in their party name or expected candidate. There will be illegible handwriting, spelling errors, and other issues to interpret.

Here’s a brainteaser. In the riding of Richmond-Steveston, there is no Green Party candidate, but the the NDP candidate’s last name is Greene. If someone writes “Green”, what do they mean? I assume Green Party, if there is no ‘e’ on the end, but I can hear the galloping hoofs of lawyer-laden wagons heading to the cannery district already.

The counting of the mail ballots may not start until mid-November or even the third week (one estimate was November 21st). Then they have to count them.

Through all of this time, government is in caretaker mode. This means they can’t do much other than really important stuff that comes up and has to be dealt with. There won’t be a new cabinet until election writs are returned.

The Waiting Game. The worst hour for campaigners is 7:45pm and 8:45pm on election nights when you’ve done pretty much all you can do, but the results haven’t started to flow yet. Imagine having to wait from 7:45pm on Election Night, October 24th, to American Thanksgiving.

For most of the ridings, yeah, they will know. The top of the top NDP ridings and the top of the top BC Liberal ridings will be confirmed that night. You can check out top ridings from last time here.

But where will be the close ones? There will be two variables in play- how close is the race and how many people voted by mail?

Some ridings have seen less than 10% of registered voters request packages while in other ridings it’s over 30%. Province-wide, 21% of registered voters have requested a package.

I don’t know what’s happening on Vancouver Island. As of Monday, almost 2 in 5 registered voters in Oak Bay-Gordon Head and Victoria-Beacon Hill have requested vote-by-mail packages – 38% to be exact. They seem pretty keen to vote over there.

Vote-by-mail has not taken off in many rural ridings. Perhaps voting in person is just the way it oughta be done. Some might say those city slickers can’t be bothered to stretch on their Lululemon pants and take their e-scooter to the poll located in their strata complex, but, by golly, BC’s rural residents will drive three hours through blinding snowstorms to exercise their democratic rights. (I own Lululemon pants, I wouldn’t say that.) Regardless, only 6% of registered voters in North Coast, 8% in Skeena, 9% in Stikine, and 9% in Fraser-Nicola have requested mail packages.

The suspense-filled seat of Courtenay-Comox has had over 12,134 registered voters request packages (26%). That seat was settled by a margin of 189 votes in 2017. Likewise, other 2017 ‘close calls’ have lots of outstanding mail this time: Vancouver-False Creek (13,365), Coquitlam-Burke Mountain (9,572), and Surrey-Panorama (8,130), for example.

Many candidates will simply have to wait it out. They could go to Hawaii for two weeks, quarantine back home for two weeks, and still not know!

More agony. Oh, this is the worst. You know the story about the candidate who is declared elected, but actually lost? (Sorry, Frank). Happens a lot. There are going to be cases of candidates with nice leads on Election Night that see them evaporate when the mail ballots are counted. I don’t know if the mail ballots will be skewed toward the NDP, BC Libs, or Greens relative to Election Night results. Who knows? But what will happen is the poor candidate who has a 127 vote lead has to wait a month to have another 10,000 votes counted. This is, frankly, how you could torture someone as an alternative to waterboarding. A bunch of well-meaning dopes are going to say to them, “Oh, it’s going to be alright. I’m sure you’ll win.” Or gloomy types will wear their anxiety on their sleeves and exist in a waking state of misery. My advice for candidates in a state of suspension – binge watch Netflix and let your team worry about it. Might help.

An election in a pandemic. It’s been a strange one. And it ain’t gonna be over for awhile. You can mail that one in.

BC Election: How the ridings stack up

Someone’s job on the campaign is to count. You need 44 seats for a majority government, 45 to govern without deadlock, 46 to breathe easier.

In an 87 seat Legislature, getting to 44 is really hard. Last election, the BC Liberals hit the wall at 43, the NDP were stopped at 41, but catapulted to 44 thanks to their erstwhile partners, the Greens.

To get to 44, you obviously look at the battleground – those ridings that were decided by slim margins last time, or for some reason, are ‘in play’ this time – maybe because of the candidate mix or due to the way the issues are playing out.

In 2001, the BC Liberals won 77 out of 79 seats. Victoria-Beacon Hill and Victoria-Hillside where the last two to come in, during the recount. Though they elected BC Liberals, they were the 76th and 77th best seats. By 2005, those seats were underwater and they remain top 5 NDP seats today. The point is that the overall number of seats won will mostly follow the ‘depth chart’. Win 52 seats and your 52nd best seat becomes a win. The votes have to go somewhere.

The following table looks at 84 of the 87 seats that elected either an NDP member (orange) or a BC Liberal (blue). This is the main stage.

The table is sorted by NDP strength. The #1 riding (Mt. Pleasant) is where they had the largest vote percentage gap versus the BC Liberals. The weakest NDP riding was Peace North. Where the 41st best NDP riding (Courtenay-Comox) and 42nd best NDP riding (Coquitlam-Burke Mountain) meet up was the dividing line between winning and losing in 2017.

You can see each riding’s rank in 2013 and 2017 side-by-side. Some ridings moved up the NDP depth chart, and others fell. The difference is noted in the far-right column.

(** There was a boundary redistribution between 2013 and 2017. Therefore, the 2013 ridings are actually the 2017 boundaries with results from 2013 transposed. That’s why Surrey-Fleetwood reports as an NDP riding (2013) when in fact the BC Liberals won. All things being equal, Peter Fassbender would have lost in 2013 had he run on those boundaries. He won in a nail biter and, to his credit, he agreed to run again in the Fleetwood seat when he knew it would be tough.)

Ten of the twelve closest seats that elected NDP MLAs in 2017 flipped from the BC Liberals. This is not uncommon – how else are you going to gain seats? It does illustrate the battleground. Nine of ten of these NDP wins were in the Lower Mainland. The BC Liberals flipped two NDP seats – Skeena and Columbia River-Revelstoke – both in the Interior.

While the popular vote was essentially tied between the two parties, the Lower Mainland turned against the BC Liberals while the Interior turned further against the NDP. Unfortunately for BC Liberals, there are a lot more seats in the Lower Mainland. The Island’s impact was felt with Courtenay-Comox and the election of three Greens.

When you look at the far-right column, you will see how some ridings changed on the depth chart. Nine ridings moved more than 10 spots ‘up’ the NDP rankings. They included three of the Richmond ridings, three South Surrey ridings, Langley, Pt. Grey, and New West. The NDP only won 2 of 9 of these seats, but, this time, the NDP sees Richmond, Langley, and Cloverdale as a battleground.

On the BC Liberal side of things, ten ridings moved up its depth chart – all in the Interior.

Overall, just over half of the seats in this table stayed within plus or minus five spots from the 2013 results, and, three-quarters stayed within ten spots. Nineteen seats, listed above, had the most volatility – less than a quarter of all seats.

Some seats evolve over time. Vancouver Pt. Grey was BC Liberal from 1996 to 2013, but now appears firmly in the column Mr. Eby and the NDP. The NDP used to win Prince George, but now, it appears to be solid BC Liberal turf. These trends reflect the changing nature of electoral coalitions The NDP have given up support in the Interior in successive elections, in part due to positions on natural resources, but was more than offset by the BC Liberals weakness in the most urban ridings in 2013 that extended to the suburbs in 2017.

This election, it’s clear from this table which seats the NDP and the BC Liberals have circled to get to 44 and above. On a separate list, there is the much smaller Green battleground.

What makes the task challenging for the NDP is that the lowest hanging fruit in the Lower Mainland are seats they have seldom won and, until recently, were not competitive. For the BC Liberals, their target seats are those that they held up until 2017.

We will see in late November, when all the mail-in ballots have finally been counted, which ridings follow the depth chart, which ones are the exceptions, and where the dividing line will be drawn.

BC election results by Thanksgiving… American Thanksgiving

Hurry up and wait. The election was called in a hurry but it seems we will all be waiting for the results.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the results of the BC election will be incomplete on October 24th and, due to Elections BC processes, it may take another month or more before we know the final outcome.

Why? So far, over 430,000 mail ballots have been requested with an estimated 800,000 expected. Elections BC updates the number every day. (You can request a mail-in ballot from Elections BC here)

Google, er, Vaughn, how many ballots were cast last time?

From 6,600 to maybe 800,000 ! That’s approaching 40% of the amount of British Columbians expected to vote (2 million voted last time).

Hey Vaughn, why does the counting take so long?

As Vaughn notes above, all of the mail-in ballots have to be verified and vetted after Election Day to make sure people don’t vote by mail and vote at a polling station, they must verify that they are legitimate ballots, and the packages also must be sorted into 87 piles so that they are counted in the correct ridings.

Normally, the Final Count begins on the 13th day after Election Day (November 6th) but it may take longer to verify and vet the ballots.

How long, Vaughn?

If that is the case, they may not start counting the ballots until almost four weeks after Election Day. Then they have to manually count upwards of 800,000 ballots. It’s not like they haven’t done that before – they did it in 2018 with regard to the ProRep referendum, but it does take time. Plus, you can expect way more challenges of ballots since thousands of ballots are being cast without even knowing who the candidates are. The intention of the voter must be clear. In close races, lawyers and scrutineers for the main parties will be buzzing around like hornets.

What does this mean for Election Night? On October 24th, after the polls close at 8pm, all of the ballots from Election Day and advance polls are counted. In 2017, over 90% of all ballots were counted on Election Night (the remainder were counted at the Final Count). About 61% of British Columbians voted on Election Day, while about 30% voted in the advance polls.

In 2017, Courtenay-Comox was so close on Election Night that the remaining ballots did make the difference. Usually, there are a few ridings that go down to the wire, but it’s not often that the verdict of the entire election hangs on it, like it did last time.

This time, instead of 91% of the votes being counted on Election Night, far fewer – maybe as low as 50-60% – will be counted making the final outcome uncertain in a lot of ridings.

As I noted in an earlier post, twenty-two ridings were settled by a margin of 10% or less in 2017. You could have about as many or maybe more hanging in the balance for a month, maybe more, while the votes are counted.

Therefore, there is going to be a weird interregnum between October 24th and sometime in mid-late November (early December?) where we do not know the final outcome of the campaign. Premier John Horgan and his cabinet (including the retiring cabinet ministers like Carole James, Shane Simpson and Claire Trevena) will continue to govern in ‘caretaker mode’ until this is settled conclusively.

It will be torture for those candidates in the battleground seats. There won’t be any doubt in ‘safe’ seats, but there will be some candidates who lead on Election Night and lose in the Final Count, and vice versa. The waiting is the absolute worst.

Ironically, we may know the final outcome of the hotly-contested US presidency by American Thanksgiving but still be wondering which leader gets to carve up the turkey in British Columbia.

We all may need a drink when this is over

Vaughn, when do you think we will know? Vaughn…? Vaughn… ?

Free enterprise has been tough to beat in BC elections

Free enterprise coalitions usually win in BC. Electing a left-wing government has proven very hard over the last 80 years.

Since 1941, when the Liberals and Conservatives formed a war-time coalition to govern, it’s largely been a question of the NDP (and its predecessor, the CCF) contending against the leading free enterprise party or coalition in a bruising, polarizing battle. The scorecard is: Free Enterprise 17, CCF/NDP 4.*

Starting in 1952, the new de facto coalition was the Social Credit Party when it emerged from a four-way race to gain power and hold it for 20 years under the premiership of W.A.C. Bennett. In 1991, after winning 11 of 12 elections, the Socreds were dealt a mortal blow and were, subsequently, eclipsed by the BC Liberals who would evolve into the modern-day free enterprise contender. In this transitional period in the 1990s, the NDP won back-to-back majority governments.

The yellow circles note the times that the NDP won elections (1972, 1991, 1996) or took power (2017). In the first three, there was a significant vote split on the centre-right:

  • 1972: an uptick of BC Conservatives eroded Socred support. The Socreds won in 1975 by remaking its coalition, jumping from 31% to 49% of the popular vote, defeating Dave Barrett’s NDP which basically held its 1972 vote at around 39-40%.
  • 1991: the demise of the Socreds and simultaneous rise of the BC Liberals created a vote split that helped Mike Harcourt’s NDP win a majority.
  • 1996: the upstart BC Reform Party cut into BC Liberal support, helping Glen Clark’s NDP win a majority, despite losing the popular vote.
  • 2017: this was the first time the NDP gained power in BC without a significant centre-right vote-split across the province. While some BC Liberal voters (especially in Metro Vancouver) migrated to the Greens as the only alternative to the NDP, it was a single BC Conservative candidate in Courtenay-Comox that struck the decisive blow, taking over 7.5% in a riding the NDP won by only 189 votes.

When the NDP wins, it has some help, and sometimes that help is because of a tired government on its last legs. NDP ascension to power in 1972, 1991, and 2017 came after spending prolonged stretches as Official Opposition.

John Horgan is trying to make history in this election by being the first sitting NDP premier to serve a term of government and win a majority government. He enters the election enjoying high poll standings unfamiliar to his predecessors, and hopes to win BC Liberal votes outright rather than relying on a vote split. By winning a plurality of the popular vote and winning a majority of seats, it would be a historic win for the NDP, given the historical scorecard.

From the BC Liberal standpoint, it has entered an election as main contender in the six past elections, having won a majority four times, and winning the popular vote the other two times (when it did not ultimately form a government). It has been a successful big-tent free enterprise party in the modern era.

The question now is: Can the NDP sustain its pre-election lead in the polls? Alternatively, can the BC Liberals galvanize supporters and consolidate the free enterprise vote as it has done since 1996? Other than the 2001 election, every election in the past 50 years has been a hard-fought battle where the outcome was never entirely certain at the outset of the campaign. We are used to tough fights and a simple cruise to victory would go against the grain of BC politics.

*Scorecard: Free enterprise 1945, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1956, 1960, 1963, 1966, 1969, 1975, 1979, 1983, 1986, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2013; CCF/NDP 1972, 1991, 1996, 2017 (gained power)

BC political histories on rosedeer.blog:

BC Battleground – quick reference

Strictly by the numbers based on the 2017 election results.

Where the NDP want to win: BC Liberal ridings (12) that had margin-of-victory of 10% or less in 2017 (x-incumbent expected to seek re-election):

  • 10.1% Boundary Similkameen-Similkameen
  • 9.8% Langley -x
  • 9.4% Columbia River-Revelstoke-x
  • 9.4% Vancouver-Langara-x
  • 8.9% Skeena-x
  • 8.8% Surrey-Cloverdale-x
  • 8.4% Richmond South Centre
  • 8.3% Richmond-Steveston
  • 3.3% Fraser-Nicola-x
  • 1.7% Vancouver-False Creek-x
  • 0.7% Richmond-Queensborough-x
  • 0.4% Coquitlam-Burke Mountain-x

Where the BC Liberals want to win: NDP ridings (9) that had margin-of-victory of 10% or less in 2017:

  • 9.2% Burnaby North-x
  • 9.1% Delta North-x
  • 9.0% Surrey-Panorama-x
  • 7.5% Port Moody-Coquitlam-x
  • 7.3% North Vancouver-Lonsdale-x
  • 6.4% Vancouver-Fraserview-x
  • 6.0% Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows-x
  • 1.2% Maple Ridge-Mission-x
  • 0.6% Courtenay-Comox-x

Green ridings (1) that had margin-of-victory of 10% or less in 2017:

  • 5.6% Cowichan Valley-x

Overall, 22 ridings – about one-quarter – were settled by 10% margin or less

The battleground will include other seats (beyond the 10% margin) where retirements make a difference, such as Oak Bay-Gordon Head where Andrew Weaver is leaving office after two terms.

The Leslyn Lewis factor in BC

One of the interesting storylines out of the Conservative leadership race that elected Erin O’Toole is the remarkable rise of Leslyn Lewis

Leslyn Lewis (source: Wikipedia)

According to the spreadsheet of results, Lewis won the popular vote, nationally, on the second ballot.

Lewis60,316
O’Toole56,907
MacKay54,165
Nation-wide results, 2nd ballot – raw votes

But the votes weren’t in the right places. Due to the weighted system of counting votes (every riding is equal to 100 points no matter how many members voted), Lewis slipped to third and was eliminated. This is exactly what happened to BC Liberal leadership aspirant Michael Lee in the 2018 race that elected Andrew Wilkinson – he had the most raw votes but was eliminated prior to the final ballot.

While there is a lot to chew over in the riding-by-riding results, I took a quick look at the seventeen Conservative-held ridings in British Columbia. And who won in these seats on the first count? Leslyn Lewis.

1st CountVotesVote %Weighted
Lewis4,10331.63%29.33%
O’Toole3,75628.95%29.64%
MacKay2,99823.11%24.66%
Sloan2,11516.30%16.37%
Conservative-held seats in British Columbia

This provides more than a glimpse of Lewis’s support among Conservative members in their heartland (and lack of support for Peter MacKay and his message).

Lewis’s strongest showing was in Chilliwack-Hope where she garnered 53.17% of the vote on the first count. By the second count, Lewis had 66% support in the riding, when she was eliminated. Who won on the final count in Chilliwack-Hope? O’Toole with 78% of the vote, rising from 21% on the previous count – a massive increase of 57 points.

She also won the first count in blue BC seats despite not having any MP endorsements. Many of the MPs endorsed MacKay and O’Toole.

As noted, the problem Lewis had was that her votes were concentrated in ridings with a strong membership base. The type of member that likes her tends to live in conservative areas. Her raw vote per weighted vote was high compared to O’Toole and MacKay. In the non-held seats in BC, where the membership base is lower, Lewis did not do as well. Overall, in BC, she had 24.93% of the weighted votes (points) on the first count compared to winning 29.33% of the weighted votes in the Conservative-held ridings.

Looking at first count in the 17 Conservative seats in BC, Lewis won 8 ridings on the first count, O’Toole won 6, and MacKay 3.

The raw votes ranged from 1,246 in Langley-Aldergrove to only 253 in Steveston-Richmond East. The two Richmond Conservative ridings had the lowest votes cast among incumbent seats in BC, suggesting that the membership drive did not take hold in the Chinese-Canadian community.

Congratulations to Erin O’Toole on the win. He clearly benefited from down ballot support from Lewis and Sloan. His team likely knew where those votes were heading on the final count, as long as he stayed ahead of Lewis. Just as Lewis was an underdog, so was O’Toole, and the underdogs combined to win.

As for Leslyn Lewis, it’s clear she has a very strong base within the party, especially in BC’s held seats. One wonders if she had more time to organize in the weaker ridings, and started from a stronger position, that she would in fact be the leader today.

A Contender for best political book on leadership conventions

As Conservatives await the results of the ballots mailed in from party members across Canada, most political observers would agree that conventions are not quite as exciting or dramatic as they used to be. One of the best Canadian political books of all-time – and likely the best on leadership conventions – masterfully chronicled the race. Contenders was co-authored by a journalist (Patrick Martin), an academic (George Perlin), and a pollster – the legendary Allan Gregg.

The Progressive Conservatives had a succession of nail-biting leadership conventions between 1967 and 1983 where the outcome was far from clear before the voting started. In 1967, the party dumped former prime minister John Diefenbaker, desperately (and sadly) trying to hang on, with the real battle place between Nova Scotia premier Robert Stanfield, Manitoba premier Duff Roblin, and former Justice minister, BC’s E.Davie Fulton. Other than Kim Campbell, Fulton’s campaign was the most significant waged by a British Columbian in living memory, and he was backed by two future leaders – Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney. Stanfield won on the fifth ballot against Roblin and led the party through three unsuccessful election campaigns against Pierre Trudeau.

After Stanfield’s third loss, there was another convention where the outcome was far from clear. Quebec’s Claude Wagner was in a position of strength, while Brian Mulroney – then 37 years old and an unelected party insider, made a fully funded full-court press. Wagner and Mulroney were 1-2 on the first ballot, but lurking behind in third place with less than 12% of the votes was a 36 year old MP from Alberta, Joe Clark. Clark jumped to second place on the next ballot and won on the 4th ballot thanks to support from Mulroney voters.

Contenders picks up the story in January 1983 in the office of the manager of the Winnipeg Convention Centre. Joe Clark was surrounded by his key advisors while he awaited the results of a leadership review vote, essentially, a referendum on his leadership.

Clark had led the PC’s to an electoral win in 1979, albeit a minority. It was the PC’s first win in sixteen years. However, the Clark PC’s lost the popular vote by five points and failed to make enough headway in Quebec to win a majority. Nevertheless, they were in office and could govern with the cooperation of six Creditiste MPs from Quebec. The Liberals were in disarray. Pierre Trudeau announced he was retiring and a leadership race began. Like any rookie government, Clark’s administration was unsteady. Finance Minister John Crosbie brought in an unpopular budget that included a significant hike to the gas tax. Clark’s team underestimated the Liberals’ appetite for power. Behind the scenes, Liberal MPs were rallied for a confidence vote to force a do-over election. The PC’s failed to secure the Creditistes. Then-NDP MP Bob Rae moved a motion of non-confidence and the government shockingly fell on December 13, 1979. Clark went to Rideau Hall to ask for an election – which he would decisively lose to Pierre Trudeau, returning to take the helm of the Liberals one last time.

It was a crushing blow for Clark who was barely 40 years old by this time. He would have felt that he had a lot of politics left in his tank. As Contenders describes, he had modernized the party organization and fundraising apparatus and made significant efforts to build the party in Quebec, thus far, without electoral success. He had most of caucus on side but the stench of defeat lingered within the party. In 1981, the party held its first post-election leadership review where 66.1% of the delegates voted against holding a leadership convention, allowing Clark to continue as leader. He did, but it was hardly a resounding win.

We now rejoin Clark in the backroom of the 1983 leadership review in Winnipeg where he is awaiting the results, the 1980 electoral defeat, and tepid leadership endorsement of 1981 on everyone’s mind. The threshold of success this time was to be above 67%. Fewer than 66% would leave Clark no choice to call a convention (though he, technically, only needed 50%+1). As Contenders describes, “What they had not considered was if the vote should fall in between”. It did – 66.9% voted against a leadership convention. It was a maddening result for the Clark forces.

Chapter 1 describes the conversation around the room as Clark considers his future – soldier on as leader and withstand ongoing challenges to his leadership or ask the party executive to call a full-blown leadership convention and win his own job back, thereby securing his position. At that time, the Trudeau Liberals were deeply unpopular, but PC members feared the return of Liberal John Turner. Turner was very much ‘1a’ to Trudeau’s ‘#1’ in the first two terms of the Trudeau government. Out of politics, it was a only a matter of time before Turner returned, and he was popular. Many PC members were uncertain, or simply didn’t believe, that Clark could beat Turner.

A striking aspect of the scene described in Chapter 1 is youth. Not only was Clark a young man, he was surrounded by peers in their 30s and 40s. The threat to his leadership, Brian Mulroney, who organized fiercely behind the scenes for a leadership convention, was also of the same generation. It was a vigorous time in politics fought by those who had been in the trenches together and against each other since university days.

Clark went for a full-blown convention, unleashing pent-up energy within the party that would culminate in the June 1983 leadership convention in Ottawa. Watching on TV from afar, it was my first awakening in terms of party politics. It was exciting, the personalities were strong, and the outcome far from certain.

Contenders leads the reader through each of the four ballots at the convention with flashbacks to the campaign trail, providing many vignettes of toil and struggle. The three main contenders – Clark, Mulroney, and John Crosbie – are covered in great detail. The secondary players – Michael Wilson, David Crombie, and, bizarrely as it seems now, Peter Pocklington, are also discussed. The role of Amway salesman as a political force is touched on. The race had it all!

It was a long campaign and momentum shifts take place. At one point, Mulroney’s campaign is in disarray while Clark nurtures a strong base of support and Crosbie gains momentum. Would Crosbie overtake Mulroney? As any political warrior can relate, key campaign moments change the narrative. Initiative taken, blunders made, obstacles that could not be surmounted, such as Crosbie’s inability to speak french.

Contenders takes us to the convention floor and the release of the first ballot results. With 2,991 votes cast, the winner needs almost 1,500 votes to win. Clark has a strong lead after the first ballot with 1,091 votes but he is a ways away from victory. Mulroney at 874 has breathing space over Crosbie at 639. It was a long way down to Michael Wilson at 144. As is often the case, optimism crashes on the windswept rocks of political reality and, as the authors write, “the vultures had gathered”. Wilson and Pocklington moved to maximize what was left of their political capital and walked the convention floor. It appeared they were walking to Crosbie. As noted, “Straining reporters, still ignorant of the decision the two had made, began screaming into their microphones, ‘they’re going to Crosbie!'”. But Pocklington and Wilson actually went to a “relieved” Mulroney. It was good television.

After the second ballot, it was apparent that it would not be Joe Clark’s day, though he still led, with a thin 64 vote lead over Mulroney. One of the more dramatic scenes was Newfoundland premier Brian Peckford, a Crosbie supporter, pleading with Clark to face reality. Clark stood firm and Crosbie was vanquished on the third ballot, which was now a 22-vote margin between Clark and Mulroney. Crosbie’s delegates wanted change, as did a majority of delegates, and Mulroney easily disposed of Clark on the fourth ballot by a margin of 1,584 to 1,325.

We elect leaders differently now. The outcome of the last Conservative leadership vote between Andrew Scheer and Maxime Bernier could not have been closer. However, it was just a matter of counting votes. There was no between-ballot jockeying. Is that a good thing? As much as I LOVE watching delegated conventions, whether it was the 1983 PC convention, the 1984 Liberal leadership, the 1986 BC Social Credit drama, or participating in the 1990 and 2006 Liberal races, it has its downsides too. A universal, preferential ballot for members, weighted by ridings, is not perfect but is a more democratic form of leadership selection. This is the manner in which the Conservatives are selecting their leader this weekend, and the one used in two previous BC Liberal races. It may lack drama, but drama alone should not decide how we choose leaders. A universal system draws upon skills that leaders need in a general election (and of course, you can find exceptions).

A benefit of hotly contested leadership races is the bonds that are formed among politically active members, particularly young people. The 1983 PC convention saw a generation of young politicos, particularly in Mulroney’s camp, move on to key roles in the ensuing years and decades, while maintaining a very tight network. The role of youth in the 1983 convention was influential as the authors describe the internal party coalitions that brought support to the respective candidates.

When it was published in 1983, the authors could not foresee the events that would take place. Brian Mulroney conclusively dispensed with John Turner in the 1984 election, winning the most lopsided majority in Canadian history and dominating Quebec – and won a second majority in 1988. Joe Clark became a highly respected Minister of External Affairs, and later, point man on constitutional negotiations. While there would have been no love lost between the two, they found a way to work together. Within the decade, Mulroney’s magic wore off and the PC’s decimated, eaten alive by the forces of regional alienation in Western Canada and Quebec. Joe Clark would return to the PC leadership for the 2000 election, winning an improbable seat, and helping keep the party alive – until Peter MacKay led it into a merger.

Contenders, like few other Canadian political books, not only describes what happened in the 1983 race, but how it happened, combining the disciplines of journalism, academia, and research. It informs us about what has happened since. Rarely do we see such insight from a Canadian political book that is informed by what it is actually like on the campaign trail. While it is now almost 40 years since that convention, and the publication of Contenders, it remains a Canadian classic, a reminder of a bygone time.

June 23, 1990: the rise of Chrétien, the demise of Meech, and more

June 23, 1990. It was quite a day.

It was a historic collision of events – the day the Liberal Party of Canada had two future prime ministers on stage and the day that the 1987 Constitutional Accord (The Meech Lake Accord) expired.

The events leading up to June 23rd and the events that followed are among the most remarkable in Canadian history and have been unmatched since. The era of 1987 to 1995 led to a transformational shift in Canadian politics resulting in the revival of Quebec separatism and the ascendancy of western populism, combining to destroy the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. More fundamentally, this era would feature three epic constitutional struggles – the Meech Lake Accord, the Charlottetown Accord, and, ultimately, the 1995 Quebec referendum. It also produced an uneasy, but workable Liberal partnership that defined an era of governance and restored Canada’s fiscal health.

On stage in Calgary that day, Jean Chrétien – derided as ‘Yesterday’s Man’ – prevailed as leader on the first ballot. He issued his rallying cry, “We have work to do”. He would take over the party following decisive defeats in 1984 and 1988, backed by a loyal and capable network across Canada but fighting against perceptions that his time had passed. His rival, Paul Martin, would join him in helping steer the currents of change in the Liberals’ direction.

The Long Road to Calgary

From 1988 to 1990, I led the BC Young Liberals (at the time, it served both provincial and federal Liberal parties). I loyally campaigned through the 1988 federal election for John Turner, and had a front row seat to grassroots party politics. Despite a spirited run, and a debate performance for the ages, Mr. Turner was outgunned by the well-oiled Big Blue Machine and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Mulroney had two centrepiece initiatives – the Meech Lake Accord and the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. The election was about Free Trade; the internal debate in the Liberal Party was about Meech.

When the Meech Lake Accord was agreed upon in 1987 by the all-male group of premiers and the prime minister, it was a surprise – in fact, to many, a welcome surprise in that Quebec was signing on to a constitutional deal. Liberals divided quickly on the point and Turner, painted into a corner, backed the position of the federal government, the Province of Quebec, and indeed all the provinces. Many in his caucus were opposed, but the real threat was outside his caucus. His predecessor, Pierre Trudeau came out strongly against Meech as did the runner-up to Turner in the 1984 leadership convention, Jean Chrétien. Chrétien, who had resigned his seat in Parliament in 1986, was not constrained by caucus discussions. He made his views known straight to the people.

As a Young Liberal among many during that time, there were countless discussions and arguments in university pubs about the minutiae of the Meech Lake Accord. Whether it was Quebec being a distinct society, a veto for all provinces, the absence of Senate reform, or federal spending powers, there was passion and a thirst to understand the details. There was a real sense of the gravity of the Accord and that the country was literally at stake. Maybe it was because I was young at the time and feel nostalgic about that period, but I have not encountered such a spirited and momentous time in politics since then.

Following the defeat of the Liberals in 1988, the leadership race was on, beginning formally in 1989. It was a given that Chrétien would enter the race. Many would say he never left the race after 1984. He had a well-established network of seasoned veterans across Canada bolstered by a diverse group of grassroots supporters. It was more than a machine though. Chrétien was a very unique force in Canadian politics. He was a populist crowd-pleaser who was strongly associated with the federalist cause in the 1980 Quebec referendum and the fight to patriate Canada’s Constitution in 1982. His biography Straight from the Heart flew off the shelves. He was more popular than John Turner across Canada, but despite internal Liberal machinations, he would have to wait. Turner would get a second chance.

By the time 1989 rolled around, grassroots Liberals were picking sides between Chrétien and the main contender Paul Martin Jr., who had just been elected MP in 1988. The son of a namesake Liberal cabinet heavyweight, Martin had his own national network to fall back on, along with the support of many in the Turner network. He was the pro-Meech candidate (along with Sheila Copps).

This was in the days that leadership conventions were delegated affairs. The grassroots of the party came alive as members jockeyed to become delegates and participate in an historic democratic event that came along once a decade (or less). Organizers for Chrétien and Martin fanned out across the country calling in chits, identifying the local power brokers (then identifying the people who really did the work), and putting together delegate slates and the memberships to get those slates elected.

In a bygone era, longstanding members might contest for a spot and be elected on their own personal standing. By 1984, that quaint practice had largely been disposed of and by 1990 it was a straight slug fest between two rival, well-financed teams. Yes, Sheila Copps was a presence, along with fellow MPs John Nunziata and Tom Wappel but this was a Chrétien-Martin fight and everyone knew it.

While largely staying out of the fray in 1989, I had a chance to meet and hear many of the candidates. I took a liking to a darkhorse candidate, Clifford Lincoln, a former provincial cabinet minister from Quebec. He resigned from Robert Bourrassa’s cabinet protesting the infringement of language rights (“Rights are rights are rights”) and from there jumped into the Liberal leadership race. His campaign winnebago pulled up to my house in Maple Ridge to meet the locals as he sized up his prospects. The moral of this story is that despite meeting him a few times, Lincoln never made the ask for support. I have seen this many times over the years – candidates who go 99% of the way then fail to make the sale. This was not a problem for Chrétien and Martin. They were going full Glengarry Glen Ross.

Into 1990

By the time 1990 arrived, the leadership campaign was heating up while the wheels had been falling off Meech. Prime Minister Mulroney needed to have the Accord approved by every provincial legislature, but as provincial elections took place, he was left with less cooperative partners.

Frank McKenna stormed to victory sweeping all of New Brunswick’s 58 seats in 1987. He would not be following his predecessor’s direction and was the first crack in the armour among the premiers.

Then in 1988, the Manitoba NDP government lost a confidence vote. An election was triggered in what was expected to be a waltz to victory for Gary Filmon’s Progressive Conservatives over new NDP leader Gary Doer. Along came Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs, a ferocious opponent of Meech Lake, taking control of the campaign agenda. Carstairs started with one seat and rocketed to 20 seats, just behind Filmon’s 25, forcing a minority parliament. Meech stalled. In my Forrest Gump-like youth politics life, my pal, Iain, and I drove to Manitoba to campaign for Carstairs. She was a force who galvanized opinion in urban Winnipeg. In due course, the position of the Manitoba government would change, demanding amendments to the Accord and holding back ratification. Rather than be led by Carstairs on the issue, Filmon seized it, bringing along Carstairs and Doer to the final negotiations. The 1988 Manitoba election was also noteworthy for the election of NDP MLA Elijah Harper. (My former colleague, Greg Lyle, ran Filmon’s campaign and would go on to fight the Meech wars as Principal Secretary – I’m looking forward to his retelling of that some day).

However, there would be no greater challenge for Prime Minister Mulroney than Newfoundland’s new Liberal premier, Clyde Wells. Elected in 1989, Wells, an accomplished lawyer, campaigned against Meech with relish. He became a folk hero among Liberal anti-Meechers. Back in the day, the national media was much more robust and the views of Wells, Filmon, Carstairs, et al. had a lot of airplay alongside the Prime Minister and the Meech defenders.

In BC, both the Vander Zalm Social Credit government and the Opposition NDP, led by Mike Harcourt, supported the Meech Lake Accord. The anti-Meech forces were led through the media by CKNW radio host Rafe Mair and politically by Gordon Wilson who was leading the then-seatless BC Liberal Party. As a new leader and political unknown, Wilson was able to fill a political vacuum and gain profile, while building key political relationships with Carstairs, Wells, and Chrétien.

While Mulroney held his Quebec fortress solid, with lieutenant Lucien Bouchard by his side, he had a grassroots brushfire on his hands in Western Canada. Denied seats in the 1988 election, Preston Manning’s Reform Party was clearly on the rise and, in 1989, it elected its first MP, Deb Grey, in an Alberta by-election. Manning was a fierce opponent of Meech and making life difficult for western right-wing premiers like Bill Vander Zalm, Don Getty, and Grant Devine who were finding it increasingly difficult to justify their support for the Accord.

That was the lay of the land heading into Liberal delegate selection meetings slated for March 1990. Each riding would elect 12 delegates – 4 adult males, 4 adult females, and 4 youth (2 female, 2 male) delegates (ages 14-25).

Teams were being solidified. I was on the fence. My heart leaned toward Chrétien, though I was looking for something a bit different. My Dad had always gravitated to the long shots, backing Eric Kierans in 1968 (not a contender) and always favouring the John Crosbies and Don Johnstons from the comfort of his arm chair. I had taken a look at Clifford Lincoln but he had actually dropped from the race in any event. I spent hours debating Sheila Copps at a friend’s kitchen table into the wee hours of the morning, but I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t agree with her on issues important to me (though I admired her for making a hard pitch). I did like Paul Martin but I just didn’t feel like he was the right guy right then. So, humming and hawing, I paid a visit to friends at Chrétien HQ in Vancouver. While there, a key Chrétien organizer, Joan Lew, taught me one of life’s lessons, paraphrasing her, “Mike, whether or not you support our candidate, make up your mind. No one is going to care what you think four weeks from now.” Gulp. I supported Chrétien. Joan was right, and I jumped in and never regretted it.

The next 3 or 4 weeks was a blitz of candidate selection meetings around British Columbia. It was a Chrétien buzz saw, as it was in most provinces, with slate after slate delivered for le petit gars de Shawinigan. Working as a naive youth volunteer, I began to see how the sausage was made in the sausage factory learning more life lessons. One key takeaway is that the Chrétien campaign had discipline. There was respect for campaign leadership. BC’s leader was Ross Fitzpatrick and everyone knew that he had Mr. C’s ear before and after everyone else. Another key point was getting real about the numbers. You had a list, you had to know the list. Get the memberships in, and once you got ’em, get ’em out. And make sure those delegates don’t turn! They better be solid.

On one occasion, I happened to be in Alberta and rode along to a delegate selection meeting in Wetaskiwin with my good friend Raj Chahal, a Chrétien organizer. It was the same there as it was in BC or any other province – working the list, getting the bodies out, right down to the presence of the prominent local lawyer make sure he was seen to be doing his part. There was something reassuring knowing that this process replayed itself in 295 ridings across Canada in similar ways, with regular folks showing up to have their say.

In my own riding of Mission-Coquitlam, I had a responsibility to deliver for Chrétien. My federal candidate and mentor, Mae Cabott, was strongly for Chrétien so were aligned and getting organized. There was an independent contestant for delegate, my Dad. I knew that Chrétien was going to be a hard sell on the old man, but I dearly wanted him to be elected and come to Calgary. So, at the meeting I stood up and spoke for the Chrétien slate, but requested that the good people of Mission-Coquitlam leave a spot open for Dad, who had paid his Liberal dues in years past. A hopeful pitch that didn’t work! But he did get elected as an Alternate.

At one point, some of the Young Liberals supporting Chrétien were sent to our own buzz saw experience in Kamloops where we had a slate contesting the Martinites. We were put up at the then-Stockman’s Hotel and went out to win hearts and minds. Some misguided soul in the Chrétien campaign thought a good strategy would be to promote me to be a guest speaker addressing Kamloops Young Liberals, with free pizza! My first sign that the evening’s vote would not go so well when 18 year old Martin organizer Todd Stone showed up for free pizza and made sure no one else did. The Martin team won the day and, since many were good friends, it wasn’t so bad. But in another life’s lesson, you can often as much fun losing (if you fight the good fight). We left Kamloops the next day with a few sore heads following a night’s entertainment at the Jack Daniels, with a letter from the hotel manager chasing us to Vancouver seeking damages after a drunken pillow fight went horribly wrong.

The 1990 leadership race also featured the active presence of the South Asian community. For the Chrétien side in BC, Prem Vinning was ubiquitous. When doing the math, you might expect 50 to 100 members voting in a typical BC riding to elect 12 delegates who will help choose, maybe, the next prime minister of Canada. A small membership in the Fraser Valley or Williams Lake had as many delegate spots as downtown Toronto. That’s a lot of power for a small number of people. Now, if you are able to recruit, say, an extra 50 members who will vote for your slate en masse, it’s a huge advantage. The flexing of muscle by the South Asian community – and other communities – has manifested itself in a substantial improvement in the diversity of MPs and MLAs across Canada since then. Membership strategies were not unique to the Chrétien campaign or the South Asian community. For example, pro-life MP Tom Wappel won 5% of the vote on the strength of the pro-life network within the Liberal Party. Moreso now, because of the decline in the role of membership participation and active riding associations in political parties, party politics is an open door for groups that want to influence policy and outcomes. But everyone has a chance to do it – that’s democracy. I saw it first hand in 1990.

The Convention and the demise of Meech

The meetings were over, the debates had been had. Proxy battles were being fought with Chrétien candidates and Martin candidates contesting the national executive positions and youth executive positions in Calgary. I became campaign assistant for a friend who was seeking the role of VP External Relations. We’ve worked on a few campaigns together since.

Thousands of Liberals were finding their way to Calgary including well over a thousand young people. Lifelong friendships were formed throughout the process and in Calgary. Where can you find so many people that share your affliction – political involvement – in the same place? That year, it was Calgary. It was a very exciting time.

By the time the Calgary Convention had arrived, my Dad had been upgraded from Alternate delegate to Full delegate status. It was kind of like an Aeroplan upgrade for longtime Liberals. Once he had his delegate package, he finally declared for Paul Martin. We spent an afternoon on the convention floor, me with my Chrétien gear, him with his PM for PM button, chatting with old and new friends. A great memory bonded by our mutual passion for politics, similar to many multi-generational political families across Canada.

In parallel to the leadership convention was the demise of Meech. It was a surreal overlap of events in a time before social media or cell phones.

Much had happened leading into June. Federal cabinet minister Jean Charest issued his report outlining constitutional recommendations to break the impasse. Colleague Lucien Bouchard would not stand behind it leading to his ouster from Cabinet, and his rededication to Quebec sovereignty. It was a shocking turn of events and huge blow to the Mulroney government, especially given that Mulroney had personally recruited him straight into cabinet on the strength of their personal friendship.

Following the Bouchard conflagration, high stakes constitutional negotiations took place in early June in Ottawa. Extreme pressure was placed on the holdouts with CBC Newsworld breathlessly reporting every hallway conversation to the millions of Canadians tuning in. Premier McKenna found his way to support a compromise. Manitoba promised to bring back a compromise to its Legislature. Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells was the most adamantly opposed but even he relented and promised to bring it back to St. John’s for a vote. At one point, Wells was intent on bolting the negotiations but was blocked by other premiers who pleaded with him. Ontario Premier David Peterson, recipient of much laudatory pro-Meech media coverage for his role in backstopping Mulroney, put six Ontario senate seats on the table to make the deal happen. It was dramatic deal-making stuff. And it looked like it would work.

Largely ignored throughout this entire process were Canada’s indigenous people. Indigenous leaders had been excluded from the 1987 negotiations that led to the Accord in the first place and had grave concerns over the impact of the Accord on their rights. While the premiers may have found their pathway to say yes, an incredible turn of events was yet to unfold.

By the time the Calgary convention convened on the week of June 18th, the Meech Lake Accord was barrelling to its conclusion. The Accord would expire on June 23rd, meaning ratification would have to take place by Friday, June 22nd.

Following the ‘successful’ Ottawa negotiations in early June, Prime Minister Mulroney made a publicly reported comment that the had “rolled the dice”. His lack of post-agreement humility angered premiers who had given way to pressure and compromise and caused a media firestorm. He had made the task of ratification much harder.

Ratification was fought on two provincial stages – Newfoundland and Manitoba. My recall of events is imprecise, so I defer to official accounts. On June 21st, while the Calgary Convention was underway, Prime Minister Mulroney went to Newfoundland to speak from the floor of the Legislature – an extremely rare move for a sitting prime minister to address a provincial legislature, pleading for ratification. Meech was really on the ropes.

Manitoba required unanimous consent of the Legislature to allow for the ratification process to take place before June 23rd. A single MLA, Elijah Harper, denied approval for that consent effectively stopping Meech dead in its tracks.

Clutching an eagle feather in his hands, Elijah Harper exercised the rules of parliament and his rights as MLA to reject an Accord that, he argued, had ignored indigenous people. He refused to grant leave on eight separate occasions between June 12 – 21st.

CBC: Elijah Harper, June 1990

In Calgary, delegates were straining to catch snippets of these events on televisions where they could find them, or hear reports from other delegates. The delegates choosing the next leader of the Liberal Party of Canada were in a vacuum-sealed bag, finding it difficult to keep up with fast-moving events. No cell phones, no social media. It was bizarre to be part of a historic event and not entirely knowing what was happening with the other.

With Elijah Harper delivering a mortal blow to Meech Lake, Newfoundland opted not to proceed with a ratification vote, which signed the Accord’s final death warrant. By the end of the day on June 22nd, Meech was dead.

Throughout the month, Chrétien, who had opposed Meech, had avoided taking a strong position on the June compromise, walking a delicate line. Now that Meech was dead, he may have thought he had steered clear.

Saturday, June 23rd

I’m sure there was no doubt in the minds of the Chrétien and Martin senior commands when they woke up on the 23rd. The numbers were the numbers.

Yet for impressionable Chrétien youth delegates, you heard all sorts of wild convention floor rumours. So and so was defecting to Martin or this riding or that riding had switched sides. And some, in fact, did switch allegiances. The Martin campaign fought valiantly until the end – and they did sing a lot.

Meanwhile, Clyde Wells arrived in Calgary sparking an electricity in the building, meeting up with Chrétien for a famous hug. In his book, The Big Red Machine, author Stephen Clarkson writes that repercussions of the hug were immediate. Wells was blamed for refusing to bring Meech to the floor of the legislature for a vote, thus denying Quebec.

At one point when I was on the floor of the convention hall, I looked up into the seating area and saw Pierre Trudeau in a bright orange shirt, thinking, “He’s here?” It hadn’t occurred to me that he would attend. There were a lot of strong feelings in the hall, fuelled in large measure by Meech.

But any notion that there might be a second ballot was made ridiculous by the results of the first. Of the 4,888 votes cast at the Calgary Saddledome, Chrétien stormed to victory with 56.8% of the votes. Martin was well back with 25.2% while Sheila Copps garnered 11%.

Chrétien mounted the stage and paid tribute to Mr. Turner and to his rivals, announcing that “we have work to do”. Meanwhile, Liberal MPs Jean Lapierre (a senior campaign official for Martin) and Gilles Rocheleau quit the party before they even left the building, joining Lucien Bouchard in a newly formed breakaway group in Parliament.

At that point, it was time to leave the Saddledome and enjoy the after-party.

Post-script

From that dramatic day, numerous events flowed from it.

  • Prime Minister Mulroney, with Joe Clark at his side, would try again to deliver a constitutional deal – The Charlottetown Accord. It went to national referendum and failed decisively.
  • Decimated in Quebec by Lucien Bouchard and by Preston Manning in Western Canada, the two-term Progressive Conservative government was reduced to only two seats in the 1993 election. The Bloc Quebecois became Official Opposition and the Reform Party elected over 50 MPs. The PC’s ultimately merged with the Canadian Alliance to form the Conservative Party of Canada. It has a fundamentally different character today than it had prior to 1993.
  • Quebec voters elected a separatist government under the leadership of Jacques Parizeau who readied the province for a second referendum. Lucien Bouchard was the heart and soul of the Oui campaign, which led the polls, but narrowly lost (49.42%) to federal forces (50.58%). Bouchard would shortly become the next Premier of Quebec.
  • Ontario Premier David Peterson rashly called a snap election in the aftermath of the Meech collapse. He badly misjudged the mood of his voters and was shocked by Bob Rae and the Ontario NDP that September – the first and only NDP government in Canada’s largest province.
  • Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon called an election after Meech Lake and won a majority government. Carstairs’ Liberals were pushed down to third-party status and have never recovered.
  • A year after Meech, Gordon Wilson’s BC Liberals rose from zero seats to Official Opposition, a platform from which he would oppose the Charlottetown Accord.
  • Elijah Harper put indigenous issues more firmly on the agenda in constitutional discussions and went on to serve as a Liberal MP. He was voted Newsmaker of the Year by Canadian Press in 1990.
  • Paul Martin would become one of Canada’s most successful Finance Ministers before serving as prime minister from 2003 to 2006.

What of Jean Chrétien? He successfully navigated through treacherous waters to win three successive majority governments, a feat not accomplished since Mackenzie King. He took a fractious party and brought it together – for a time – to govern and win. Underwriting his three majorities was a near total dominance in Ontario due to the vote split between the PCs and Reform Party/Alliance. Lucky? Sure, but smart enough to take advantage of his opponents’ weaknesses. His partnership with Paul Martin led to a huge improvement in Canada’s fiscal health and the slaying of the deficit`.

But for a modest shift in Quebec opinion in the 1995 referendum, Chrétien could have been a short-lived prime minister who had failed to defend federalism. Instead, federal forces rallied in the final days and he scraped by, ultimately bringing forward the Clarity Act which has helped put the constitutional question into hibernation. Starting on the back foot with Quebec voters, the reclaimed support by his third election. For over 25 years, Canadians have been spared the constitutional wars, as exciting as they may have been.

These were exciting times. As a 21-year old university student, it was a privilege to be a witness to these historic events and the leaders who drove, steered, harnessed them. I haven’t seen a time like it since.

(Comments welcomed)