Premier John Horgan called a by-election in Surrey South for September 10th.
What happens in a by-election, anyway? For a brief time, all of the political parties are focused organizationally on one place because someone resigned, died, or, worse yet, was recalled. By-elections usually have low voter turnout and may appear to average voters to have little consequence to their daily lives. The host riding is deluged with professional campaigners and out-of-town volunteers that door knock the riding like never before then, when it’s over, they all go home. By-elections are a pulse taker, a message tester, and a get-out-the-vote drill – a political laboratory for political parties to try new things to apply in the next general election. Sometimes, they are the doorway for a new political leader to enter the Legislature (or prematurely return to private life).
And while it seems that the Surrey South by-election is a non-event that won’t have any impact on the power balance in the Legislature, by-elections in British Columbia have often been harbingers of things to come. In the past 50 years, there are many examples of by-elections influencing future events, especially in regard to the leadership of ‘free enterprise’ forces in BC.
1973: The Re-Making of the Free Enterprise Coalition Part 1
In 1972, Dave Barrett’s NDP put an end to 20 years of rule by W.A.C. Bennett and the Social Credit Party. In September 1973, Bill Bennett was elected in the Okanagan South by-election, assuming his father’s seat. However, this was not necessarily a straightforward dynastic succession. For starters, the by-election took place in the midst of a leadership race to replace Bennett the Elder. If Bennett the Younger lost the by-election, it would have been a pretty hard sell that he could win the province. Meanwhile, 33-year-old BC Conservative leader Derril Warren had led his party in the 1972 election from zilch to 10% of the popular vote, vote-splitting the Socreds and contributing largely to their defeat. Now, a year later, Warren was still chasing the Bennetts in a ‘By-election Battle for Free Enterprise’ between the tired old Socreds and the surging Conservatives.
In Bob Plecas’s biography of Bill Bennett, he described the view of the Vancouver business establishment that Warren was BC’s version of Peter Lougheed, the popular Alberta premier, who had taken the Alberta Progressive Conservatives from the wilderness to power in 1971, vanquishing the tired Alberta Social Credit dynasty that had governed for over 35 years. Recounted Bennett in Plecas’s book, “I had to set the trap. First of all, I had to wait and wait and wait, making it possible so he [Warren] could be drawn in”. It was no sure thing that Bennett would win. According to Allen Garr in his book Tough Guy: Bill Bennett and the Taking of British Columbia, “Twenty-five Kelowna businessmen gathered at one of their regular watering holes to decide who they would back in the by-election, and they had two choices: Bill Bennett… and the new leader of the BC Tories [Warren]. The vote was twenty-two to three in Warren’s favour. When Bill heard about the decision he went on an arm-twisting mission against his old high-school buddies.” When the Vancouver Province endorsed Warren as the best pick to take on the Barrett government, “ten thousand tear sheets were distributed across the riding. It reinforced anti-Vancouver sentiment, the big-city-knows-best feeling that many residents feel. Suits from Vancouver seldom understand the Interior, and the backlash hurt Warren,” wrote Plecas.
A day before the vote, Warren complained to Sun reporter Marjorie Nichols, “The people running the Social Credit show” had carried on a vicious personal campaign. “One Social Credit campaigner said they had a tape… they didn’t say whether they tapped the phone or what. They said they had a tape of me applying for a Social Credit membership but being rejected.”
Bill Bennett prevailed, albeit with a modest 39% of the vote, holding off Warren who came in third with 24%, behind the NDP. Bennett would go on to win the leadership, recruit five MLAs to cross the floor (3 Liberal, 1 Conservative, 1 NDP), recruit former BC Liberal leadership candidate Bill Vander Zalm, and lead a revitalized Socred-led free enterprise coalition to a decisive victory in the 1975 election over Barrett’s NDP. In fact, the NDP’s popular vote barely changed but Bennett’s free enterprise unification plan, starting with the 1973 by-election, put most free enterprise votes under his umbrella. Warren didn’t make it to the 1975 election and both the Conservatives and Liberals collapsed. As a post-script, Barrett lost his own seat in the 1975 election and would contest and win the 1976 Vancouver East by-election, which took place when outgoing cabinet minister Bob Williams made way to allow Barrett to re-enter the Legislature. Barrett and Bennett would face each other two more times, with Bennett the Younger winning each time.
1981: The Roadmap to Victory
Mid-way through Bennett’s second term, the Socreds were flagging. The 1979 election win was the most polarizing result in BC electoral history and Bennett realized his party would need to regroup and retool. Bennett dispatched his friend Hugh Harris to survey the landscape outside BC with a view to modernizing how the party fought elections, eventually gravitating toward the “Big Blue Machine” approach of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party.
Harris brought back his learnings in time for the 1981 Kamloops by-election created when Socred MLA and Minister Rafe Mair resigned to pursue a career in talk radio. The smart money was on the NDP picking up the then-bellwether seat of Kamloops (“so goes Kamloops, so goes the province”).
As Plecas describes, “The political machine that Bennett had built using Hugh Harris’s advice was ready for a test drive… For most of the by-election, Barrett was in New Zealand attending a world conference on socialism. Every weekend of the by-election Bennett was in the riding spending day after day in the small towns that surround Kamloops.” The modernized campaign model was “coupled with the efforts of thousands of volunteers, many who travelled up to the Loops for the weekend. They out organized the NDP and worked door by door on the ground”. Bud Smith, who had worked closely with Harris rebuilding the party, ran the local campaign.
Local Socred candidate Claude Richmond was propelled into office, aided by Harris’s blueprint, with a win that was arguably a template for the forthcoming 1983 general election. The 1981 by-election win remains a part of free enterprise lore.
1988-1989: Socred Death Spiral
In 1988 and 1989, the Vander Zalm government was beset by controversy and being beset by controversy is not a great time to face a series of by-elections where you have to defend your own seats. First up was Boundary-Similkameen in June 1988. Long-time MLA Jim Hewitt resigned. The riding had been Socred even before his time; not even the Barrett sweep in 1972 could wrest control of it away. The NDP’s Bill Barlee stepped up to run, after previous unsuccessful attempts, and wiped the floor with the Socreds winning by 17%. The win sent shockwaves through the Socred government. A footnote to this race was Liberal Judi Tyabji winning 11% after a high-profile campaign. BC hadn’t seen the last of Tyabji nor the new BC Liberal leader Gordon Wilson.
Next up in the Socred By-election Horror Series was Vancouver Point Grey in March 1989. The circumstances of this by-election are historically important. First-term Socred MLA Kim Campbell resigned to run federally after falling out with Premier Vander Zalm on the abortion issue (and other issues). Campbell won federal office as a Progressive Conservative and was prime minister within five years, the first and only female prime minister in Canadian. Back in Pt. Grey, the Socreds put up financial analyst Michael Levy while the NDP nominated Dr. Tom Perry in an upset over establishment NDP candidate Johanna den Hertog. Perry trounced the Socreds, winning 53% of the vote. (The NDP picked up a second win that night in Nanaimo where Jan Pullinger assumed the seat from outgoing veteran Dave Stupich, but there was little doubt about the outcome there.)
BC Liberal leader and Sunshine Coast resident Gordon Wilson parachuted into Point Grey as well. His campaign did not lack for money and had high hopes given that the riding overlapped with the federal riding of Liberal leader John Turner, and received a boost from popular federal Liberal leadership candidate Jean Chrétien. An interesting back story is that when Kim Campbell resigned in the fall of 1988, businessman Jack Poole was traveling BC meeting grassroots Liberals to assess the viability of reviving and leading the party. Though Wilson was leader, Poole and his team, which included former leader Gordon Gibson, were of a mind that there needed to be a fully funded, credible free enterprise alternative to Vander Zalm’s Socreds that was seemingly beyond the capability of a Sunshine Coast college instructor/pig farmer (Wilson). West side Vancouver Liberals were very keen on Poole, but over the fall, he got cold feet. After the federal election concluded, Poole ditched the idea, and Wilson swiftly announced he would run in Pt. Grey, over the wishes of the locals. I would say the Leader always has the prerogative to run, especially if he or she doesn’t have a seat, but in this case, it did not end up happily ever after. Wilson came a disappointing third with 20% of the vote (he would have their day in the sun later).
Onto the Cariboo for a by-election caused by the death of long-time MLA Alex Fraser, an institution in the region. Like Boundary-Similkameen and Point Grey, Cariboo was a 2-member seat, an oddity of our system until 1986. Fraser’s seat-mate was Socred MLA Neil Vant who was assuredly not an institution in the Cariboo. Expecting to retain the riding, the Socreds had a hotly contested nomination meeting between auctioneer and Vander Zalm-loyalist Joe Wark and Quesnel Mayor Mike Pearce. Wark won by one vote squeaker (337-336) at the Williams Lake curling rink, and remarked, “We have no room in the Social Credit party for rebels and that sort of thing”. Pearce, who self-described as representing a “new style”, was probably more electable, in part because he was endorsed by Alex Fraser’s widow, Gertrude. Wark was a ‘Zalmoid’ and bedevilled by Premier Vander Zalm’s decision to remove Alex Fraser from cabinet while he was battling throat cancer. During the by-election campaign, Fraser’s widow suggested strongly that the NDP candidate, Dave Zirnhelt, would be just fine as MLA. Zirnhelt, a rancher and horse logger, had run as a Liberal in the 1969 provincial election before migrating to the NDP. He would go on to wallop Wark with 56% of the vote and serve as a senior cabinet minister in the 1990s. More than Boundary-Similkameen, this result was a very bad omen for the Socreds. Pearce would try again and got the Socred nod in the 1991 election in Cariboo North (the riding was split) and would lose to the NDP’s Frank Garden. The Liberals were confined to a meagre 3% in the by-election despite their authentic and good-humoured candidate Darwin Netzel. He would contest the 1991 election in Cariboo North and see his vote grow 6-fold.
Finally, and mercifully, the fourth and final by-election featuring a Socred-held riding was Oak Bay-Gordon Head, held on December 13, 1989. Attorney General Brian Smith resigned his seat following a public clash with Premier Vander Zalm. Smith was the runner-up in the 1986 leadership race to Zalm, but it didn’t take long for their working relationship to go off the rails. The Socreds recruited a top-notch candidate, Susan Brice, then the Mayor of Oak Bay. They could not have found a better candidate. Brice and her campaign manager, Frank Leonard, ran essentially a local campaign focusing on her strengths and downplaying the premier. Said Brice, “People want greater tolerance from the government, the party and the Premier.” The NDP nominated Elizabeth Cull who started out as the underdog but was backed by a major organizing machine on the South Island that could taste victory. The Liberals nominated an active party member, Paul McKivett, who ran a fully funded campaign with lots of volunteers too, and attracted support from Socreds who wanted to see the end of Vander Zalm. In fact, McKivett’s 9% was probably the difference in Cull’s 377 vote win over Brice. There was a sense that Zalm would pack it in if he lost Oak Bay-Gordon Head and for 35 days he kept British Columbians in suspense. In January 1990, he scheduled a province-wide televised address to reset his agenda and managed to survive a little longer in the job before being forced from office a year later. Cull would go on to become Health Minister and Finance Minister in the Harcourt government.
Each by-election loss reinforced the death spiral of the government. Heretofore safe seats were coughed up. Earlier in the decade, the Bill Bennett Socreds confidently won the Kamloops by-election demoralizing the NDP. Now, later in the same decade and under a different leader, the by-election losses were crushing to the Socreds and helped create an inevitability of NDP victory. Mike Harcourt would cruise to victory in 1991 with a majority government. The by-elections also meant something for the third-party BC Liberals. While their by-election results were underwhelming compared to the NDP, they were a training ground for leader Gordon Wilson. His breakthrough in 1991, when the party went from zero seats to 17 and Official Opposition, was a result, in part, of their determination to hang in there and be in a position to take advantage of good luck and timing when it materialized during the general election campaign. Thus, as events turned out, the Socred death spiral benefited the BC Liberals every bit as much as the NDP.
1994-95: The Re-Making of the Free Enterprise Coalition Part 2
The 1991 general election remade BC politics with the BC Liberals jumping to Official Opposition and the Socreds declining to third-party status. While the BC Liberals now had the advantage, the question was not settled as to which party would lead free enterprise forces going forward. By 1993, each party had a new leader. BC Liberal leader Gordon Wilson lost his leadership to Vancouver Mayor Gordon Campbell, while Socred legend Grace McCarthy took on the task to rebuild the party she had helped save, with Bill Bennett, in the 1970s.
A pair of Abbotsford-area by-elections in 1994 and 1995 would settle the question of who would lead free enterprise – for the most part.
One of the seven Socreds elected in 1991, Matsqui MLA Peter Dueck, decided it was time to force the issue and resigned his seat after having had spent time as an Independent MLA. Meanwhile, BC Liberal MLA Art Cowie (Vancouver-Quilchena) resigned his seat to make way for Campbell. Two by-elections were called for February 17, 1994. Socred leader Grace McCarthy chose to run in Socred-friendly Matsqui rather than take on Campbell near her home base in Vancouver. Campbell would cruise to an easy victory and the real fight was in Matsqui where the BC Liberals could put a stake in the heart of the Socreds for good.
In Matsqui local members of the BC Liberal Party gathered at a high school gymnasium to nominate their giant killer. Some BC Liberal insiders favoured a Vancouver lawyer and high school basketball star who had strong ties to the area, but a young country lawyer and school trustee upset those plans by winning 102 – 84 (back when nomination meeting results were disclosed). The task of defeating Socred legend Grace McCarthy was thus on the shoulders of Mike de Jong, then shy of his 30th birthday. It was a new vs. old generational match up. De Jong had a spirited team, led by campaign manager Dave Holmberg and wily ex-scribe Mark Rushton. The Socreds dug in and had a deep supporters list to draw on though there was much attrition to the oncoming BC Liberals and bleeding to fledgling Reform BC (unaffiliated with federal Reform Party) and the Family Coalition Party. A sidebar to the Battle of Free Enterprise was the NDP candidate situation. Sam Wagar was nominated but it became known to the media that the government’s candidate in the Bible Belt was actually a witch. Wagar, who practiced the Wiccan religion, was non-plussed, but it was apparently too much for the political managers at Party HQ. Wagar was sent packing as a new candidate was conjured. So much for religious freedom.
It was a heated campaign in the depths of the Matsqui winter. All candidates meetings were tense and scrappy. BC Liberal plants took the microphone to ask McCarthy detailed local questions to make hay of her parachute candidacy. De Jong defeated McCarthy by a mere 42 (41.77% to 41.45%) votes in a dramatic win. As Vaughn Palmer reported, at about 10:15pm, de Jong showed up in his blue Miata sports car, “mounted the platform amid general delirium and shouts of ‘Banzai’ from an enthusiastic Japanese supporter”.
A key part of the story was also the other parties: Reform took 1,250 votes and Family Coalition Party took 275 votes, both making it harder for the Socreds to save their leader.
The free enterprise question seemingly settled, McCarthy sailed off into the political sunset. But the issue of who would lead the free enterprise coalition was actually still unsettled. With the ink barely dry on the by-election results in Matsqui, Social Credit MLAs Jack Weisgerber, Lyall Hanson, Richard Neufeld, and Len Fox stunned BC Liberals and Socreds alike by joining the BC Reform Party, whose leader, Ron Gamble, had contested the Matsqui by-election. Reform was a hot brand federally at the time and had no baggage provincially. Weisgerber and co. wanted a fresh start. This was a massive setback for consolidating and unifying the free enterprise vote.
Fast forward one year to 1995. One of the last remaining Socred MLAs, Harry de Jong, resigned to run for mayor of Abbotsford. This again set up a ‘Battle for Free Enterprise’. This time, the BC Liberals nominated dairy farmer John van Dongen while BC Reform – now led by Weisgerber and the competing free enterprise alternative to the BC Liberals – put forward Rev. Bill Kilpatrick. In contrast to 1994, the BC Liberals brought a more modernized approach and more resources, spearheaded by newly recruited provincial campaign director Greg Lyle. Reform BC had a strong brand that was aligned with historic voting patterns in the Fraser Valley. Liberal?! In the Fraser Valley? That was a tough sell. But the BC Liberals gutted it out with van Dongen winning by 291 votes after a late campaign controversy dogged Kilpatrick.
Now, the free enterprise coalition question was mainly settled, again, so it seemed. Mike Harcourt’s NDP government was in a tailspin and Campbell’s BC Liberals were way ahead in the polls. The NDP switched leaders, with Glen Clark taking the helm and reviving the party’s fortunes. In the subsequent 1996 election, Campbell’s BC Liberals won 42% of the popular vote, more than the NDP, but had fewer seats, which is all that matters. BC Reform had about 9% of the vote and 2 seats and played the spoiler, especially up country. The BC Liberals had become the dominant free enterprise alternative, but not dominant enough to defeat the NDP.
1997-99: The Re-Making of the Free Enterprise Coalition Part 3
Never before had the NDP won back-to-back general elections in BC. After the 1996 campaign, there was a sense of urgency that free enterprise forces needed to unify, however, there was still some disagreement that the BC Liberals were the best vehicle. Glen Clark’s NDP government got off to a very rough start, but Gordon Campbell still had to prove that his BC Liberals could go the distance if he was going to get another shot. From 1997-99, he faced a string of by-election tests – in his own party’s seats – that would settle the question once and for all.
First up was Surrey-White Rock. Wilf Hurd, elected as a BC Liberal in 1991, decided to try his luck in federal politics. Once an MLA is nominated as a candidate in a federal campaign, he or she must resign their seat in the provincial Legislature, even if they lose their federal bid (as Hurd did). Former White Rock Mayor Gordie Hogg stepped up to contest the riding for the BC Liberals. Hogg had encountered some negative publicity not long before dating back to his time as a provincial public servant in the Corrections branch, which created some nervousness among BC Liberals, but he had been a popular mayor. He was challenged by BC Reform candidate David Secord. South Surrey-White Rock seemed like fertile territory for Reform – it voted strongly Reform federally and had the demographics that suited them (old and white). It did not look like an easy win for the BC Liberals as they had been having a rocky year, but Hogg won the by-election handily, with 52% of the vote to Reform’s 26%. The NDP were an afterthought at 12% (no one expected them to contend). Campbell’s BC Liberals had passed this test. Shortly after the by-election result, Peace River North MLA Richard Neufeld, elected as a Reform MLA in 1996, crossed the floor to the BC Liberals, helping to fortify the BC Liberals.
Next up was the Parksville-Qualicum by-election in 1998. This by-election came about in the oddest of circumstances when BC Liberal MLA Paul Reitsma, a five-term mayor of Parksville elected to the Legislature in 1996, conducted a comically inept stealth mission on the letters to the editor pages. Concocting the identity of ‘Warren Betanko’, Reitsma fired in letters to the local paper under Betanko’s name that attacked his enemies. The local paper got wise and outed Reitsma publicly one morning. By lunchtime, Reitsma was out of caucus. Not long after, local residents launched a recall campaign, which had never been successfully undertaken before (recall laws had only been in place for a few years). The recall mechanism was viewed as impossible given the high bar to exceed, however, the good people of Parksville-Qualicum got busy with supporters of all parties backing the petition. The petition was filed, but before the signatures were counted, Reitsma read the room and resigned his seat, paying a very steep price for his shenanigans. Because of Gordon Campbell’s quick action to jettison Reitsma, the BC Liberals didn’t wear the scandal and got to work on finding a replacement.
At the mid-point of 1998, the Glen Clark government was doing very poorly in the polls. BC’s economy had gone from “first to worst” in Canada – a mantra of the BC Liberals – and the Fast Ferries were a monumental political disaster for the government. To those not familiar, the government had commissioned three fast ferries, built in BC, that never worked properly costing over a half-billion dollars. They were eventually scrapped. The business community was very riled up as well and much more vocal against the government than they are today. Into the breach went former NDP MLA Leonard Krog who held Parksville-Qualicum between 1991-96 before losing to Reitmsa. Krog was well respected locally and probably the best candidate possible for the NDP. The BC Liberals had an open nomination race (remember those?) with six or seven candidates vying to be candidate. In a packed auditorium in North Nanaimo, BC Liberal members chose shellfish farmer Judith Reid over a slew of credible candidates – a mayor, a councillor, a former president of Reform BC, a regional district director – a sign of a growing and healthy party.
Though politically inexperienced, Reid was a fresh face for the BC Liberals. She was challenged by a hard-right Reform candidate that was supported by – he’s baaaack – former Premier Bill Vander Zalm. The by-election was a long grind as the NDP waited until the last moment to call it, taking place December 14, 1998. During the campaign, Krog complained that the Glen Clark government was an “albatross around his neck”. Reid clobbered Krog 53% to 23%. It was a decisive win in a seat that the NDP had barely lost in 1996. Reform lost votes, falling further behind. The BC Liberal free enterprise train was speeding down the tracks.
One more test. In 1999, BC Liberal MLA Fred Gingell passed away after a battle with cancer. Gingell, who had served as Opposition Leader between Gordon Wilson and Gordon Campbell, was a beloved figure in the party, and its conscience on finances and fiscal policy. His riding, Delta South, was a BC Liberal stronghold under Fred and the opening drew a lot of interest. Again, the Party unleashed an open nomination process that attracted multiple candidates and throngs of voting members. Local farming fixture Val Roddick prevailed on the final ballot, though was to set upon a somewhat crazy political path as Bill Vander Zalm had, by now, assumed control of the BC Reform Party and, as a resident of Delta South, he contested the seat. BC Liberal free enterprise train? Bill Vander Zalm was prepared to stick up that train like Billy Miner and ride away with Gordon Campbell’s votes.
The by-election campaign was a tense affair as Roddick was very much the community candidate and not accustomed to Zalm’s showmanship nor the strong media interest from outside Delta. Her campaign turned its guns on the former premier’s record and made the case for moving forward, not backward. One of their ads warned against “Zalmnesia”. The BC Liberals brought in every available body and resource to get the job done and prevailed with 60% of the vote, almost double Zalm’s 33%. Between the two parties taking up 93%, there wasn’t much room for others. Though not expected to contend, the NDP government’s own candidate, Richard Tones, gained 2.44%, which may be a record for the lowest percentage every received by a government candidate in BC by-election history. By the time the by-election took place, Glen Clark had resigned, the party was in shambles, and caretaker Premier Dan Miller was in place. Credit to Tones for putting his name on the line and taking it for the team. That’s what party diehards do when things are grim.
About 18 months later, Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals won 77 of 79 seats, and 57% of the vote, in the most lopsided win in BC electoral history. The gauntlet of free enterprise tests in the 1990s would help them to a sixteen-year run in power from 2001-2017 and the undisputed free enterprise alterative.
2011 Canary in the coal mine
Every term of government in the past 50 years, and before, has had at least one by-election take place as was the case between 2001-2005 and 2005-2009. It’s worth noting that the election of the NDP’s Jagrup Brar in Surrey-Panorama (over Mary Polak) in a 2004 by-election increased the NDP caucus by 50%, from two to three and was arguably a sign that the NDP were on the comeback trail under new leader Carole James, which she proved in the 2005 campaign. Notable about the 2008 Vancouver-Fairview by-election was the resignation not the vote. First-time NDP MLA Gregor Robertson resigned to run for mayor, starting a ten-year run at City Hall, but also removed his green sheen from Carole James’s team prior to the 2009 campaign, which is remembered as an NDP fumble on climate change.
The next real consequential by-election after the 1990s to take place was in Vancouver-Point Grey in 2011. When Christy Clark won the BC Liberal leadership, Gordon Campbell resigned his Pt. Grey seat, which he had held since 1996. It was not a ‘gimme’ though BC Liberal support had always been pretty strong there. Enter David Eby. The activist lawyer was seen initially by some as being miscast for the riding, but the results show that he effectively mobilized NDP support among renters and environmentally-minded voters while the BC Liberal base – homeowners – was a diminishing percentage of the riding.
It’s a tricky thing for a new leader coming from the outside to enter the Legislature – you need to find a dance partner. In this case, the outgoing leader’s riding was the obvious place but it wasn’t a perfect fit. Barely a month on the job as premier, Clark called the by-election for May 11th, 2011. This was a very busy time for the Christy Clark government as it was trying to find its feet, while at the same time, hoping the by-election would take care of itself. Meanwhile, David Eby was campaigning with laser focus. As the results came in on May 11th, Clark trailed for much of the night, but a 635-vote cushion in the advance polls (counted last) gave her an overall win of only 564 votes. This was a very close call and would have been a political disaster if Eby had won. Yet she won and planned to represent the riding for a good long while.
The real consequence of the 2011 Point Grey by-election is not the close call, but what it represented. BC Liberal support was draining out of the city. A shift was taking place where urban voters were increasingly going NDP while rural voters were leaving the NDP to go BC Liberal. In 2013, in the face of a dispiriting loss for the NDP province-wide, David Eby defeated Clark by over 1,000 votes in Point Grey. The BC Liberals lost four seats in Vancouver and Capital Region combined, but made them up in the suburbs and rural BC that time. By 2017, the urban shift would have deeper consequences for the BC Liberals.
2012 The Deferred Remaking of the Free Enterprise Coalition
In Christy Clark’s first year as premier, two of her MLAs resigned for greener pastures. Iain Black vacated his Port Moody seat to head the Vancouver Board of Trade and Barry Penner gave leave of his Chilliwack-Hope seat to return to resume his legal career. Neither by-election was particularly welcome as the BC Liberals knew they would be tough battles and divert much attention and resources. Adrian Dix’s NDP salivated at the opportunity.
As far as Port Moody goes, Dix shrewdly recruited former BC Liberal and Port Moody Mayor Joe Trasolini as the NDP candidate. News of Trasolini’s candidacy added another two-hundred-pound sack on to the back of the struggling BC Liberals. Meanwhile, in the ‘safe seat’ of Chilliwack-Hope, the BC Liberals recruited Laurie Throness, a former Chief of Staff to Chuck Strahl, a much-admired figure in the area. Strahl really leaned into the campaign to support Clark and Throness, no small thing as the BC Liberals worked to fend off the rising BC Conservatives led by one of Strahl’s former colleagues, John Cummins.
Throness did not have a very high profile in Chilliwack-Hope and did not bring a lot of volunteers, but he campaigned hard as one expects of a local candidate and benefited from Strahl’s backing. He refused to ‘go negative’ on his key rival, BC Conservative candidate John Martin. The BC Liberal campaign, with its back against the wall, was trying everything and wanted to throw the kitchen sink at Martin. The NDP’s Gwen O’Mahony would win the by-election with 42% of the vote, defying a natural law of BC politics – that NDPers could never win in the eastern Fraser Valley. Throness and Martin split the vote with 32% and 25% respectively. Over in Port Moody, Trasolini trampled the BC Liberal candidate Dennis Marsden (now an elected City Councillor in Coquitlam).
The news was all bad but for two glimmers. First, the BC Liberals finished ahead of the BC Conservatives in Chilliwack-Hope. It could have been worse. Third place would have been very bad indeed. Secondly, four days after the bruising by-elections, Alberta Premier Alison Redford made an improbable comeback, against the WildRose Party’s Danielle Smith of all people, to win a majority. Redford had been given up for dead by the Holy Trinity of Pollsters, Pundits, and Political Scientists. Her comeback made the idea of a Christy Clark comeback slightly more plausible.
The real difference, though, is what happened later. After the by-election in Chilliwack-Hope, Throness and Martin stayed in touch as they developed a respect for each other (recall that Throness wouldn’t go negative). As the BC Conservatives started to fall apart over the summer of 2012 (as third parties like to do), conversations started to take place about Martin coming over to the BC Liberals. Incumbent MLA John Les provided a guiding hand. When these whispers reached party HQ, a gift horse was not looked in the mouth. In September 2012, John Martin was announced as the candidate in Chilliwack, to succeed Les, and Throness would team up with him and run again in neighbouring Chilliwack-Hope. On switching parties mere months after the by-election, Martin, the master BBQ-er, quipped, “If anyone can make eating crow taste good, it’s me”.
This event was a pivotal moment for the BC Liberals rebuilding the free enterprise coalition leading up to the 2013 general election. Martin and Throness would both win their seats, Clark would win the province, and the BC Conservatives were pushed back to 5% and the sidelines ever more. Over in Port Moody? Trasolini was a one-year wonder losing to BC Liberal candidate Linda Reimer. Over the longer-term, things didn’t work out as well for Martin and Throness, both losing to the NDP in 2020, who won in the eastern Fraser Valley for the first time ever in a general election. The party had considered allowing a nomination challenge to Martin but ultimately relented. Throness’s social conservative musings, which had not been much of a distraction under Clark’s leadership, burst into the general election campaign of 2020, disabling Andrew Wilkinson’s provincial campaign effort, and leading to him being removed as candidate.
2013 Back to the Cradle
Despite Christy Clark’s general election win in 2013, she lost her seat in Point Grey to David Eby. She, again, had to find her way into the Legislature through a by-election.
What might have seemed like a straightforward process, given her stunning election victory, was surprisingly tortured as it became clear that an ideal Lower Mainland seat was not going to present itself.
One MLA who did understand the importance of securing a safe seat for the premier was Westside-Kelowna MLA Ben Stewart. Clark accepted his offer to resign and entered the Legislature via a by-election from the ‘cradle of free enterprise’, forty years after Bill Bennett secured his seat there in 1973.
The consequence was the cementing of the Interior on the psyche of the government. Not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily. The Interior had rewarded the BC Liberals in the 2013 election with 18 of 24 seats. Clark felt at home there, especially in Kelowna which had a tradition of strong support for free enterprise. But the premier’s move up-country arguably contributed to the party drifting further away from the vote-rich urban areas. It may have been only a few degrees of difference, but between 2013-2017, the government was losing ground in the Lower Mainland and would pay the price on Election Day. Had Clark taken a by-election seat in the Lower Mainland instead in 2013, would it have made a difference? She lost power by the narrowest of margins, mainly on account of the party’s losses there.
As was the case when Dave Barrett ‘returned’ his seat to Bob Williams in 1984, Clark did the same for the honourable Stewart who returned to office in a 2018 by-election.
2016 Making a Mark on Indigenous representation
While it did not have any bearing on general election results, the 2016 Vancouver-Mount Pleasant by-election was notable for sending the first First Nations woman, Melanie Mark, to the BC Legislature since the province came into existence 145 years before. The by-election was fait accompli as the NDP cruised to victory with over 60% of the vote. The real ‘race’ would have been the jockeying around the nomination once long-time MLA Jenny Kwan had decided to run federally the previous year. The NDP’s decision to go with Mark made history, and one year later, she was joined in the Legislature by two additional First Nations MLAs – Ellis Ross (BC Liberal) and Adam Olsen (Green). In the history of the BC Legislature, there have only been five First Nations MLAs, with Atlin MLAs Frank Calder, serving between 1949-1979 and Larry Guno (1986-1991) preceding Mark. Mark then became the first First Nations woman to serve in Cabinet. Her by-election competitors didn’t stop after losing to Mark. Green candidate Pete Fry went on to win handily as Councillor in the 2018 City of Vancouver election, while BC Liberal Gavin Dew threw his hat into the ring for the 2022 BC Liberal leadership race.
2019 High Stakes and High Tide
It seemed unbelievable that an NDP MLA would resign his seat when the ‘GreenDP’ advantage in the Legislature was only 44-42. Yet that’s exactly what Leonard Krog did in 2018 to run for mayor of Nanaimo.
Krog’s departure must have been a considerable headache for John Horgan’s government. If they lost the by-election, the Legislature would be deadlocked 43-43 and the likely outcome would have been an early general election in 2019 and a potential ‘own goal’ of epic proportions.
Governments winning byelections is hard. Until Christy Clark won Point Grey in 2011, it had been 30 years since a governing party had won a by-election in BC. The BC Liberals lost three held-seats under Clark in by-elections so assuming the NDP would slam dunk Nanaimo defied history to some extent.
New BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson was coming off a victorious referendum campaign where proportional representation was defeated. He then recruited a strong local candidate in Nanaimo, Tony Harris, whose family is very well-known in the Harbour City. Add to that that the Greens were putting up their own candidate, the daughter of the former pirate-mayor (yes), despite being in cahoots with the NDP on their confidence deal.
The NDP nominated federal MP Sheila Malcolmson who brought name recognition and local support. It was all-in for the BC Liberals who saw the by-election for the opportunity that it was.
Harris generated support and hope for the BC Liberals. On voting day, January 30, 2019, Harris delivered over 700 more votes than the previous candidate in the general election – this is rare. By-elections usually have lower turnout. Objectively, you might have expected to win it with that effort.
However, at some point in the campaign, it appeared the NDP went into a higher gear. After all, Premier Horgan is an ‘Island guy’ and NDP roots run deep there (see history of Nanaimo riding). The Green vote collapsed from 20% in the general election to 7% in the by-election. The NDP held most of their raw vote and actually increased their percentage from 46.5% to 50%. Harris increased the BC Liberal vote from 32.5% to 40% but that was little consolation. Crisis averted for the NDP.
Two weeks into the Nanaimo by-election was probably the high-water mark for Andrew Wilkinson’s leadership. When the NDP won, the optimism that was felt (falsely or otherwise) dissipated and the BC Liberals went into a rut. The mentality of forcing the NDP from office was replaced by settling in for a full-term of government. They could never regain momentum, and were pummelled in Horgan’s early election call in 2020. Credit the NDP for staring down the existential crisis that the Nanaimo by-election posed and taking care of business.
2022 Surrey South: Renewal or ?
Almost 50 years, and over 5,000 words later, we finally get to the 2022 Surrey South by-election. Where will it stack up in terms of importance compared to a half-century of political tests?
BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon has already taken care of one tidy bit of business, which was finding a seat after a nine-year absence from the Legislature. Outgoing leader Andrew Wilkinson yielded Vancouver Quilchena, which was an easy lay-up for Falcon. Gordon Campbell entered as leader via Quilchena almost 30 years earlier.
With the resignation of BC Liberal Stephanie Cadieux, Falcon has an opportunity to bring forward new blood into the BC Liberals and is doing so with candidate Eleanore Sturko, an RCMP officer who is known for her work on LGBTQ and human rights issues. The NDP has put forward Pauline Greaves, a community educator (Ph.D) who teaches business at Langara School of Management. Greaves was a close runner-up to Cadieux in the 2020 general election, losing by a slim 4% margin. She’s playing the “I can be a strong voice inside government” card.
Surrey South is, in fact, the strongest of the nine ridings in Surrey – White Rock area for the BC Liberals. This should be a W. In 2017, Cadieux took the riding by a margin of 18%. In 2013, the BC Liberals won a majority of seats in the area before losing Panorama, Fleetwood, and Guildford in 2017 (key to the NDP taking power). In 2020, the NDP advanced further taking former stronghold Cloverdale and narrowly losing in Surrey-White Rock to BC Liberal Trevor Halford, which would have seemed inconceivable prior to the campaign. Cadieux and Halford were the last BC Liberals standing in the area until Cadieux resigned. Falcon previously represented Cloverdale, next door, between 2001-2013 and was one of the top vote getters in the province for the BC Liberals. This is political home turf for him and he and Sturko are backed by popular former mayor Dianne Watts. The BC Liberal path to power must travel through Surrey.
The by-election will take place in an interregnum between Horgan’s announcement he is leaving and the installation of a new leader and premier, likely David Eby, on December 3rd. While Horgan remains popular in the Surrey area, especially with older folks, the real enemy for Falcon and Sturko is voter turnout. By-election turnout is usually lower and a distracted and demotivated support base can lead to defeat. It’s no consolation to hear afterward, “We thought you were going to win”. In the final days of the by-election campaign, the BC Liberals have to grind away to get the vote out.
If Falcon’s BC Liberals prevail, they pass a test that they were expected to pass and get some new blood in the Legislature. It will no doubt be a positive for them.
For the NDP, a pick-up here would be very rare feat. You have to go back to 1955 when Gordon Gibson Sr., MLA for Lillooet, put his Liberal seat on the line to back up his allegations of corruption under the Socred Forest Minister of the time, Robert Sommers. Gibson lost to the governing Socreds in the by-election but he was proven right as Sommers was ultimately found guilty of corruption and went to the clink. (Gibson Sr. returned to the Legislature as a Liberal in the 1960s in a North Shore seat and his son, Gordon Gibson Jr., won a 1974 by-election in North Vancouver and contended the 1975 election as Liberal leader).
An NDP win in Surrey South would round out the Horgan era as a time where the NDP encroached deep into BC Liberal / free enterprise territory while keeping its left flank under control, and would be more about Horgan’s legacy than be a predictor of Eby’s future. Still, an NDP win here would obviously be good for them.
Another factor is the BC Conservatives who are running Richmond resident Harman Bhangu. There was no Conservative on the ballot in 2020 when Cadieux narrowly won. Will Bhangu split the vote and cost Sturko? Earlier this month, Falcon punted Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad from caucus over his team play and musings on climate change. Rustad has now appeared in support of Bhangu. Will that make a difference? Could anyone in Surrey South pick Rustad out of a lineup?
It’s hard to know right now where Surrey South will land on the scale of significance as harbinger of political events to come. We usually don’t know until later. But there are stakes to be fought over and that will make it interesting on September 10th.
SEE post on Surrey South by-election result
- A full list of BC by-elections can be found here.
- Veteran journalist Justine Hunter wrote her own review of history’s lessons on by-elections (2012)