Mike is a communications and public affairs consultant based in Vancouver. He is a former Chief of Staff and campaign manager for the Premier of BC. He's a lifelong British Columbian with a passion for his province. Online: @BCMikeMcD and https://www.linkedin.com/in/bcmikemcd
The last few months have provided fresh case studies about political parties in the parliamentary system that change leaders while governing.
Most leaders come to power whilst their party is in opposition. Lose an election and the pressure mounts for change. Why leave when you’re governing?
But sometimes, heads of government are forced out when their re-election prospects look bleak and/or they have lost the trust and confidence of the grassroots of their party.
This was the case recently in the United Kingdom and in the Province of Alberta.
And sometimes leaders leave for health reasons – as is the case in the Province of British Columbia.
In all of these cases, the selection of the new leader, and, therefore, new head of government, is in the hands of the members of the respective political parties – a small percentage of the overall population. The general public just sits back and watches while a new prime minister or premier emerges – someone you may have never expected to be leading when you voted in the previous general election.
It’s actually more inclusive than before
Back in the ‘old days’, leadership election was the purview of party caucuses. Win the support of your colleagues and you become leader.
Then, in Canada, parties moved toward delegated conventions. Each riding would elect delegates from among its members. Those delegates would congregate in a central place to hear speeches and vote. The conventions would often take multiple ballots where delegates voted each time, after the bottom candidate was knocked out and others chose to pack it in. Many conventions were exciting from a participant and viewer standpoint. Delegated convention, on a national scale, could include anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 voters.
As exciting as they may have been, many clamoured for change. The delegated conventions were backroom affairs where party insiders controlled the process. Members back home watched on TV while the 8 or 12 delegates from their riding decided on leadership election at the exciting convention. Mind you, those delegates were probably elected with a mandate to support a particular candidate, but the folks back home were on the couch while the delegates were wined and dined and had the influence on the convention floor.
The calls for “one member – one vote” began in the 1990s in Canada and most parties have a form of that for leadership election today. In Canada, there are variations between weighted and unweighted. Weighted means each riding is basically equally (as is the case in delegated conventions). Regardless of whether you have 1,000 members or 100 members, you still have the same clout. In unweighted, it’s one big bucket of votes.
As a result of one member-one vote, more people than ever have a direct vote in leadership elections in the parliamentary system. In the UK Conservative leadership election, 141,725 voted in the race that elected Liz Truss. In Alberta, 84,593 UCP members voted in the leadership elections that produced Danielle Smith. In the federal Conservative leadership in 2022, over 430,000 members voted – a Canadian record.
However, in spite of this huge increase in participation in internal leadership selection, it is still a far cry from the mandate one receives in a general election. In the previous general election, the UK Conservatives received almost 14 million votes – about 100X that voted in the 2022 leadership process. The Alberta UCP received over 1 million votes in the previous election, but less than 9% of that total participated in their leadership process.
And BC? In 2020, John Horgan’s NDP received almost 900,000 votes, but at the time Horgan announced his plans to retire earlier this summer, it has been publicly reported that the party’s membership base had shrunk to as low as 11,000, representing just over 1% of the voters that elected them.
The pitfalls of one member – one vote
One of the reasons or theories in support of one member – one vote is that it more closely mirrors a general election than delegated conventions or caucus selection. Include more people and you are more likely to end up with a leader who has broader appeal, so the theory went.
In my own experience, that was probably the case in 2011 when Christy Clark was elected leader of the BC Liberal Party. She had broader public appeal than other contenders, but was not as strong among party insiders and certainly would not have won a vote held just in caucus.
Plus, weird things can happen at delegated convention where a dark horse ‘comes up the middle’. Unexpected leaders like Joe Clark (PC 1976), Bob Skelly (BC NDP 1984), and Stephane Dion (LPC 2006) became leader in large part because they were less objectionable and/or over-performed at the convention, but ultimately were not very successful in rallying their party or resonating with the public.
While one member-one vote brings out the party’s membership base, that is no guarantee of mirroring the party’s voter base – or the voters that the party needs to win the next election. The membership base can be more extreme, hard line, or issue obsessed than regular voters.
In Alberta, the appetite for change was already strong among grassroots members – 48% of whom voted to replace Premier Jason Kenney in May 2022. This reflected Kenney’s lack of popularity in the polls. When it came time to replace him, party members opted to go outside the caucus for a leader with views in stark opposition to Kenney. Danielle Smith is a known commodity in Alberta, and had served as Opposition Leader, yet some of her policies and positions are very different than those the UCP campaigned on in 2019. In terms of the ‘red meat’ (e.g., Sovereignty Act, appeals to the unvaccinated) she threw out to UCP members in order to win, will that be appetizing to the broader UCP voter base and swing voters?
In the UK, Liz Truss emerged as Conservative leader once members got their say. In their process, the caucus narrows down the choices to two then the members decide. Truss was third choice on the first caucus ballot but made the top two by the 5th ballot. She won the membership vote handily demonstrating how she resonated more with party grassroots than Westminster colleagues. She set forth on implementing her promises and caused a firestorm when markets reacted badly and stability was threatened. Her poll numbers crashed. After 37 days, she has already sacked her finance minister while a daily newspaper has a live feedcomparing her political lifespan to a head of lettuce. The UK Conservative members clearly backed her policies but public pressure has forced her to back down. Are UK Conservative members that far off the political mainstream?
In BC, there is a different issue. The NDP has not yet elected its successor, but it is facing a math problem. The membership base was very low when the leadership process started. While the UK Conservatives freeze their membership list to prevent new members from joining when a leadership race is called, Canadian political parties tend to have a period of time for membership sign-ups to spark renewal and generate excitement and fundraising. Such is the case with the BC NDP which allowed a period of about 8-10 weeks for sign-ups. Leading contender David Eby managed to sew up the vast majority of caucus, earning 48 endorsements of the 57-member caucus. It seemed like a done deal. However, MLAs only get one vote, just like anyone else who joins the party. With potential MLA contenders declining to run, Eby appeared to have a clear path to acclamation. Then along came a challenger.
Anjali Appadurai is writing the textbook case of a challenger who has no elected experience, no support from caucus, scant support from party insiders, but is able to fully leverage the rules to her advantage. A weak membership base made the party ripe for the picking. The BC Liberal opposition in BC recently chose a leader with over 30,000 members voting. Appadurai would have sized up the NDP situation and concluded that 5,000 to 10,000 new members would give her a chance to win. And as an experienced organizer, with strong links to environmental groups, she knew where to find them.
That’s fair cricket, as far as I’m concerned. The rules allow for new members. Leaving aside the political side show of ‘Green Party hostile takeover’ (a silly premise) and allegations of paid-for members, this situation was allowed to happen through complacency. David Eby, should he prevail as leader, will have done so with probably the weakest membership sign-up in a Canadian one member-one vote election, ever. By all accounts, he brought in little, relying on the existing small membership base, where he apparently has a strong following, and caucus support.
Albeit a former NDP federal candidate, Appadurai is a true outsider who opposes many of the policies of the government she wants to lead. Her policies would be a major change of course. And this could happen because she signed up maybe 5,000 to 10,000 members and had some support from the existing small base of members? An Appadurai government would be nothing short of a coup in Canada’s third-largest province, a political coup obviously, but one that the general public never could have anticipated. To compare to Alberta, Appadurai’s policies would be more starkly different than her predecessor and she is much less-known than Danielle Smith, not to mention not having any elected experience. It would be unfair to voters, who voted for John Horgan and his policies, to end up with the political whiplash offered by an Appadurai government. Frankly, it’s ridiculous that it even got this far.
The True Election
At the end of the day, there is actually only one real leadership election. The Crown decides.
By convention, the King or, in Canada, the Governor-General or Lieutenant-Governor, accepts the governing party’s choice of leader. However, that is based on a demonstration by the incoming leader that he or she can command confidence.
In the case of Liz Truss and Danielle Smith, they have passed that test. While espousing policies that may be off the mainstream for voters and even members in their own party, they are still, for now, seen to be able to command a majority in parliament. When Christy Clark was elected leader of the BC Liberal Party in 2011, she only had one MLA endorse her. But her history as a cabinet minister, deep ties in the party, and 1:1 diplomacy with the caucus assured her of confidence when she arrived at Government House. This is now the question for the BC NDP.
Sure, they may bounce Appadurai from the race on some grounds. The cut-to-the chase reality, however, is that she surely does not have any chance of commanding confidence in the Legislature. It is hard to believe that 44 of the 57 NDP MLAs would turn the keys over to her given her policy statements and lack of experience. In that case, she wouldn’t make it to Government House. She would be a leader of a political party, not the leader of its parliamentary wing. They are two distinct roles and one does not guarantee the other. This is obviously a very unwelcome scenario for the NDP. It’s one thing to entertain a challenger that represents a point of view within the party who is running to make a point; but it’s quite another when they could govern!
Thus, the question is: would the NDP MLAs support her as head of their government? This is the question all government caucuses should be asked before a leadership candidate even gets on the ballot.
How best to change leaders of governments on the fly?
All leadership processes have flaws, but electing a leader while governing is especially perilous.
One member – one vote systems need to take the parliamentary caucus into account to some extent, as they do in the UK. While that is no guarantee of smooth political passage, it does provide for more legitimacy.
I sympathize with the reforming impulse. Not many will say political insiders should have more power. Leadership change, especially after a long reign, can help reset a party’s direction in a way that is positive and sometimes it takes the membership to make that happen.
There is a natural tension that should exist between those guiding the political system, the membership base, and the public at large. First of all, the incoming leader needs to have been seen to have gone through a rigorous test. In fairness to voters, the incoming leaders should also have reasonably consistent views with those put forward by that party in the previous general election. If there is to be a major course change, the new leader should go quickly to the polls to earn a new mandate.
Parties can set membership cut-off dates at the time a vacancy opens to prevent takeovers. That deprives them of new energy, but that is a mechanism to control. In a perfect world, political parties would have ongoing vibrant memberships that attend non-leadership conventions, debate policies at riding level, strengthen the party system, while being more resilient in terms of ‘instant members’ and takeovers. There is a clear trend in Canada that has seen the diminishment of member involvement outside of leadership processes. Members even have less say in candidate selection than they used to, yielding their power to the leader and party officials. Stronger grassroots would be a much-needed counter balance to the centralization of power in political parties, but to suggest that may happen in the near-term is wishful thinking.
Many political observers, including media, say parties should go back to delegated conventions. There’s a fair amount of nostalgia for them given some of the exciting outcomes in the past. Some great leaders emerged from that process, but great leaders have also emerged from one member-one vote. Delegated conventions are less transparent and heavily brokered. Be careful what you wish for.
Wherever, and whenever, there is a leadership change resulting in a new prime minister or premier, it’s an opportunity to influence. Special interest groups often make full use of the process. But individual citizens can join a party and vote, if there’s still time to join. As the numbers demonstrated above, one’s influence in a party membership price is sometimes 100X the impact of one’s vote in a general election. For $5 or $10, it’s a pretty good deal.
And given the fact that a new leader will presumably govern (assuming confidence), it’s time to put these processes under more rigorous oversight by independent bodies.
The only other piece of advice I have is that when a new prime minister or premier is elected in a general election, try to assess whether their political lifespan is longer than a head of lettuce. You may end up with someone in charge of government that you didn’t expect and not have much to say about it.
BC Liberal candidate Eleanore Sturko marched to victory on Saturday in Surrey South, winning a seat that the party would typically view as a ‘safe seat’ until recently.
Here are the results of the by-election compared to the 2017 and 2020 general election results:
The BC Liberals won, which was no small thing. A loss here would have been a major setback. After being pummelled by John Horgan’s NDP in the 2020 general election, the BC Liberals have shown they can win again, albeit in very friendly territory. Moreover, the BC Liberals gain a potential frontbencher from the Lower Mainland who, among other things, presents a new face for the party in the LGBTQ+ community.
NDP poll results didn’t translate to Surrey South. In 2020, the NDP won the popular vote 48% to 34% – a massive margin. Since then, the NDP have sustained that polling gap in many polls, including a Leger poll that recently showed a 16 point gap. With those kind of numbers, we could have expected a close race in Surrey South, similar to 2020. Instead, the final result (percentage of vote) looks very much like the 2017 dead-heat general election. The NDP didn’t go all-out to win this by-election – the leadership vacuum existing between Premier Horgan packing his bags and David Eby, presumably, waiting to pick up the keys may have been a factor.
Neither party got the vote out – while the BC Liberals got enough votes out to win, both the BC Liberals and NDP received significantly fewer votes than previous elections. Low turnout is normal for a by-election, indicating low voter interest and perhaps low voter anger too. The summer timing certainly conspired against high turnout as well.
The BC Conservativesshowed up and it didn’t impact the result– the BC Conservatives didn’t run a candidate in 2017 or 2020, but they showed up for the by-election and garnered about 13% of the vote. This could have been highly problematic for the BC Liberals in a close race, but Sturko still won with a Cadieux-like margin. Let’s say Jinny Sims becomes mayor and resigns her seat in neighbouring Panorama – a 13% BC Conservative vote there would make life more difficult for BC Liberal chances.
What happened to the Greens? – Sonia Furstenau’s Greens fell to less than 4% of the vote. Is the Green brand in a funk? Normally, a by-election would be a time to stand out, but they ended up in fourth, here, well behind the BC Conservative. Surrey is not a Green hotspot though so their attention may be elsewhere.
I recently wrote about the consequential BC by-elections of the past 50 years. In Surrey South, BC Liberals held a seat they have traditionally held so it doesn’t appear to be historically important, except that the margin of victory could indicate that BC politics is returning to a more competitive footing. The by-election result may not be the cause of a new dynamic, but rather an indicator of what is already taking place. The 2020 general election was an outlier in terms of the pandemic and that the NDP had a major leadership advantage. Perhaps it was an aberration, like 2001, and we are slowly returning to the polarized, competitive political landscape that has been typical of BC politics since the mid 1970s.
I guess you could say the Surrey South by-election was like an NHL exhibition game – interesting, sparsely attended, an opportunity to see some new talent (Sturko), but the real action will be when the regular season starts in December once the new NDP leader gets on the ice.
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.
It’s one of the oddities of our parliamentary system, that someone can become premier without first facing the voters as leader in the trial by fire of an election campaign.
The pending retirement of Premier John Horgan means a new leader chosen solely by the members of the NDP will go straight to the top job.
Changing premiers has happened between elections many times and for a variety of reasons.
Retirement on their terms
Since 1903, when the party system came to B.C., only a handful of premiers retired while they still had political capital in the bank.
Richard McBride retired in 1915 after 12 years in office when his health and energies were on the wane. He left office in good standing with the voters of the day, but his successor, William Bowser, was defeated when he met voters at the polls the following year.
John Hart retired in 1947 after six years on the job, passing on the premiership to colleague “Boss” Johnson. Hart was the only ex-premier to go on to become Speaker of the Legislature. Two years later, Johnson won his own mandate.
Bill Bennett picked his moment in 1986, after the half-way point of his third term. Twelve candidates vied to replace him and, coming out of political retirement, Bill Vander Zalm prevailed and shortly marched on to his own majority win.
Passings in office
In 1918, Liberal Harlan Brewster, only two years into his first term, came down with pneumonia heading home by train from Ottawa. Sick by Winnipeg, in peril by Regina, dead in Calgary. John Oliver replaced him and served nine years, but became very ill toward the end of his tenure. His colleagues pleaded for him to stay on while the burdens of office were lifted from his shoulders, but he died in office in 1927. John Duncan McLean’s government was defeated the following year.
The leaderless winner
The leaderless Social Credit Party went from zero seats to winning the 1952 election, with a leader who was from Alberta. Ernest Hansell, an evangelist and cartoonist, wasn’t on the ballot, but as head of the Social Credit League of Canada, he had top billing. Voters didn’t know who was going to lead the Socreds in the Legislature — and the government — until after the election. The new Socred MLAs soon met at the Hotel Vancouver and elected W.A.C. Bennett from among them. And so, a 20-year run as premier began.
Liberal Duff Pattullo had been premier since 1933, leading the province through the Great Depression, but in 1941, he was dealt a minority. He wanted to press on, but his trusted ally, John Hart, announced his support for a coalition government and won the support of the Liberal rank and file. Pattullo resigned and Hart assumed office with Conservative support just two days after the attack on Pearl Harbour. His coalition government was re-elected in 1945.
A hat trick of resignations beset B.C. politics in the 1990s.
In 1991, Bill Vander Zalm resigned in disgrace after a damning conflict of interest report. Rita Johnston, B.C.’s first female premier, succeeded him only to be demolished by Mike Harcourt’s NDP later that year.
Harcourt seemed to have a bright future ahead of him, but an NDP scandal (“Bingogate”) that had nothing to do with him bedevilled the government. Low in the polls, Harcourt quit and Glen Clark took the helm in 1996, resurrecting NDP fortunes and, shortly thereafter, eking out a narrow win.
Clark’s administration quickly sailed into rough waters and took on water — lots of it. Clark resigned in 1999 giving way to Dan Miller, who is the only premier since 1903 to serve on an interim basis and never face the voters as leader. Miller stepped down when Ujjal Dosanjh was elected by NDP members to lead them into what was to become an electoral Armageddon in 2001.
In 2010, not long after his third majority government win, and on the heels and highs of the Winter Olympics, Gordon Campbell announced his intention to resign after internal caucus dissent spilled out into the public. Christy Clark, who did not have a seat at the time, prevailed on the third ballot to be crowned premier, and went on to win her own majority mandate two years later.
Changing premiers between elections has happened for a variety of reasons, with successors having mixed results. Some are able to show change and renewal, while others were weighed down by their government’s baggage and jettisoned to the political scrap heap. In all cases, they became premier thanks to a relatively small number of people, whether it was the members of their caucus or members of their party. This time, if David Eby is acclaimed, as some expect, not even NDP members would have a say, and he would not have to undergo the trial by fire faced by predecessors Bill Vander Zalm, Glen Clark, Ujjal Dosanjh, and Christy Clark.
John Horgan came to power on a confidence vote not long after the 2017 election and retires on his own terms knowing that he had more political capital to spend. In terms of popularity, he will be a hard act to follow. Once coronated, David Eby will have close to two years to govern, but he will be staring at the calendar as to when voters ultimately get to have their say.
British Columbians went to the polls on October 17, 1991 and changed BC politics forever.
It was the election of Premier Mike Harcourt’s NDP government and only the second time in BC history that the NDP had gained power. The election was hugely significant for the NDP as they governed for a decade. But its more profound impact was the realignment of the free enterprise vote in BC.
The Social Credit Party had governed for 36 of the previous 39 years, mostly with a Bennett at the helm. It had renewed itself during the first NDP term of office in the 1970s and emerged stronger under WR Bennett with a broader base of support. Bennett had revived the Socred coalition by attracting Liberals, Conservatives, and even an NDP MLA to run with him in 1975. The renewed coalition was maintained for three elections (1975, 1979 and 1983) in the most polarized elections in BC history. When the Social Credit chose a new leader in 1986, they chose Bill Vander Zalm. While he led the Socreds to victory one more time, their coalition would unravel under his premiership.
Starting in the early 1980s, a small group of Liberals worked to revive the provincial wing. From virtually no candidates in 1979, they ran close to a full slate in 1983 under leader Shirley McLaughlin, with parachutes attached to many Young Liberals. They garnered about 3%. Most federal Liberals (a vanishing species at that time) were supporting the Social Credit Party.
Undaunted, Liberals held a leadership convention in 1984 where former Member of Parliament Art Lee, the first Chinese-Canadian leader of a political party in BC, defeated Stan Roberts, who would go on to help establish the Reform Party of Canada. Lee would build a strong relationship with Liberal Party of Canada leader John Turner, who represented Vancouver-Quadra, and BC’s Iona Campagnolo who was president of the Liberal Party of Canada. “A Liberal is a Liberal is a Liberal” was a mantra I heard at my first political convention in 1985, at the Empress Hotel, as a keen 16-year old.
When Bill Vander Zalm called the October 1986 election, on the heels of a very popular Expo 86, Art Lee managed to field a team of candidates in most ridings across the province. There was no TV leaders debate and little money so it was hard for Lee to make an impact. The Liberals placed their hopes on winning one seat – the Leader’s.
Bill Vander Zalm’s charisma trumped the NDP and its faltering leader, Bob Skelly, who famously fluttered at his opening press conference. The Liberals were squeezed out, but doubled their vote to about 7%. Hopes for a seat were dashed as they were shut out of the Legislature. Art Lee stepped down. On election night, BCTV cruelly reported that Art Lee was going to win his seat. Bedlam erupted at Liberal HQ in Vancouver. Out in Maple Ridge, we piled into an old black Lincoln and headed in for the ‘party’. Somewhere around the Sperling interchange, CKNW reported that someone had made an error and Art Lee was 5th! Cheers turned to tears at the Liberal election night party at the old Plaza 500. I ran into my new friend Christy Clark at the wake. We had joined the SFU Young Liberal Club that month.
Art Lee decided to move on from his unpaid, under-resourced, and under-appreciated leadership. By the time the BC Liberals got around to choosing a new leader on Hallowe’en Day 1987, there was only one candidate – Gordon Wilson. A political unknown to most, he had at least been elected to local office on the Sunshine Coast and put up a respectable showing there in the 1986 election. He was an outsider to the Vancouver-centric Liberal Party in BC. Yet he showed up and took on the mantle, though he wasn’t going to get much help from the city folk.
The focus for most Liberals in BC during that time was federal politics, with an election looming in 1988. While Wilson sought to get established, the Vander Zalm government started its meltdown with moderates fleeing. Ministers and MLAs would resign from cabinet and/or resign their seats. Around this time, a group of free enterprise supporters encouraged prominent developer Jack Poole (later the Chair of the 2010 Olympics) to take over the BC Liberal leadership as a response to the Social Credit Zalmplosion. While this is truly a story for another day, Poole would go through a due diligence effort, assisted by former leader Gordon Gibson, and organizers Colin Hansen and David McPhee, but ultimately decided not to seek the leadership. Gordon Wilson, who had reluctantly cooperated with the Poole potential candidacy, ventured forth unfettered when Poole left the scene. No one gave him much of a chance.
Wilson’s leadership in 1989 and 1990 could be described as persistent and tenacious, but also was met with setbacks. Byelection results were disappointing while the party was in a constant financial crisis. Federal politics intervened again as Jean Chretien succeeded John Turner in June 1990 after a lengthy leadership campaign. One issue where Wilson and Chretien had common ground was over the Meech Lake Accord. Wilson was as a strong critic and aligned with Manitoba Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs and Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells on the issue. This was a very divisive issue within the Liberal Party of Canada, but Wilson made a name for himself on this issue. However, the relationship with the Chretien team would become increasingly uneasy.
I was part of a group that strongly believed that the Party should split into separate federal and provincial political parties. The “BC” Liberal Party needed to be strictly provincial and put BC first on issues. During the Turner years, the party membership did not want to make the move, in part out of respect for John Turner and his commitment to BC. By 1991, the provincial wing believed it was in their political interests, and the federal wing believed it was in its financial interests. At a convention in Spring 1991, the parties decided to split. This was a defining moment in BC political history. Had this not happened, the BC Liberal Party could not have emerged as a ‘big tent’ political party. It was hard enough to attract non-Liberals to the BC Liberal Party in the 1990s, but it would have been impossible if the provincial party was not independent.
There is no greater boost for an opposition party than an imploding government. With many Socreds absolutely ruling out going to the NDP, and some NDP voters open to a liberal option (as they would never go Socred), the opportunity presented itself. The advantage of the Liberal brand, especially once it was detached from the federal wing, was its ability to push out from the middle in both directions.
Thus, a core group of party supporters decided to give it one last push. It was felt if we couldn’t break through this time, there was no hope for the BC Liberal Party ever. We had no money and not much of an organization. But we did have a leader who was quick on his feet and would work day and night to succeed, and we started to draw some candidates that helped with credibility. There were some good recruits like Linda Reid who would become the longest serving women in BC history, business executive Fred Gingell, young pilot Gary Collins who won in Fort Langley, and author/executive David Mitchell who had some media cachet. Clive Tanner had served as an MLA in the Yukon and Val Anderson was a former party president and United Church minister who was well known to Liberals. But we had many gaps. My volunteer job was to find candidates with my pal Christy, to fill out the slate. I would find them, Christy would close them. During this time there was an epic road trip, borrowing Clive Tanner’s van, to Prince George, the Cariboo, Kamloops, and the Okanagan. We met with candidates in hot tubs, recruited mustard manufacturers, dragooned university friends like Karen Bill and Kimball Kastelen, and found the lonely Liberal outposts in places where they had been in hiding. Clive is probably still paying off the bill from his car phone, a real novelty in those days.
We ended up with candidates in 71 of 75 ridings. That was enough to argue that Gordon Wilson should be on the debate. We were shut out of the debate initially because the NDP and Socreds didn’t want us there. So we launched a protest and had picketers in front of the CBC building. The pressure built and the network capitulated. We could not have asked for a better scenario – to have to fight to get on the debate and then win the fight. I found out we had made the debate when I was in Rogers Pass recruiting a candidate. Yes, our candidate was living in Rogers Pass, at the Glacier Park Lodge. She was a wonderful candidate and did respectably in Columbia River-Revelstoke, though our local Golden Liberal wouldn’t help sign the nomination papers in public – “Someone could lose their job by signing these”.
On debate night, party president Floyd Sully invited me to go to the CBC studios with him and be part of the team with Gordon Wilson. We showed up in his dressing room. I will never forget how calm he was. He was walking around, shirt off, listening but focused – his mind was elsewhere. Very calm. He had experience as an actor, which likely helped his preparation. I’m sure we were chattering away with miscellaneous advice that was completely off point and I’m sure he disregarded it. His media aide, John Stewart, prepared for the onslaught as there was a much bigger media hoard back then. Though the media didn’t know it beforehand, Gordon Wilson would be the story of the night and the election.
We watched the debate in the dressing room while it took place down the hall with no audience. When Premier Rita Johnston and Mike Harcourt were squabbling back and forth, Wilson nailed them: “This is a classic example of why nothing ever gets done in the Province of British Columbia”. Boom! I don’t think the media realized the full impact of that line when it was delivered, but they did realize that Wilson had made an impact. We were giddy in the dressing room. Floyd and I sprinted down the hall to the studio. I remember passing Mike Harcourt in the narrow hallway backstage – “Hey, how are you,” I think he said. Disciplined, cheerful, seemingly unruffled. Rita Johnston didn’t look too happy. Wilson was surrounded in the studio. He would never turn down a media interview after begging for attention for years. We were excited.
I had had this feeling once before when I helped the Manitoba Liberals in the 1988 election – the feeling of everything coming up roses. Sharon Carstairs had won her TV debate, and rose from one seat to almost win the election, settling for 20 and preventing Gary Filmon from forming a majority. Could this be the same? It was definitely on my mind that we could get on a roll, big time. There wasn’t a lot of time left in the election either.
Floyd and I thought we should head back to Party headquarters at 210 West Broadway. The office was closed so we walked in and our six-line switchboard was lighting up like a Christmas tree. We took calls, offers of help, crazies, you name it. We had finally been noticed.
An interesting thing about the 1991 campaign was that BCTV commissioned and ran nightly polls. Then, as now, BCTV (Global) led the evening news ratings, but back then it dominated the entire news landscape as well. Anchor Tony Parsons would come on at 6pm and announce the new numbers in their daily poll and, after the debate, the Liberals spiked up. The nightly polls were a self-fulfilling prophecy. Each good poll begat higher polling numbers the next time. As we rose, the Socreds were doomed. The Socred coalition was built on winnability. It became clear within days that the Liberals would be the party that would challenge the NDP.
As we headed into Thanksgiving weekend, there was a real likelihood we could win the whole shebang. The momentum seemed unstoppable. I remember talking on the phone with Clive Tanner, who was running in Saanich North & the Island (and would win decisively). We speculated about actually forming government. At that point, Clive, who was in the bathtub, contemplated electrocuting himself.
The NDP appeared to get a grip and turned their guns on us. Glen Clark showed his fangs and attacked our platform. A hastily organized press conference where Gordon Wilson and Floyd Sully (who had run and served as Finance critic) costed our platform was necessary. Vaughn Palmer provided a dose of the first scrutiny our campaign had had. Up until the final week, no one thought we had a chance so no one cared if our plan made sense or who our candidates were. I can safely say that many of our candidates would not have survived a modern-day social media screening process.
Around that time, I was driving up Kingsway in Vancouver and came across Glen Clark’s campaign office. I walked in to collect some brochures. I was greeted warmly by a receptionist (best practice) and quickly self-identified as “undecided”. I was directed to a table of brochures and within 20 seconds I had Glen Clark interrogating me. “Hey, how are you? Undecided? Want a coffee?” Here he was in a safe seat and he was working for every vote. Of course, I folded like a cheap lawn chair from Zellers. I confessed my true identity and Glen switched gears to quiz me on Floyd Sully, who he debated on finance issues. “What’s he like? He seems intense.” Etc. In any event, that gives a glimpse how hungry the NDP were.
We had come from zero to somewhere. By the time Election Day arrived, I don’t think we thought we were going to win. But I did think something would happen, but how much would happen, I didn’t know. I would have been happy with four seats. That was always our dream, to just get a toehold. It was quite something to consider our party’s dismal history, and the prevailing conventional wisdom that we had no chance, then use our eyes and ears to understand what was happening right in front of us. It was hard to believe.
In the final week of the campaign, Christy and I transitioned over to Gibsons to help the leader with his local campaign. He had to win and we were there to help. On October 17th at 8pm, we watched the first tranche of early results in Sechelt where it looked like we would be Opposition and would eclipse the Socreds. Gordon Wilson was up in Powell River taking in the results, soon to jump a plane to Vancouver to celebrate with a lot of long-suffering and delighted Liberals. By the time the votes were all tallied up, we won 17 seats and 33% of the vote. We won historically liberal seats on the North Shore and west side of Vancouver, but we also took Saanich North, Richmond, South Delta, South Surrey, most of the Fraser Valley, and Kelowna. Places where Liberals had no business winning, until then.
It was clear that it would be quite a party that night. While Wilson made his way to the celebration, a crew of us from the Sunshine Coast were taken on a chartered boat from Gibsons over to Horseshoe Bay. It was a calm, warm night, cruising on moonlit waters before everything would change.
Volunteers from West Van picked us up in station wagons and drove us to the Villa Hotel in Burnaby. It was electric. My best friend Iain, who is a big guy, was drafted to bring Wilson into the room with another big guy, Jim. Peter Gzowski would comment on CBC the next morning about the “two gorillas” that brought the skinny, bookish professor, Gordon Wilson, into the frenzy.
As I walked in, I encountered a gruff old guy named Dick Kirby who was from Oak Bay. He was the most hard-working, dedicated volunteer you would ever find. At that moment I saw everything we had accomplished on Dick’s face – a sense of elation, satisfaction, and emotion. It brought it all home to me suddenly because I knew how hard he and others had worked and the example that they had set for others. The moment has always stayed with me because it was the essence of politics as we would like it to be. When you are part of an underdog team that overcomes the odds like that, it is a really special bond. But when you add in the unselfishness of a guy like Dick Kirby, it is a joyful moment. I will never forget that.
That’s where the story should end. It’s a good story.
Euphoria doesn’t last. Hard political choices are ultimately made. Emerging parties that surprise in a 28 day writ period must evolve in order to consolidate their gains.
The BC Liberals had to decide what they wanted to be if they wanted to govern. They would go through a tough process between 1991 and 1993, when they elected Gordon Campbell to succeed Gordon Wilson. They would go through another tough process between 1993 and 1996 when they failed to win. Idealism crashed on the rocky shores of reality. They would go through a brutal five-year process from 1996 to 2001 when the heat was cranked and the NDP tanked. The NDP would wait until the fifth year of the mandate to go to the polls and the electoral buzz saw. It was a long decade and a transformative evolution for the BC Liberals.
During that time, a modern political party was built one meeting at a time, one chicken-dinner fundraiser at a time, one local parade at a time, one vote at a time. The old saying comes to mind – the worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition. The hard work paid off with the greatest election win in BC history when the BC Liberals won 77 of 79 seats in the 2001 election.
The Party changed and evolved. It became a successful, regionally-balanced, modern political party that took a big-tent approach. It was a successful vehicle for the mainstream – winning the popular vote in six consecutive elections between 1996 and 2017. The 1991 election put Liberals back into the free enterprise coalition. While some would argue they were always there during the Social Credit years, by the mid 1980s, they had withered away. The realignment put Liberals back in the centre of the coalition, and by 2001, it was becoming truly balanced with most conservatives and former Socreds signing on.
Gordon Wilson created the opportunity. Gordon Campbell built the foundation, in painstaking fashion, and cemented it as the free enterprise coalition through eight grinding years in Opposition and three successive winning elections. Christy Clark renewed it and earned her own term, tapping into the 1991 experience, knowing that conventional wisdom can be defied, that the ultimate connection for leaders is with the voters, not the intermediaries, and that believing in oneself and the team around you is essential.
Yet, time caught up with the BC Liberals. By 2017, the Party was long past its scrappy origins and frenetic early years in government. Governmentitis crept in. Baggage accumulated. The extremely narrow margin in Comox that divided power from defeat ended a remarkable era for the BC Liberals – a rise from the ashes that begun on Hallowe’en night 1987 with Gordon Wilson taking the stage as leader, and ending in Penticton in July 2017 when Christy Clark took a walk on the beach and put a cap on it. Four years in the wilderness, ten striving years in opposition, sixteen years in power and four mandates.
Ironically, in the aftermath of 2017 and 2020 elections, the BC Liberal Party’s biggest challenge is to retain and recruit Liberals. It has come full circle.
All three of those BC Liberal leaders from 1987 to 2017 – Wilson, Campbell, Clark – taught us that it’s bloody hard work to create, build, and renew.
I’m honoured to have served all three. And I’m honoured to have worked alongside those behind the headlines that made it possible. It was quite a journey that would have ended early had it not been for the remarkable results of October 17, 1991.
Five weeks ago, Justin Trudeau launched his campaign to win a majority government with British Columbia destined to deliver the seats to put him over the magic number of 170. On Election Day, it might be BC that keeps his parliamentary plurality in tact, in a successive Liberal minority government.
The Liberals and NDP entered this election with 11 seats each in BC, while the Conservatives had the largest chunk at 17.
Party – BC standings
In 2019, there were 32 seats in BC that stayed the course and 10 seats that switched hands, mostly at the expense of the Liberals.
Liberal – floor crossing to independent
Steveston – Richmond East
Pitt Meadows – Maple Ridge
Cloverdale – Langley City
Mission – Matsqui – Fraser Canyon
Kelowna – Lake Country
South Surrey – White Rock
Conservative – Liberal (by-election)
Nanaimo – Ladysmith
NDP – Green (by-election)
Port Moody – Coquitlam
Kootenay – Columbia
This time, I expect much fewer seats to change hands in BC as the parties have stayed fairly close together in terms of popular vote. While they will likely have a plurality of the popular vote in B.C., the Conservatives will be challenged to reach their popular vote level from 2019 in B.C., thanks in part to the PPC. The Liberals may cough up a few points to the NDP, while the Greens appear to be doing the same and then some. The NDP may come out with the most gains in terms of votes and seats here. But they will likely be incremental gains.
Seats to Watch in BC
At the outset of the campaign, I listed the seats to watch in B.C. The sands have shifted a bit in five weeks, and I’ve narrowed the list for Election night. Here are the seats to watch tonight:
Burnaby North – Seymour – competitive three-way race between incumbent Liberal Terry Beech and NDP and CPC challengers. Lots of attention from the Leaders’ tours. In 2019, the Conservative candidate imploded during the writ period. The question can the Conservatives spring back and leap frog over the Liberals, or can the NDP harness Jagmeet Singh’s popularity and edge out the Liberals.
Nanaimo – Ladysmith – given the collapse of the Greens, incumbent MP Paul Manly is basically an independent without much help from his party. Nevertheless, he has fended off the NDP twice before and has a strong local organization. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and CPC leader Erin O’Toole have visited the riding. A stronger NDP plus weaker Green Party is the recipe for an NDP win. A perfect Green/NDP split may allow the Conservatives to sneak up the middle.
Vancouver – Granville – Jody Wilson-Raybould vacated the seat throwing it back to the major parties. This riding is inherently Liberal, but the NDP and Conservative candidates have a business case with the NDP pressing hard among renters north of 16th and the Conservatives working single family home neighbourhoods. It should have been a lay up for the Liberals, but now looking like a toss up.
The Northeast suburbs – There will be a lot of action in three contiguous ridings from Port Moody to Maple Ridge. In Port Moody – Coquitlam, the three major parties were between 29% and 31% in 2019, with the Conservatives prevailing. This time, the advantage is to the NDP. In neighbouring Coquitlam – Port Coquitlam, Liberal MP Ron McKinnon faces a stiff challenge from the Conservative Katerina Anastasiadis. The Liberals won by less than 1% in 2019. This time, the Liberal saving grace may be the absence of the Greens, which took 7% last time. Potential Conservative pickup. And across the Pitt River, Conservative MP Marc Dalton entered the campaign with a three-way race. This election will likely rise and fall with party fortunes. If Conservatives win a plurality of votes in BC, this riding likely stays in their column. Likewise, if the Liberals or NDP win a plurality in BC, it could fall in their columns respectively.
Surrey – Liberal MP Ken Hardie faces a challenge from Conservative candidate and former MLA Dave Hayer in Fleetwood – Port Kells. If things start going the Conservatives’ way tonight in BC, this is one of those ridings that could fall into their hands. Next door, former Liberal MP John Aldag is trying to wrestle Cloverdale – Langley City from Conservative MP Tamara Jansen. Jansen won by less than 3 points in 2019, but this time, there is no Green, Elizabeth May endorsed Aldag, and the provincial ridings have gone orange – for the first time. Aldag could benefit from changing dynamics out there, but again, this riding likely goes with the flow based on party trends in BC. The NDP are hungry for Surrey-Centre in an effort to knock off Liberal MP Randeep Sarai. If it’s their night, watch this seat, but it will take a lot to knock off Sarai.
Overall, I do not expect a lot of seats to change hands in BC. Ten changed hands in 2019, and I would not be surprised to see only 5 or 6 change hands this time. Therefore, I don’t see a big change to party standings. My guess would be as follows:
Liberal: 9 to 11
Conservative: 16 to 18
NDP: 13 to 15
Green: 1 to 2
Nationally, I see a reduced Liberal minority tonight. Losses in Ontario and Atlantic Canada to the Conservatives and possible losses to the Bloc in Québec, but gains on the Prairies, particularly Alberta.
For the Conservatives to win more seats in Ontario and Liberals to win more seats in Alberta is good for Canada, overall. Both parties need better regional balance in their caucuses. I hope it works out that way.
The Conservatives have been beset by rearguard action from PPC and the untimely political disaster unfolding in Alberta. Throughout, Erin O’Toole’s leadership numbers have improved and he has been more competitive in the middle ground. It will be a big payoff if they do better than expected in vote-rich Ontario.
The NDP look strong heading into Election Day, but it could be an illusion of sorts. Almost every poll in 2019 had the NDP higher than where they ended up. Same thing in 2015. The reason is that they are much stronger with younger votes who do not vote at the same rate as older voters. Conversely, this is why the Conservatives end up higher on Election Day than forecast. Overall, the smaller parties tend to do worse on Election Day as they do not have the machine to get the vote out, like the major parties.
There may be a some micro-surprises tonight. The Greens could win a seat in Kitchener, after the Liberal candidate was fired during the campaign. It would be quite something if the Greens came out of this election with three seats.The Liberal candidate that was fired in Spadina may still win and would have to sit as an Independent.
Often times on election night, we say, “How did that happen?” Storylines could be surprising Conservative strength in Ontario or Liberals gaining seats there; a major shift in Québec; the PPC being much higher than expected; the NDP winning bushels of seats in the West that were not expected; or the Conservatives pulling away from the pack in BC. Whatever is the case, the voters are always right.
If Justin Trudeau’s Liberals win Canada’s 44th general election, how will it be done? It’s been a topsy turvy campaign for the Liberals with an assumed lead at the outset that appeared to evaporate. In the final days, it’s an open question as to whether they will achieve a plurality and, if so, by how much. In this post, I look at examples of past Liberal wins, and the regional coalitions they were based on, since the 1960s – and which of these scenarios Justin Trudeau’s Liberals might emulate this time (See my recent post: Erin O’Toole’s pathway to power)
Will a Justin Trudeau win be:
Lester Pearson’s near miss in 1965
Pierre Trudeau’s close shave in 1972
Pierre Trudeau’s Central Canadian Special in 1980
Jean Chrétien’s ‘Ontario, baby!’ win in 1997 (a model he used three times)
Paul Martin’s missing majority in 2004
His own ‘all-in’ majority win of 2015
Or his Ontario drawbridge minority of 2019?
Pearson 1965: the near miss
Lester Pearson won a minority in 1963, defeating John Diefenbaker’s minority government that was elected in 1962. The 1965 campaign was their fourth battle and Diefenbaker seemed out of gas. Pearson recruited three star candidates in Québec by the names of Pelletier, Marchand, and Trudeau. Despite boosting support there, Diefenbaker stubbornly clung to support in the rest of Canada (ROC), and rolled back Liberal support to some extent in the west and Atlantic Canada.
The math came up a little short with Pearson winning 49% of the seats (131 of 265). Tommy Douglas’s NDP held the balance of power along with the Social Credit/ Créditistes. Pearson won almost three-quarters of Québec, a majority in Ontario, but did poorly in the West.
Won big in Quebec, majority in Ontario, but lost big-time in the west
PET’s close shave in 1972
Pierre Trudeau’s first win was in the height of Trudeaumania in 1968. He won two-thirds of the seats in B.C. along with a strong showing in Central Canada. By getting more out of the west, he had done what Pearson couldn’t do – win a majority.
The mood soured by 1972. In the rematch with Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, Trudeau’s Liberals were very much on the back foot, and reduced to 38% of the vote and 109 seats in a Parliament of 265 members. The Liberals sunk below thresholds that Pearson had won with in 1965, scraping by with a two-seat margin over the PC’s because of its strength in Québec where they won over half of their seats (56).
Won big in Québec, lost majority in Ontario and Atlantic, lost badly in the west
PET’s Central Canadian Special in 1980
In his fifth and final election campaign, Pierre Trudeau drove the Central Canadian Special right down the gut of Canada’s electoral map, winning a majority with 147 of 282 seats (52%).
He took 99% of the seats in Québec and a majority of seats (55%) in Ontario. He had a little help from the Atlantic too, where he had a better result (59%) than the previous two examples. In the west, the Liberals were virtually extinguished, winning two seats in Manitoba. Nuttin’ in BC, Alberta, or Saskatchewan. Blanked in the North as well.
Dominated Québec, majorities Ontario and Atlantic, nowhere in the West
Jean Chrétien’s ‘Ontario, baby!’ in 1997 (and 1993 and 2000)
In his first re-election campaign, Jean Chrétien’s Liberals took 155 of 301 seats for a majority. It was not the mandate that Chrétien received in 1993 but it was still a majority. No party has ever relied upon one region so thoroughly as the Liberals did in this campaign – Ontario – where they won 101 of 103 seats. Ontario accounted for 65% of the Liberal Caucus. This was due to a stubborn vote split where the PC’s and Reformers played chicken with the Liberals coming out on top. Even the NDP couldn’t figure out how to steal some seats from the the wily Shawinigan fox in Ontario.
Unlike PET and the Central Canadian Special, Chrétien only won about one-third of the seats in Québec, and also failed to win a majority of seats in the Atlantic and the west, though he had a much stronger showing in the west and north than PET did in 1980. Chrétien’s Ontario, baby! formula was entirely based on the opposition’s lack of unity. Though it worked three times, it was not sustainable.
Dominated Ontario, got enough from Québec, Atlantic, and west to reach majority
Paul Martin’s missing majority in 2004
Paul Martin looked like an unstoppable force when he won the Liberal leadership in 2003 but he was bedevilled by lingering scandal from the decade-old Liberal government. New Conservative leader Stephen Harper chipped away, as did new NDP leader Jack Layton. The opposition was now much stronger than the Chrétien years.
Martin did better in the Atlantic and came in about the same in the west as Chrétien, but he could not replicate the Ontario dominance and fell a bit in Québec. Losing 31 seats in Central Canada cost him the majority.
Under any other circumstance, winning 70% in Ontario would be a huge accomplishment but it wasn’t the 98% that Chrétien had, and he couldn’t make those seats up in other regions.
Strong majority in Ontario and Atlantic, weak in Québec and the West
Justin Trudeau’s all-in majority in 2015 Justin Trudeau’s majority in 2015 (54% of seats) was unlike these other examples. It was much more balanced than his father’s majority in 1980 – not as dependent on Québec and much stronger in the west, winning almost 30% of the seats there (the most of any example discussed).
Justin won two-thirds of the seats in Ontario, half in Québec, and 100% in Atlantic Canada. There were no glaring regional weaknesses. Of all the examples, this was the most regionally representative.
Strong majority in Ontario, dominant in Atlantic, majority in Québec, competitive in west
Justin Trudeau’s Ontario drawbridge minority of 2019
Ontario drawbridge minority? In 2019, the Liberals gave up seats in all regions, except Ontario – well, they lost one seat in Ontario. While the Conservatives and other parties were on the march in other regions, the Liberals pulled up the drawbridge in Fortress Ontario, landing Andrew Scheer in an unfortunate Game of Thrones-like situation which resulted in him not being brought back for another season.
The Liberals won 80 seats in 2015, and took home 79 of 121 seats in 2019. In the rest of Canada, the Liberals dropped from 104 seats to 78 – a net loss of 26 and enough to cost them a majority government.
Liberal vote, compared to 2015, sagged in all regions – a loss of 6 seats in BC, 4 seats in Alberta, lost the only Liberal seat in Saskatchewan, gave up 3 in Manitoba, 5 in Québec, and dropped 6 in Atlantic Canada. In the North, they lost 1 of 3 Liberal seats.
What’s different from previous Liberal minorities is that the Liberals maintained a beachhead in Western Canada – in Metro Vancouver and Manitoba – while winning a good chunk of Québec and most of the Atlantic. But when you drop 6 points in the popular vote, and, in fact, lose the popular vote, there are going to be consequences.
Hold Ontario, distributed losses in other regions
What it means for Justin Trudeau, this time
The examples discussed demonstrate that you can win by utterly dominating a large region, as PET did in 1980 and Chrétien did in 1993, 1997, and 2000. However, if there’s not utter domination, there must be some regional balance. Justin Trudeau’s pathway in 2015 to a majority was regional balance – getting enough in all regions. In 2019, he got enough regionally to hang on, but he was backstopped, big time, by Ontario.
This time, much like 2019, the popular vote between the Liberals and the Conservatives has been very tight. However, a shift is afoot. Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives are betting on gains in Ontario, while possibly giving up some support in their Alberta fortress. It is possible that we see more Conservatives in Ontario, and more Liberals in the West.
Justin Trudeau’s pathway to a minority is to make up what he might lose in Ontario with gains in B.C., Alberta, and maybe Québec too. With a 36-seat edge in 2019, he has a bit of wriggle room.
The pathway to a majority is to follow his own footsteps from 2015. Compared to 2019, the Liberals need to crank it up in B.C., win a slice in Alberta, and incrementally grow in Québec and the Atlantic, all while holding down Fortress Ontario. It’s a tall order.
One way to find out is to ask how the math worked for six (Progressive) Conservative wins dating back to 1962. Excluding the freakishly large Mulroney win in 1984, examples of Conservative wins provide insight as to how O’Toole can find his pathway to power.
Of these six examples, only two resulted in majorities. One example – Mulroney ’88 – was the ‘Quebec-Alberta bridge’, where the PC’s dominated in both. The second example – Harper 2011 – was domination in English Canada.
(This article updated – first published in 2019)
Dief won a minority government in 1962 following a massive majority he won in 1958. In the ’62 campaign, Dief’s Tories won 44% of the seats on 37.2% of the popular vote.
The plurality was based on winning two-thirds of the seats in the West and North and two-fifths of the seats in Ontario. He lost the huge gains he had made in Quebec.
How did he win a plurality? Domination in the West by winning almost three-quarters of the seats there, and winning a strong majority (60%) of seats in Ontario.
While he won a majority of seats in Atlantic Canada, he was virtually shut out of Quebec. This template was virtually the one with which Harper won a majority with in 2011.
Won big in the West, won majority of seats in Ontario, but blown out in Quebec
Brian Mulroney won everywhere in 1984 in what was truly a change election. However, in 1988, the ‘free trade election’, it was much more competitive. In the West, Mulroney had to contend with an upstart Reform Party and strong NDP campaigns.
Mulroney managed a majority of seats in the West (54%) but Conservative share of seats in that region was the lowest level of these six examples. While Alberta was dominated by PCs, BC went NDP and Liberals made gains in Manitoba. The PC’s came close to winning a majority of seats in Ontario (47%). The big difference was Quebec. Unlike the five other examples, Mulroney won big in la belle province, taking 84% of its seats. The Quebec-Alberta bridge delivered a majority – the PC’s held 57% of the seats in the House of Commons.
Won big in Quebec to complement bare majority (50%) of seats in combined West/Ontario
In Stephen Harper’s first successful election, he won a plurality (40% of seats) with 36% of the popular vote. The Conservatives won two-thirds of the seats in the West but less than two-fifths of the seats in Ontario. The shape of Harper’s win was similar to Dief’s in 1962 except that Dief won in Atlantic Canada and Harper fell far short. Both did poorly in Quebec. But after 13 years of Liberal government, a win’s a win!
Won big in the West, fell short in Ontario
Stephen Harper fought hard for a majority in 2008 but fell just short with 46% of the seats on 38% of the popular vote. The shape of this win was similar to 2006, except that the Conservatives amped it up in the West (76% of seats) and Ontario (48% of seats). They continued to fall short in Quebec (13%) and Atlantic Canada (31%). Compared to 1962 and 1979, the West/Ontario rose from 59% to 65% of the seats in the House of Commons making it more possible to win with a strong position in those regions, but Harper needed a clear win in Ontario in 2008 and he didn’t get it. In the aftermath of the 2008 election, Harper almost saw his minority mandate slip away when the opposition parties ganged up to – almost – catapult outgoing Liberal leader Stephane Dion into 24 Sussex Drive. It surely made Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper hungrier for a majority the next time.
Won big in the West, fell short in Ontario – again
Harper finally gets his majority winning 54% of the seats on the strength of 40% of the popular vote. The Conservatives dominated the West (78% of seats) and Ontario (69% of seats). They also raised their game in Atlantic Canada (44% of seats) while falling back in Quebec (7% of seats).
The Harper win was a souped-up Joe Clark pathway to power – winning everywhere while being trounced in Quebec. The difference was that Harper got more out of the West and Ontario than Clark.
Won very big in the West, won strong majority in Ontario
Table 1: Popular vote, Percentage of total seats for examples
What it means for O’Toole
Given the Conservatives’ chronic lack of success in Québec, O’Toole’s Conservatives must dominate Western Canada while pushing toward a majority of seats in Ontario. There are now more seats in these two regions than there were in the examples listed above.
West (and North) 107 seats + Ontario 121 seats = 228 seats (67% of all seats in the House of Commons)
The Conservatives dominated Alberta and Saskatchewan in 2019 – 69% of the popular vote in Alberta and 64% in Saskatchewan, winning all but one seat. It was a Big Blue Wave from Yellowhead to Prince Albert. The swamping of the prairies helped the Conservatives win the national popular vote, which was cold comfort considering we measure power by the seats. Outside of Alberta and Saskatchewan, Scheer’s Conservatives didn’t measure up. They didn’t get enough out of B.C., Québec, the Atlantic, and certainly did not get enough out of Ontario. In fact, the Liberals virtually locked in their 2015 Ontario results onto the 2019 map.
Erin O’Toole’s team has clearly decided that winning big on the Prairies and losing big in Ontario is a pathway to Stornaway. The Conservative campaign has shifted its focus to appeal more broadly in urban and suburban ridings, especially Ontario. As is often the bargain, move in one direction and face a rearguard action from the other. Gains made in the middle have been challenged by populist rage on the right under the leadership of Mad Max.
O’Toole cannot replicate the Mulroney ’88 win – he doesn’t have the support in Québec and may lose seats in Alberta as well. It does not look like O’Toole has the support to pull off the Harper 2011 majority win which was dominance in the West and a strong majority in Ontario.
He’s looking at a Dief ’62 / Clark ’79 model – strong showing in the West and stronger showing in Ontario compared to Scheer, combined with modest gains in Québec and the Atlantic. B.C. is a wildcard – he really needs to push toward winning half of the 42 seats in B.C. (a gain of 4), but throughout this campaign, public polling indicates a competitive three-way race without any party pulling away to make major gains. We’ll see.
Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives lost 157-121 in seats. A simplistic view is for O’Toole to hold steady outside of Ontario and flip 20 seats in Ontario, for a narrow plurality. The Liberals won Ontario by 9-points in 2019 and have not been near that mark so far in public polling. So, if O’Toole can get to Joe Clark levels in Ontario, and nets out the same in the rest of Canada, he might get there.
But it isn’t that easy. Despite how tantalizing the opportunity in the middle is to Conservative strategists, a renegade crew of angry, non-vaxxed populists could put a barricade across the pathway to victory by weakening fortress Alberta and splitting the vote in key battlegrounds. In this respect, there are parallels to Mulroney’s ’88 win in that the PC’s had to fend off pesky Preston Manning and the Reform Party in order to protect the fortress. Mulroney defended his fortress in 1988 before watching the walls crumble in 1993; the assault on O’Toole’s fortress is happening in real-time.
Prime Minister O’Toole? It could happen, but he needs a combination of Joe Clark math and Mulroney ’88 magic.
In a future post, I will look at the Liberal path to re-election.
Table 1: Results from six (Progressive) Conservative wins
How many times has Québec gone one way and the rest-of-Canada (ROC) went the other? Quite a few, in fact. There are different campaigns playing out in different languages, with different traditions, and different versions of history. It’s pretty tough to knit Québec and ROC into one coherent national campaign.
Pierre Trudeau famously took 74 out of 75 seats in Québec in 1980 and formed a majority government without winning a seat west of Winnipeg. That was after Joe Clark had formed a minority PC government in 1979 after being almost completely shut out in Québec. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won a majority in 2011 based almost entirely on his dominance of English Canada.
What does current polling tell us about the potential for a majority government?
In 2004, the Conservatives and Liberals were basically tied in ROC, when Paul Martin formed a minority government. They diverged in 2006 with the Conservatives gaining an upper hand and achieved their own minority. The gap widened in 2008, though the Conservatives still fell short of a majority as ROC gains could not overcome Conservative weakness in Québec. In 2011, the Conservatives received almost a majority of the votes (47%) in ROC while the Liberals plunged to an historic low. While Jack Layton had an uptick in ROC, the big story was a transfer of Liberals to the Conservative column. The Justin Trudeau Liberals made a dramatic comeback in 2015, edging the Conservatives in ROC, supplemented by their gains in Québec. The Conservatives won ROC in 2019, yet failed to win government, and the gap between the two parties in ROC, so far, in 2021 election polling is about the same. Bear in mind that the Conservatives have done well in ROC because they do so well in Alberta. This election, they are running about 20% lower in Alberta (yet will likely hold almost all of their seats), while they are doing better in Ontario relative to the Liberals – that’s a better and more efficient situation seats-wise. The NDP trajectory is surprisingly flat. Even the Layton breakthrough election of 2011 did not see a groundswell in ROC, with the vote staying below 27%.
Current polling showing PPC at 7% in ROC is obviously a significant development and, if it holds, could deny the Conservatives key seat gains and an opportunity to widen the gap with the Liberals. Conversely, late-stage polarization could funnel NDP and Greens to the Liberals. The final days in ROC may well be a furious flurry of strategic voting arguments. Right now, current polling results do not give either party a clear shot at a majority.
How about Québec?
Québec popular vote results
Compared to ROC, Québec has been more volatile since 2004. From 2004 to 2015, it was marked by a steady decline in support for the Bloc Québécois. Its lowest points in 2011 and 2015 coincided with majority governments held by Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau respectively.
The Liberals also declined from 2004 to 2011, but roared to first in 2015 which helped enable a Liberal majority. The Grits held their vote in 2019 while the Bloc was revived at the expense of the NDP. The NDP trajectory goes to show how much the Jack Layton breakthrough depended on Québec, and how far the NDP’s prospects have fallen there since. With the relatively flat trajectory in ROC for the NDP, the current scenario fully returns the NDP to its tradition of being a non-contending party and occasional balance of power. The Conservatives enjoyed a bump up to its highest level during this era in 2006 when the Paul Martin Liberals were shown the door and the Bloc was starting to wave. As the Conservatives governed, they saw their small beachhead dwindle to below 20%. The 2021 election shows a potential uptick for Les Bleus but not likely to materialize in beacoup de circonscriptions.
While interpreting Canada’s regional realities is a lot more complex than just “ROC” and Québec, it is clear that in order to form a majority government, a party needs to win big in one, or win both by at least a little.
With Election Day looming, the Liberals and Conservatives are basically stalemated. The uncertainty of the outcome and the momentum changes are gruelling for those involved in the campaigns. I cannot help but channel my own past experiences and think of the various psychologies that must be at work in the war rooms and among grassroots supporters.
For the Liberals, about a week before the election call, they had the jaunty bounce of those who read positive poll results and gleeful reports of their opponents’ demise. The pundit/Twitter consensus dictated that a majority was to be had, that the Conservatives were “in trouble”, and that the Liberals should “go now” to “get a mandate” – all of this very enticing.
Who knows whether there were voices inside the room that expressed caution, advocated for going earlier, or later. In the days leading up to the August 15th election call, Afghanistan was careening out of control. It’s hard when you have set out a campaign plan, signalled to the world that this is your intention, then face the prospect of pulling back from your plan when the plane is almost in the air. At some moment, the Liberal campaigners must have considered whether the election call should be postponed. But the hawks prevailed.
I can relate to that. The Liberal campaign team has been through the wars. A pitch-perfect come-from-behind win in 2015, a jarring 2019 re-election effort that was preceded by the JWR / SNC Lavalin controversy, blown sideways by blackface, followed by the onslaught of COVID, social movements of “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter”, and the sorrow unleashed by the identification of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School. They have collectively faced a lot of situations in elections and in government, and Afghanistan was the latest in a long list. Camaraderie, loyalty, and trust is built through tough and challenging times. Plus, let’s face it, Justin Trudeau is a political unicorn – he is a brand unto himself. Every Canadian has an opinion about him, love him or hate him, and when you have that ability to command attention, it’s very unique. The braintrust was undoubtedly confident in him, themselves, and pushed on.
We know now the Liberals did not get their campaign off to an auspicious start, facing a hotter than usual national media corps that had Afghanistan on split screen, demanding to know “Why now?” The Liberals didn’t give a good answer. Immediately, some conjured up ghosts of David Peterson’s Ontario Liberals of 1990 who called a summer election at the seemingly high heights of his powers only to suffer a humiliating and decisive defeat to Bob Rae’s NDP.
What is clear that two weeks into this campaign, the Liberals had an increasingly sticky problem. Voters were shifting, particularly in Ontario. Some excited pollsters proclaimed the Conservative “freight train” was on its way to a majority. Pretty bold. In the Liberal war room, confidence and experience could well have translated into slower reaction to events unfolding around them. However, with confidence and experience, the ability to marshal resources to turn the campaign in another direction could make for a major impact. That brings about memories about past campaigns like 2004 when Paul Martin entered the campaign period as the odds-on favourite, but was pressed hard by upstart Stephen Harper and the newly re-united Conservatives. David Herle, Martin’s campaign manager, spoke on his podcast Curse of Politics about hitting the panic button in 2004 when Liberal polling numbers dipped below 30%. The old plan was thrown into the garbage and a new plan was drawn up. Martin’s Liberals rallied, went negative, dug up some primo opposition research, and formed a minority government.
I was involved in the B.C. election campaign in 2017 where our team was stocked with experience and had an ample supply of confidence. The start of this federal campaign was eerily familiar. A flat start followed by (speaking for myself) a slow-to-realize reckoning about what was happening. The voters were moving with their feet while our campaign heads were up in the clouds. We scrapped and fought to get back on a better footing, but every time we made a step forward, or had a plan we thought would work, we had a setback to stall us. We simply could not pull away from our competition nor could they pull away from us. Similar feeling in 1996 in B.C. where we were way ahead, then we were way behind, and caught back up to even. For the final two weeks, we could not generate momentum and neither could our competition. That feeling you are looking for is when, no matter what you do, it comes up roses, is Momentum. The campaign office buzz gets louder. Everyone is walking faster, with more urgency. Lawn signs fly out of the office. I can only imagine that the second and third weeks of this campaign were challenging for the Liberals – they didn’t have that feeling. They were imploring support, rather than receiving it.
What about the Conservatives? I have been involved in and seen campaigns where there was no faith in the campaign team, the leader, or any prospect of victory. It really comes down to a key distinction – does the campaign team and leader believe in themselves, or is the effort truly doomed?
On the eve of the election call, the Conservative campaign was roundly crapped on for running a juvenile social media ad that was a takeoff of a scene from the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. What were they up to? The political intelligentsia pounced on the perceived amateurism and a Conservative MP was compelled to call out his own national campaign team (never a good sign). Meanwhile, the video got over a million hits. Whether the Conservatives were playing 4-D chess or screwing around is beside the point. The team could have fallen apart amidst caucus and internal discord. Instead, it looks like the Wonka controversy served to reinforce the Conservative campaign’s “us against the world” mentality.
The internal infighting is often the result of insecurity and not believing in the plan as grassroots supporters are influenced by media commentary. There’s nothing that rankled me more than to hear defeatists. “We should try to save our core seats” was a common refrain. My uncle, a WWII veteran, not to mention a candidate for Pearson in ’65, talked about those who got “hemorrhoids on their way to Halifax”, meaning some people weren’t really up for a fight. Or you hear complaints about the campaign team not being up to the job. In fact, I read about my job performance in the Vancouver Sun one day: “some Liberals must be wondering whether McDonald is over his head in this campaign”. I’m sure the columnist had been hearing from a few Schadenfreudians. There’s a lot of them when you’re losing, but they are hard to find when you win.
You gotta ignore the whispers, even when they’re loud, because battle-scarred politicos know that anything is possible. If you have been around long enough, you have seen it happen. I was part of efforts that were more like comets than campaigns – Sharon Carstairs’ Manitoba breakthrough in 1988, Gordon Wilson taking the B.C. Liberals from obscurity to Official Opposition, and watched from afar as Justin Trudeau went from third to first in 2015, and, last month, Nova Scotia’s PC’s taking power after being leagues under water months earlier. Conventional wisdom is often wrong. How many more times does that need to be proven? Most pundits and media experts play it safe. They stick to the consensus. Smart politicos understand and have a pulse for voters and know that they can move quickly, decisively, and sometimes imperceptibly, especially during the writ period. Erin O’Toole and his campaign team likely believed, and likely still do, that they could win. Smaller parties, like the NDP, the Greens, and the Peoples Party cling to the hope of anything is possible as well. Need I say it? Campaigns Matter!
As the campaign moved through its first week, the Conservatives would have been feeling good. They launched successfully, including a smooth platform unveiling. While the Liberals stumbled, Erin O’Toole had a clear path to introduce himself to Canadians. The Conservatives were doing some things differently – the platform, charting a path for middle ground, and communicating and touring in a new way. Likely, they were feeling, “Our plan is starting to work.” They were probably feeling that on the ground too. As the first week rolled into the next, the public polling numbers were creating an environment that Conservative prospects were being taken more seriously, which made the Liberal call of the election a bigger story. Had Justin blown it? A nice run of momentum started to unfold that must have felt like uncharted territory. Who knows what Conservative internal polling numbers showed, but public poll numbers are avidly read by grassroots supporters and the 99% of headquarters staff that don’t see the closely guarded internal tracking. Things were looking up! The Conservative inside voice: “Do we dare to dream? Are we allowed to have nice things?”
Many campaigns go through phases, which makes sense. As one party gets the upper hand, the main rival normally does everything in its power to push back. In situations where a government has been in power for a long time, it’s harder for an incumbent government to push back when ‘time for a change’ is in the air. It has to be compelling. As much as the national media has its inherent biases, they like a big story more. Justin Trudeau blowing the election is a big story. An exciting horse race is a bigger story than a dull pre-determined outcome, like the Chrétien re-elections in 1997 and 2000. With Conservatives on the rise, and Liberals on the ropes, what’s gonna happen next? Is this the end of Justin, or will he prevail again? Stay tuned for more!
The Liberals have amped up the attacks and found one that seemed to hurt – on guns. Frankly, I’m not even sure of the details of the issue. All I heard was that the Conservatives had a policy, and they flip-flopped mid-campaign. That is never a good idea. It’s a tough spot – they likely felt they were taking water in urban and suburban ridings that they targeted for victory in the GTHA and Metro Vancouver, and among attainable younger and female voters. They must have come to believe that they could not persevere with the current policy so decided to course-correct. One wonders how that decision was made, on what timeline, and who was in the room? Was it decided by ‘committee’, were they forced by candidates threatening to speak out, was it a Leader directive? Whatever the case, it created a new problem – a perception that the Leader is a flip-flopper when under pressure. They may have believed their plan would work and talked themselves into it, perhaps without getting an outside read on it. Whether or not voters even care about the gun issue or how the Conservatives responded, it will be having an effect on the Liberal war room by putting wind in their sails, and on the Conservatives who may have the sinking feeling that they were outfoxed by the Liberals on an attack that they had to know was coming. They should have been able see that big red missile from one coast to the other.
In 2013, the BC Liberal campaign seized on a mid-campaign flip flop by the NDP leader. Similarly, it was an issue that everyone could see coming but the NDP tried to finesse it. The narrative became not that issue – oil pipelines – but leadership. The leader was a weathervane.
We are at that point now in this election where it’s truly up for grabs – everyone knows it – with the final French language debate followed by the lone English language debate. By the time the leaders walk off the stage on Thursday night, it’s a ten-day sprint to final voting day.
The debates are high stakes. My first campaign in 1984 was as a lowly, yet devoted young Liberal in no-hope riding. John Turner was a very admirable leader with an impeccable record of public service. Yet, he took on the leadership at the tail end of an almost-uninterrupted 21-year run of Liberal government- and he was rusty. In that year’s election debate, Brian Mulroney delivered a devastating critique of Liberal patronage appointments. The election was over that night, though it limped on for weeks. In 1988, the rematch debate delivered a different thunderbolt when Turner delivered a passionate, patriotic attack on Mulroney over Free Trade. The effect was immediate and the Liberals rocketed to the top of the polls after starting the campaign in third and withstanding an attempted leadership coup. However, Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives had time on their side and wheeled against the Liberals with a furious negative onslaught, prevailing on election night.
In 1991, I attended the B.C. Leaders debate as part of a motley crew of Liberal campaign volunteers. Leader Gordon Wilson strutted around the small CBC dressing room, bare chested, focusing on his breathing exercises, and astutely disregarding the scattershot advice being tossed at him by me and others. He knew what he had to, and he delivered the most memorable line in B.C. election debate history. That debate blew up the campaign and led to the end of the Social Credit Party. I was learning early in my political life that debates matter and how they could turn the psychology of campaigns upside down.
I never had fun watching a debate after 1991. Henceforth, my party was expected to win and no longer a plucky insurgent. Debates brought stress – even when I had nothing to do with the preparation. I could barely watch. When things went well, we cheered, and when things didn’t go well, we rationalized that it wasn’t a big deal, but sometimes you had those “uh oh” moments. Thinking back to provincial debates over the years, I don’t recall many dramatic moments – I just remember a lot of careful preparation undertaken by the debate teams and the pressure on the leaders.
When I directed the 2013 BC Liberal campaign, I had little to do with debate prep. It was not my strength and certainly not my happy place. We had a great team of advisors that thought through the content, the camera angles, and how best to rehearse. But I do remember watching the debate and feeling good and feeling proud of our team and our leader, Christy Clark. It was exactly how you want to feel at a seminal moment of the campaign. Then what followed was that feeling of momentum, not just in my bones, but in our nightly tracking. The debate was a big factor in our ultimate success.
Debate night must be a moment aspiring leaders imagine for years. Other than election night, it is probably the most exciting moment of the campaign, especially when there are fireworks. This is Justin Trudeau’s third election, and Jagmeet Singh’s second. Erin O’Toole is the newcomer. Their relative experience in debates will flow into their leaders’ teams. How to protect against over-confidence? How to build up under-confidence? How to get the leaders in ‘the zone’? And uncluttered. A common problem with leaders is that they are over-scheduled. Have their teams found the right balance to let the Leaders rest, think and prepare, amidst a frenzied election campaign? Have they settled on their final debate strategy or are they spitballing until the stage lights turn on?
The French language debates are over and on English language debate night, thousands of campaign volunteers will be watching every moment and the psychology of their respective campaigns will be impacted by how they feel their leaders performed. In fact, the campaigns will tell their volunteers how their leader performed. “We won!”. Polls will be generated to show they won. A furious spin war will be waged with edicts to grassroots supporters to share, tweet, Instagram, TikTok, phone, doorknock, and telepathically transmit that their leader won the debate.
That’s where this story ends for now. The final ten days will be a roller coaster ride for all campaigns. Their hopes are invested in their leaders and in themselves. At the centre of it all is two campaign war rooms that are vying to govern. The Liberal team, is no doubt, facing the Conservative challenge squarely in the eyes now, and drawing upon its collective experience and confidence in order to prevail, while exhorting supporters to stay true and steady in order to beat off the surprising Conservative challenge. The Conservative team is thirsty for a win, yearning for its taste from the goblet of victory, made sweeter by the doubters, while keeping at bay the nagging feeling, nurtured by past defeats, that it could fall out of their grasp just when it seemed victory was so close.