The meaning of Surrey South

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:

*By-election results are not final

Hot take:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. The BC Conservatives showed 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.
  5. 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.

The consequential by-elections of the past 50 years in British Columbia

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.     

1973 by-election set Bill Bennett on a path to power

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.

Zalm escaped the hangman’s gallows in 1990 but would resign from office in 1991.

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.

 An interesting recap of the byelection was written by reporter Chris Foulds in 2017.  

Mike de Jong has been around for a long time, but not as long as Vaughn Palmer!

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”.

John Martin made his move less than 6 months after the by-election

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.

2016 by-election winner Melanie Mark with #3 Gavin Dew and #2 Pete Fry

2019 High Stakes and High Tide

It seemed unbelievable that an NDP MLA would resign his seat when the ‘GreenDP’ advantage in the Legislature was only 44-42.  Yet that’s exactly what Leonard Krog did in 2018 to run for mayor of Nanaimo.

Krog’s departure must have been a considerable headache for John Horgan’s government.  If they lost the by-election, the Legislature would be deadlocked 43-43 and the likely outcome would have been an early general election in 2019 and a potential ‘own goal’ of epic proportions.

Governments winning byelections is hard. Until Christy Clark won Point Grey in 2011, it had been 30 years since a governing party had won a by-election in BC. The BC Liberals lost three held-seats under Clark in by-elections so assuming the NDP would slam dunk Nanaimo defied history to some extent.

New BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson was coming off a victorious referendum campaign where proportional representation was defeated.  He then recruited a strong local candidate in Nanaimo, Tony Harris, whose family is very well-known in the Harbour City.  Add to that that the Greens were putting up their own candidate, the daughter of the former pirate-mayor (yes), despite being in cahoots with the NDP on their confidence deal.

The NDP nominated federal MP Sheila Malcolmson who brought name recognition and local support.  It was all-in for the BC Liberals who saw the by-election for the opportunity that it was.  

Harris generated support and hope for the BC Liberals. On voting day, January 30, 2019, Harris delivered over 700 more votes than the previous candidate in the general election – this is rare.  By-elections usually have lower turnout.  Objectively, you might have expected to win it with that effort.

However, at some point in the campaign, it appeared the NDP went into a higher gear.  After all, Premier Horgan is an ‘Island guy’ and NDP roots run deep there (see history of Nanaimo riding). The Green vote collapsed from 20% in the general election to 7% in the by-election. The NDP held most of their raw vote and actually increased their percentage from 46.5% to 50%.  Harris increased the BC Liberal vote from 32.5% to 40% but that was little consolation.  Crisis averted for the NDP. 

Two weeks into the Nanaimo by-election was probably the high-water mark for Andrew Wilkinson’s leadership.  When the NDP won, the optimism that was felt (falsely or otherwise) dissipated and the BC Liberals went into a rut.  The mentality of forcing the NDP from office was replaced by settling in for a full-term of government.  They could never regain momentum, and were pummelled in Horgan’s early election call in 2020. Credit the NDP for staring down the existential crisis that the Nanaimo by-election posed and taking care of business. 

2022 Surrey South: Renewal or ?

Almost 50 years, and over 5,000 words later, we finally get to the 2022 Surrey South by-election.  Where will it stack up in terms of importance compared to a half-century of political tests?

BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon has already taken care of one tidy bit of business, which was finding a seat after a nine-year absence from the Legislature.  Outgoing leader Andrew Wilkinson yielded Vancouver Quilchena, which was an easy lay-up for Falcon.  Gordon Campbell entered as leader via Quilchena almost 30 years earlier. 

With the resignation of BC Liberal Stephanie Cadieux, Falcon has an opportunity to bring forward new blood into the BC Liberals and is doing so with candidate Eleanore Sturko, an RCMP officer who is known for her work on LGBTQ and human rights issues.  The NDP has put forward Pauline Greaves, a community educator (Ph.D) who teaches business at Langara School of Management.  Greaves was a close runner-up to Cadieux in the 2020 general election, losing by a slim 4% margin. She’s playing the “I can be a strong voice inside government” card.

Surrey South is, in fact, the strongest of the nine ridings in Surrey – White Rock area for the BC Liberals. This should be a W.  In 2017, Cadieux took the riding by a margin of 18%.  In 2013, the BC Liberals won a majority of seats in the area before losing Panorama, Fleetwood, and Guildford in 2017 (key to the NDP taking power).  In 2020, the NDP advanced further taking former stronghold Cloverdale and narrowly losing in Surrey-White Rock to BC Liberal Trevor Halford, which would have seemed inconceivable prior to the campaign.  Cadieux and Halford were the last BC Liberals standing in the area until Cadieux resigned.  Falcon previously represented Cloverdale, next door, between 2001-2013 and was one of the top vote getters in the province for the BC Liberals.  This is political home turf for him and he and Sturko are backed by popular former mayor Dianne Watts. The BC Liberal path to power must travel through Surrey. 

The by-election will take place in an interregnum between Horgan’s announcement he is leaving and the installation of a new leader and premier, likely David Eby, on December 3rd. While Horgan remains popular in the Surrey area, especially with older folks, the real enemy for Falcon and Sturko is voter turnout.  By-election turnout is usually lower and a distracted and demotivated support base can lead to defeat.  It’s no consolation to hear afterward, “We thought you were going to win”.  In the final days of the by-election campaign, the BC Liberals have to grind away to get the vote out.

If Falcon’s BC Liberals prevail, they pass a test that they were expected to pass and get some new blood in the Legislature.  It will no doubt be a positive for them. 

For the NDP, a pick-up here would be very rare feat.  You have to go back to 1955 when Gordon Gibson Sr., MLA for Lillooet, put his Liberal seat on the line to back up his allegations of corruption under the Socred Forest Minister of the time, Robert Sommers.   Gibson lost to the governing Socreds in the by-election but he was proven right as Sommers was ultimately found guilty of corruption and went to the clink. (Gibson Sr. returned to the Legislature as a Liberal in the 1960s in a North Shore seat and his son, Gordon Gibson Jr., won a 1974 by-election in North Vancouver and contended the 1975 election as Liberal leader).

An NDP win in Surrey South would round out the Horgan era as a time where the NDP encroached deep into BC Liberal / free enterprise territory while keeping its left flank under control, and would be more about Horgan’s legacy than be a predictor of Eby’s future. Still, an NDP win here would obviously be good for them.

Another factor is the BC Conservatives who are running Richmond resident Harman Bhangu. There was no Conservative on the ballot in 2020 when Cadieux narrowly won.  Will Bhangu split the vote and cost Sturko? Earlier this month, Falcon punted Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad from caucus over his team play and musings on climate change. Rustad has now appeared in support of Bhangu.  Will that make a difference? Could anyone in Surrey South pick Rustad out of a lineup? 

It’s hard to know right now where Surrey South will land on the scale of significance as harbinger of political events to come.  We usually don’t know until later. But there are stakes to be fought over and that will make it interesting on September 10th.

SEE post on Surrey South by-election result

  • A full list of BC by-elections can be found here.

Straight to the Top Job

Published in the Vancouver Sun, July 19/2022

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. 

John Horgan chairing the Council of Federation meetings, July 2022

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.

Premier Harlan Brewster fishing on the Peace River before his perilous train trip

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.

WAC: Wasn’t the leader the first time, but re-elected as premier in 1953, 1956, 1960, 1963, 1966 and 1969

Unplanned retirement 

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.

Straight to the Top

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.

 

30 years later: The Election that Changed Everything

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.

oct-17-1991-liberal-leader-gordon-wilson-on-the-campaign.jpg
Gordon Wilson, BC Liberal leader in 1991 breakthrough election.

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.

Vaughn has been around a loooooong time

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.

Formula for redrawing B.C.’s electoral boundaries fails small communities

Published in Vancouver Sun, May 22 / 2021

B.C.’s electoral boundaries are about to be redrawn, increasing the size of the legislature yet again, while eroding representation in rural areas outside the faster-growing major cities. It’s a losing formula that causes continued bloat in the size of the legislature, while failing those in small communities around the province.

Representation in BC: Let’s take time to think about this

There are two issues at play and, if we untangle them, there is a better solution for the Electoral Boundaries Commission to consider:

• Rural ridings need strong representation. Rural MLAs have multitudes of small communities located far apart, and many have large Indigenous populations. The riding of Fraser-Nicola, for example, has dozens of small communities and First Nations, compared to where I live in Vancouver-Fairview, which is one of 11 ridings in the City of Vancouver. The demands are very different on rural MLAs, and few would argue that the role of rural MLAs should be made harder.

• Representation by population. Rep-by-pop in B.C. was strengthened through the Electoral Boundaries Commission Act in the 1980s, precipitated by the Dixon case that put the focus on voter equality. At the time, some ridings were 12 to 16 times larger than other ridings. Because of urban growth, pure rep-by-pop in our system today would either dramatically increase the geographic size of rural ridings, or dramatically increase the size of the legislature, way beyond the proposed increase to 93.

How do we reconcile these mutually exclusive goals?

Let’s do something we are already doing in regional districts and weight the votes of our MLAs. In Metro Vancouver, for example, the mayor of Belcarra gets one vote at the regional district table, but the mayor of Vancouver gets five votes. Elected officials in all of Metro Vancouver’s local jurisdictions have weighted votes based on the population of their community, as they do in other regional districts across B.C. It works fine — the larger centres have clout to reflect their size, and the smaller communities get a voice and are at the table.

Provincially, we can do something much simpler than the regional district formula by having one vote for MLAs from rural ridings in regions like the North, Kootenays and North Island, and two votes for MLAs in urban regions like the Lower Mainland and the Capital Region of greater Victoria.

It would allow for sensibly drawn one-vote rural ridings that allow for fair, effective representation.

In urban B.C., we would not need to increase the number of ridings, as each urban MLA would have two votes, because they would represent roughly twice as many constituents than a rural riding.

The outcome of votes in the legislature would better reflect the population, while rural ridings would get better representation, since their MLA could focus on a smaller number of communities.

While rural ridings would lose their percentage share of seats in the legislature, they would be a higher percentage of the people in the legislature, providing them more opportunities for representation on committees, leadership roles, and in cabinet.

An important consideration is First Nations representation. The Dixon case led to the elimination of the Atlin riding in northwest B.C., which had a majority population of First Nations people. It elected the first First Nations MLA, Frank Calder, in 1949, and was represented by a First Nations MLA for 35 of 42 years until 1991.

After Atlin was eliminated, there was not a First Nations MLA elected until 2016. Protecting rural ridings provides more opportunities for First Nations representation in the legislature.

A weighted legislature, as outlined, is not proportional representation or other schemes that have failed over the years. Each voter would vote for one MLA. It also would not impact who wins elections. The votes are in the Lower Mainland, and that is not going to change. A winning political party needs to win there.

Cranking up the number of seats in the legislature is a losing game of math. It’s time to face the issue and find a way to both provide rep-by-pop and protect rural ridings.

Let the new Electoral Boundaries Commission explore weighted votes, a more inclusive solution for the benefit of all British Columbians. Then we will see if this idea floats or sinks under the weight of its own weighting.

(Thanks to Henry Waatainen for his editing help and advice)

***

The op-ed above has its roots in a submission I made to the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform in 2004. At that time, I put forward the idea of regional weighting to address rural representation, among other proposals. I worked in the Gordon Campbell government from 2001 to 2003 when the BC Liberals held an overwhelming number of seats – 77 of 79. As Director of Communications to the Government Caucus, I worked alongside practically every MLA in the House and gained an understanding of their jobs. We supported their constituency communications and it was apparent how rural MLAs had considerably more burdens placed on them than urban MLAs when it came to local accountability and expectations. Having followed the boundaries process closely over the years from the beginning of the post-Dixon case processes – the Fisher Commission and the Wood Commission for starters – the challenge of reconciling rural representation with urban growth was a thorny issue already by 2004. The size of the Legislature had grown from 57 seats in 1986 to 79 seats in 2001 (and now we are heading to 93). So, I made my modest pitch to consider a weighted formula. It was met with slow claps and deafening applause and so it returned to the dusty shelves of my brain for 17 years.

In addition to regional weighting, I also proposed a return to an Alternative Vote. This is the system used in 1952 and 1953 in BC, and in fact is used in party leadership selections and candidate nomination meetings. You vote once, but you rank your 1st, 2nd, 3rd (or more) choices, depending on how many candidates. The winner is the one who gets a majority. Essentially, this is how the Socreds improbably came to power in 1952 by climbing the ladder in the second and third counts, usurping the CCF who would have otherwise had the plurality of seats. WAC Bennett did away with the system following the 1953 election. Since 2004, I’ve lost a little bit of my enthusiasm for this system, but I’m still open to it. The benefit is that you can vote with your heart on the first choice and your head with the second. The upstart, little parties can get first votes without threat of vote splitting. And the least-opposed candidate should win in the end. The downside is that it can be a gang-up against the incumbent government, and it can oxygenate fringe parties that can be destructive. However, that’s democracy and an AAV system is not as rewarding to fringe parties as proportional representation.

Finally, I proposed to the Citizens Assembly that non-voting seats should be considered for leaders of un-represented parties that received a minimum percentage of the popular vote, but did not gain a seat. If, say, 10% of British Columbians vote for a party and do not return an MLA, why not provide an opportunity for that party to at least be heard on the floor of the Legislature? They could be provided rights to speak, move motions, and have many of the privileges of MLAs… except vote.

The idea of non-voting representatives is not a new one. The US House of Representatives has six non-voting members – from the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The delegate from the Virigin Islands, Stacey Plaskett, was an Impeachment Manager earlier this year.

Taking the idea of non-voting members a bit further, in 2004, I proposed seats on the floor for Indigenous British Columbians. Again, this is not a new idea. The State of Maine historically had representation in its Assembly for the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe, dating back to the early 1800s, though in recent years, their representation was withdrawn.

The Cherokee Nation asserts that it has treaty rights entitling it to a Delegate to the US Congress. As well, the Choctaw Nation has rights stemming from an 1830 Treaty, but requires Congress to seat their delegate (it’s never happened). These are interesting examples that should challenge us to consider how our Legislative Assembly can include more voices. It does not require departing from the principle of elected members, represented by the people, having the final say. But, I believe, there can be room for more inclusivity in terms of voices.

Should BC consider Indigenous representation on the floor of the House? My 2004 submission was influenced by the work of trail-blazing Member of Parliament and Senator Len Marchand. Len was a great man who fought hard for Indigenous representation. He was the first First Nations MP elected in BC history, in 1968. The fact that Jody Wilson-Raybould was only the second, elected in 2015, goes to show how difficult it has been for Indigenous people to attain elected office. I wrote about this in my blog in 2015, after JWR’s election. In the 1980s, Len advocated for guaranteed representation for Indigenous peoples. His argument, as I recall, was that there should be as many Indigenous voting seats as population warrants. At the time, it amounted to about 9 seats (3% * about 300 seats), but would be more today. My 2004 proposal was more modest and attached itself to US-style non-voting seats. Since then, there are now three First Nations MLAs in the Legislature, but that shouldn’t be any reason to be complacent. Until Melanie Mark’s election in 2016, there had only been two First Nations MLAs in BC history – Frank Calder and Larry Guno – and they were both elected in the now-extinct riding of Atlin. I would like to see more First Nations elected at riding level, and I think my 2021 proposal on rural ridings will help that to some extent. In terms of non-voting seats on the floor, I would leave that entirely to the opinion of Indigenous leaders as to whether they thought the idea had merit or not. (And by the way, I recommend the biographies of both Len Marchand and Frank Calder).

With reference to the Citizens Assembly above, for those who aren’t aware, or had forgotten, it was an initiative of the Gordon Campbell government to consider options as to how BC governs itself. Former BC Liberal leader and respected commentator Gordon Gibson was appointed to develop recommendations on how such an Assembly could be structured. Two people, a man and a woman, from each of BC’s then-79 ridings were selected basically at random, plus two Indigenous members, and finally, the chair of the Assembly, Jack Blaney, who was appointed by the government. It had a brilliant staff including Dr. Ken Carty and reformed journalist Don MacLachlan. The Assembly members toured BC and heard from citizens like myself who had ideas about how BC should be represented. They produced recommendations and a report that was submitted to the Legislature, and their recommendations were put to referendum in 2005. The Campbell government required a threshold of 60% of the vote with a majority in 60% of the ridings.

While the Citizens Assembly did not take my advice, they did develop recommendations that were supported by its members. I appreciated the opportunity to have my say. In the end, their proposal, complicated as it was, almost succeeded, winning majority support in 77 of 79 constituencies but falling short of the 60% support required. Elections BC report is here. A similar proposal was put to province-wide referendum again in 2009, but failed by a wider margin. A government-driven proposal for proportional representation failed recently by referendum, in 2018. I wrote about my opposition to that proposal here.

As for the current Electoral Boundaries process, we’ll see what happens. More to say on that later.

BC final count seat flips

It comes down to math: how slim is the margin and how many votes are outstanding? US election? No, we’re still Biden time waiting for the British Columbia final count.

In the seven closest seats where BC Liberals are leading, two require a slight deviation from Election Day results to flip the results to the NDP – Vernon-Monashee and Abbotsford-Mission.

Vernon-Monashee incumbent MLA Eric Foster leads by 0.9% while the pile of outstanding votes represents 31% of total ballots. Therefore, the NDP challenger needs to win the remaining pile by 2.1% to win (an overall swing of 3%). In Abbotsford-Mission, NDP challenger and Mission’s Mayor Pam Alexis needs to win the remaining pile of votes (29% of all votes) by 2.5%, a modest swing of 3.6% compared to the Election Day count.

The NDP needs to win the remaining pile of votes in Vancouver-Langara and Surrey-White Rock by 7% and 7.4% respectively, which would be swings of 12.8% and 11.7% respectively.

Surrey South, Kamloops-North Thompson, and Fraser-Nicola look on the outer realm of possibility given the 18%-20% swings required to flip the seats orange.

What about the ridings with slim NDP leads? ‘Everyone’ assumes the NDP have an advantage on mail-in and absentee, but there is one riding where the margin is razor-thin: Richmond-South Centre.

BC Liberal Alexa Loo trails the NDP’s Henry Yao by 124 votes or a 1.5% margin. While there are only 5,280 ballots to be counted, there were only 8,150 votes counted on Election Day. Almost 40% of the total votes are yet to be counted and Loo needs to win the remaining pile by 2.3%. This is when you wonder at what point in the campaign people cast their vote, and whether there might be cultural or demographic differences in the make-up of voters that push the outcome to Loo or Yao.

It’s a tougher slog for other BC Liberal candidates, who require double-digit swings in order to overtake their adversaries. In Vancouver-False Creek, over half of the votes are yet to be counted. Is there a Sam Sullivan factor given his high name recognition? He needs a 12.7% swing.

Parksville-Qualicum’s incumbent MLA Michelle Stilwell has the highest number of outstanding votes to be counted, among the close races. With 13, 308 outstanding votes, representing 42% of the total, Stilwell is hoping that her base of older supporters went to bed early and voted-by-mail. She needs a 12.2% swing. Similarly for newcomers Matt Pitcairn in Richmond-Steveston who needs a 12.1% swing to overtake the NDP’s Kelly Greene, while Margaret Kunst needs an 11.3% swing in Langley East to topple the NDP’s Megan Dykeman.

The riding of Chilliwack-Kent will resolve itself in the final count as incumbent MLA Laurie Throness trails the NDP’s Kelli Paddon by 195 votes or a 1.2% margin. Throness is no longer a part of the BC Liberal fold, but he may still benefit from votes cast by mail earlier in the campaign by voters who assumed they were voting for him on that basis. It will be one of the top 4 closest ridings to watch.

Talking BC politics on the Herle Burly

It was an honour to be asked to appear on the Herle Burly to talk about the recent BC election. It’s a wide ranging hour-long interview preceding the weekly Herle Burly political panel.

David Herle launched Canada’s premier podcast prior to the 2019 federal election. Along with his crew, Jenni Byrne and Scott Reid, they are a good listen because they’ve been there – they know campaigns, politics, and government from the inside out. They know how to win and they have been cut down hard by the voters too. Don’t trust a politico who says they always win! It means they don’t stick around for the hard times.

David was an ‘old’ Young Liberal when I came onto the scene in the mid 1980s. Like me, he was raised in a part of the country (in his case, Saskatchewan) not known for generating Liberals, especially in the 1980s. At my first national convention in 1986, he was the outgoing president of the Young Liberals of Canada, and soon to be at the very heart of Paul Martin’s brain trust. David guided Mr. Martin through leadership campaigns, one of the most successful reigns as Finance Minister in Canadian history (if not the most), and during his prime ministership.

Have a listen… and subscribe to the Herle Burly to keep informed and entertained.

If you watch the YouTube version, note the carefully curated stack of books – some great picks on BC / Canada for you:

BC history/politics

  • Canyon War, by Daniel Marshall
  • Sojourners in the North, by Lily Chow
  • Breaking Trail, Len Marchand’s bio with Matt Hughes
  • At the Bridge, by Wendy Wickwire
  • Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in power 1972-1975, by Geoff Meggs and Rod Mickleburgh
  • Vancouverism, by Larry Beasley

Canadian history/politics

  • Big Tent Politics, by Ken Carty
  • Elusive Destiny: the political vocation of John Turner, by Paul Litt
  • Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the romance of Canada, by Laurier LaPierre
  • Vimy, by Pierre Berton
  • Contenders, by Allan Gregg, George Perlin, and Patrick Martin

Would have also included All-Native by Rudy Kelly, and He Moved a Mountain: the Life of Frank Calder and the Nisga’a Land Claims Accord, by Joan Harper, if I hadn’t loaned them out!

BC Election from 1 to 87

Which were the strongest NDP and BC Liberal seats? When measuring the difference in vote percentage between the NDP and BC Liberals, once again, Vancouver Mt. Pleasant came out on top.

Based on Election Night numbers, the NDP outdistanced the BC Liberals in 57 seats (finishing ahead of the BC Libs in two seats that elected a Green). The BC Liberals prevailed over the NDP in 30 seats (including one seat that elected a Green).

Thus, the dividing line, so far, between the NDP and BC Liberals is between Chilliwack-Kent (NDP leading) and Vernon-Monashee (BC Liberal leading). Chilliwack-Kent is a bit complicated, so you can back up one seat and you have the NDP leading BC Liberal Alexa Loo in Richmond South Centre. That riding would be the 54th NDP seat and Chilliwack-Kent the 55th.

The left hand column (2017) measures the NDP-BC Liberal difference in the previous election, then the 2020 difference, and third column reports how many places each riding moved in terms of its relative rank. For example, North Coast went from 15th best NDP riding in 2017 to 2nd best in 2020, based on the initial count, while Vancouver-Point Grey dropped from 18th best to 43rd best (UBC students at home? spec tax? or see further below). I’m also interested to know why Surrey-Green Timbers dropped from 14th best to 44th. Those examples aside, the only metric that really matters for the NDP is that they lead the BC Liberals and Greens in 55 seats.

As for the BC Liberals, where you see #40 to #57, those are mainly ridings that they need to win next time to form government and many of them are seats they traditionally won from the 1990s until Saturday. However, the first step is to stop going in the wrong direction, and sliding down the chart.

Some ridings that they lost actually did better, relatively speaking. While Jas Johal lost the initial count by about 900 votes, Richmond-Queensborough actually dropped on the NDP depth chart. Based on difference between NDP and BC Liberal votes, it went from 46th best NDP riding (an NDP loss) in 2017 to 51st best NDP riding in 2020 (an NDP win). A rising tide lifts all boats, or some of them to victory anyway. None of this is much consolation to Jas!

While Dan Davies in Peace River North had the largest margin over the NDP, his actual challenger was BC Conservative leader Trevor Bolin, who netted 35% of the vote. The above table isn’t then an exact indicator of ‘safeness’ when third parties and independents are in the mix, but it does at least establish that Peace North is not painted orange.

What about the Greens? They complicate my table so I will deal with them separately. Let’s look at their top 20 seats by popular vote.

Their best three showings in terms of popular vote were the three wins, but they also had another four ridings over 30%: Powell River-Sunshine Coast, Victoria-Beacon Hill, Nelson-Creston, and Nanaimo-North Cowichan. This is a longer list of winnable Green seats than seen before.

In fact, after their three wins, the next 17 best showings are all in NDP seats. Only one of these Top 20 seats elected a BC Liberal in 2017 (West Vancouver-Sea to Sky).

The good news for the NDP is that they still won 17 of these 20 seats in spite of the Greens taking a significant chunk (and this does explain David Eby’s lower popular vote). The Greens eclipsed the BC Liberals in many Island ridings. The bad news for the NDP is that they have a renewed Green Party in the NDP heartland and there is no nicey-nicey CASA arrangement going forward. It will be interesting to see how the NDP and the Sonia Furstenau-led Greens interact at the old rockpile on Belleville Street.

How Popular Vote = Seats

WARNING. This is a dark art.

BC election results usually follow the pattern of the previous election – the strongest and weakest ridings for each party generally stay the same, but there are exceptions, of course.

If one applies various popular vote scenarios to the previous map, you can see how the seats move. Thus, I applied popular vote scenarios for the NDP and BC Liberals to the 2017 map and produced seat estimates.

As you can see below, 40% for NDP and 40% for BC Libs produces the seat count from 2017 – 43 BC Lib, 41 NDP, and 3 Green.

If, when this is all done, the NDP have 46% and BC Libs 37%, then the dart lands 50 NDP seats, 35 BC Lib, and 2 Greens. If BC Libs win 41% of the vote and NDP 39%, then it’s a BC Lib majority of 45 seats to 39 seats. Since the polls have mainly showed NDP leads, most of the scenarios have NDP majorities. However, if the BC Libs exceed 46% of the popular vote tonight, I will be delighted to update my blog post.

Exceptions, exceptions, exceptions. I know, I know. This is a crude, one-size-fits-all approach. While this model does not show it, it is possible for the BC Liberals to win a plurality of seats while losing the popular vote if regional differences become more pronounced. For example, if BC Libs win seats by small margins, especially in rural BC, but get blown out in NDP strongholds, that could happen. The reverse took place in 1996 when Glen Clark led the BC NDP to a majority government despite losing the popular vote by 3 points.

I prefer a more regionalized model that is more fine-tuned to shifts within urban-suburban-rural audiences. But, that’s a lot of work, and I need to have dinner. Can’t blog on an empty stomach … especially on Election Night.

The most ‘outstanding’ ridings

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

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

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

2017 election:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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