Where does the NDP pathway lead?

Jaggernaut.  Jagmentum.  Jagmeet Singh has been the story of the campaign since the English-language debate – in English Canada – where the NDP, for most of its history, has won its seats.

Until 2011, the NDP’s political game plan was all about Canada outside Québec – the rest of Canada (ROC). It has only won multiple seats in Québec twice – the previous two elections.  Historically, NDP vote in ROC ran far ahead of its vote in Québec. But in 2011 and 2015, that equation changed, with NDP vote in ROC running behind the national number, because of NDP strength in Quebec.

Table 1: NDP popular vote and seat share (1997 to current poll estimates in 2019)

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Layton’s Quebec surge of 2011 did not translate the same way in ROC. Even at its peak in 2011, the NDP was only at 26% of the vote in ROC, which translated into the NDP winning only 19% of ROC seats, running well behind the Harper Conservatives. Happily for the NDP in that election, 59 seats of the 75 seats in Quebec went orange, more than doubling their best-ever seat count in a federal election.

In 2015, the NDP plummeted in ROC from 26% to 18% – a lower level than all four of Jack Layton’s elections between 2004-2011, and resulted in only 11% of the seats from ROC.  – half of those (14) were in British Columbia.  The remaining seats were in Alberta (1), Saskatchewan (3), Manitoba (2), and Ontario (8).  

Table 1: NDP by the numbers in Canada and ROC (1997-2015)

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Jagmentum?

Clearly, the NDP leader has been the recipient of well-deserved positive media coverage since the English debate, and he has campaigned well throughout the writ period.  How does it translate into seats?

In ROC, the NDP looks to be at or above where it finished the 2015 election under the leadership of Thomas Mulcair.  However, they will likely lose all or almost all of their 16 seats in Québec.  That’s a lot of seats to make up in ROC, especially when they are still a fair distance below the historic ROC highs of Jack Layton’s 2011 campaign (44 seats) and Ed Broadbent’s effort in 1988 (43 seats in ROC).  In other words, to come out even in this campaign with 2015 (which was a disappointment that caused the resignation of Mulcair), Singh will have to pull off a record performance in ROC.

Even if Singh’s NDP pushed it to Laytonesque levels (26% in ROC), the NDP would still be far behind the major parties.  As it sits right now, the NDP may be the fourth place party in the House of Commons behind the Bloc Québécois.

The more impactful consequence may be the NDP feasting on Liberal votes in suburban battlegrounds where the Conservatives stand to benefit.  NDPers can also rightly assert that their rise may come at the expense of Conservatives in other places, such as the BC Interior where two NDP incumbents face tough re-election battles.

The campaign momentum is surely a welcome reprieve from the doom many NDPers feared.   To their credit, the federal NDP has finally shaken off its extended phase of self-destruction and unsteady start of Mr. Singh. It was only four years plus a month ago that the NDP were on the very verge of power with Thomas Mulcair.  Now, here they are celebrating momentum that will deliver, what, 30 seats?   Singh’s comeback started with winning the Burnaby South by-election, and, now, the NDP has stabilized itself on a footing very consistent with its history, but a long way from what a 2015 pathway looked like: Quebec domination plus seats in all regions.

So, who is really cheering Jagmentum in the final week? Scheerly, you can figure that out.

Liberal pathways to victory

If the Big Red Machine rolls to victory on October 21st, how will it be done? Regional seat balances have been like whack-a-mole this election.  In this post, I look at examples of Liberal wins, and the regional coalitions they were based on, since the 1960s – and which of these scenarios Justin Trudeau’s Liberals might emulate this time.  (See my recent post on Conservative pathways to power).

Will it be:

  • Lester Pearson’s near miss in 1965
  • Pierre Trudeau’s close shave in 1972
  • Pierre Trudeau’s Central Canadian Special in 1980
  • Jean Chrétien’s ‘Ontario, baby!’ win in 1997 (a model he used three times), or
  • Paul Martin’s missing majority in 2004
  • Or a repeat of the all-in majority of 2015?

Pearson 1965: the near miss

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He loved baseball but couldn’t hit the home run in 1965

Lester Pearson won a minority in 1963, defeating John Diefenbaker’s minority government that was elected in 1962.  The 1965 campaign was their fourth battle and Diefenbaker seemed out of gas.  Pearson recruited three star candidates in Québec by the names of Pelletier, Marchand, and Trudeau.  Despite boosting support there, Diefenbaker stubbornly clung to support in the rest of Canada (ROC), and rolled back Liberal support to some extent in the west and Atlantic Canada.  The math came up a little short with Pearson winning 49% of the seats (131 of 265).  Tommy Douglas’s NDP held the balance of power along with the Social Credit/ Créditistes.  Pearson won almost three-quarters of Québec, a majority in Ontario, but did poorly in the West.

Won big in Quebec, majority in Ontario, but lost badly in the west

PET’s close shave in 1972

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Land was Strong, but campaign wasn’t

Pierre Trudeau’s first win was in the height of Trudeaumania in 1968.  He won two-thirds of the seats in B.C. along with a strong showing in Central Canada.  By getting more out of the west, he had done what Pearson couldn’t do – win a majority.

The mood soured by 1972.  In the rematch with Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, Trudeau’s Liberals were very much on the back foot, and reduced to 38% of the vote and 109 seats in a Parliament of 265 members.  The Liberals sunk below thresholds that Pearson had won with in 1965, scraping by with a two-seat margin over the PC’s because of its strength in Québec where they won over half of their seats (56).

Won big in Québec, lost majority in Ontario and Atlantic, lost badly in the west

PET’s Central Canadian Special in 1980

Screen Shot 2019-10-12 at 2.20.33 PM.pngIn his fifth and final election campaign, Pierre Trudeau drove the Central Canadian Special right down the gut of Canada’s electoral map, winning a majority with 147 of 282 seats (52%).  He took 99% of the seats in Québec and a majority of seats (55%) in Ontario.  He had a little help from the Atlantic too, where  he had a better result (59%) than the previous two examples.  In the west, the Liberals were virtually extinguished, winning two seats in Manitoba.  Nuttin’ in BC, Alberta, or Saskatchewan.  Blanked in the North as well.

Dominated Québec, majorities Ontario and Atlantic, nowhere in the west

Jean Chrétien’s ‘Ontario, baby!’ in 1997 (and 1993 and 2000)

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“Ontario was really good to me, like really really really good”

In his first re-election campaign, Jean Chrétien’s Liberals took 155 of 301 seats for a majority.  It was not the mandate that Chrétien received in 1993 but it was still a majority.  No party has ever relied upon one region so thoroughly as the Liberals did in this campaign – Ontario – where they won 101 of 103 seats.  Ontario accounted for 65% of the Liberal Caucus.  This was due to a stubborn vote split where the PC’s and Reformers played chicken with the Liberals coming out on top.  Even the NDP couldn’t figure out how to steal some seats from the the wily Shawinigan fox in Ontario.  Unlike PET and the Central Canadian Special, Chrétien only won about one-third of the seats in Québec, and also failed to win a majority of seats in the Atlantic and the west, though he had a much stronger showing in the west and north than PET did in 1980.  Chrétien’s Ontario, baby! formula was entirely based on the opposition’s lack of unity.  Though it worked three times, it was not sustainable.

Dominated Ontario, got enough from Québec, Atlantic, and west to reach majority

Paul Martin’s missing majority in 2004

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And now the opposition gets organized?!

Paul Martin looked like an unstoppable force when he won the Liberal leadership in 2003 but he was bedevilled by lingering scandal from the decade-old Liberal government.  New Conservative leader Stephen Harper chipped away, as did new NDP leader Jack Layton.  The opposition was now much stronger than the Chrétien years.

Martin did better in the Atlantic and came in about the same in the west as Chrétien, but he could not replicate the Ontario dominance and fell a bit in Québec.  Losing 31 seats in Central Canada cost him the majority.  Under any other circumstance, winning 70% in Ontario would be a huge accomplishment but it wasn’t the 98% that Chrétien had, and he couldn’t make those seats up in other regions.

Strong majority in Ontario and Atlantic, weak in Québec and the west

Justin Trudeau’s all-in majority in 2015
Justin Trudeau’s majority in 2015 (54% of seats) was unlike these other examples.  It was much more balanced than his father’s majority in 1980 – not as dependent on Québec and much stronger in the west, winning almost 30% of the seats there (the most of any example discussed).  Justin won two-thirds of the seats in Ontario, half in Québec, and 100% in Atlantic Canada.  There were no glaring regional weaknesses.  Of all the examples, this was the most regionally representative.

Strong majority in Ontario, dominant in Atlantic, majority in Québec, competitive in west

Chart 1: Results from six Liberal wins (popular vote %, and seat %)

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What it means for Justin Trudeau, this time

Screen Shot 2019-10-13 at 1.19.16 PMThe examples discussed demonstrate that you can win by utterly dominating a large region, as PET did in 1980 and Chrétien did in 1993, 1997, and 2000.  However, if there’s not domination, there must be some regional balance.  Justin Trudeau’s pathway is regional balance.

It looks like it will be very difficult to replicate the regional strength he had in 2015.  Seats will be given up in the Atlantic.  The Bloc Québécois is a stronger contender this time making it difficult to hold 40 seats (not impossible).  The likely pathway to victory is a strong majority of seats in Ontario and Atlantic, bolstered by getting enough seats out of Québec and the west to win a plurality.  Without regional dominance, it depends on broad popular support, which works on a rising tide, but can be fatal when the tide goes out.  The Liberal 2019 position looks very similar to the regional shape of Paul Martin’s 2004 results.  It does not look like 1972 when PET nearly lost his first re-election bid.  Justin Trudeau is much stronger in ROC, but weaker in Québec than his father.  The final week will show if the Liberals can stay on a pathway to victory.  Like the Conservative pathway, it is not an easy one.

**

Table 1: Results from six Liberal wins

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Conservative pathways to power

Does Andrew Scheer have a pathway to power?

One way to find out is to ask how the math worked for six (Progressive) Conservative wins dating back to 1962.  Excluding the freakishly large Mulroney win in 1984, examples of Conservative wins provide insight as to how Andrew Scheer can find his pathway to power.

Of these six examples, only two resulted in majorities.  One example – Mulroney ’88 – was the ‘Quebec-Alberta bridge’, where the PC’s dominated in both.  The second example – Harper 2011 – was domination in English Canada.

Diefenbaker 1962

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Nice maps

Dief won a minority government in 1962 following a massive majority he won in 1958.  The Progressive Conservatives won 44% of the seats on 37.2% of the popular vote.  The plurality was based on winning two-thirds of the seats in the West and North and two-fifths of the seats in Ontario.  He lost the huge gains he had made in Quebec.

Won big in the West, fell short in Ontario

Clark 1979

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Majority: close but no cigar

It was a long wait for the PC’s to win another government and Joe Clark came close to a majority (48% of seats) with less than 36% of the popular vote.  No government has won a majority with less than 38%.  Clark lost the popular vote by over 4%.  How did he win a plurality? Domination in the West, winning almost three-quarters of the seats, and winning a strong majority (60%) of seats in Ontario. While he won a majority of seats in Atlantic Canada, he was virtually shut out of Quebec. This template was virtually the one Harper won a majority with in 2011.

Won big in the West, won majority in Ontario, but blown out in Quebec

Mulroney 1988

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Mulroney did what no other Conservative could do in last 60 years – win Quebec

Brian Mulroney won everywhere in 1984 in what was truly a change election. However, in 1988, the ‘free trade election’, it was much more competitive.  In the West, Mulroney had to contend with an upstart Reform Party and strong NDP campaigns.  He managed a majority of seats in the West (54%) but it was lowest level of the six examples – while Alberta was dominated by PCs, BC went NDP and Liberals made gains in Manitoba.  The PC’s did not win a majority of seats in Ontario (47%) but came close.  The big difference was Quebec.  Unlike the five other examples, Mulroney won big in la belle province, taking 84% of its seats.  The Quebec-Alberta bridge delivered a majority – the PC’s held 57% of the seats in the House of Commons.

Won big in Quebec to complement bare majority (50%) of seats in combined West/Ontario

Harper 2006

In Stephen Harper’s first successful election, he won a minority (40% of seats) with 36% of the popular vote.  The Conservatives won two-thirds of the seats in the West but less than two-fifths of the seats in Ontario.  The shape of Harper’s win was similar to Dief’s in 1962 except that Dief won in Atlantic Canada and Harper fell far short.  Both did poorly in Quebec.

Won big in the West, fell short in Ontario

Harper 2008

Stephen Harper fought hard for a majority in 2008 but fell just short with 46% of the seats on 38% of the popular vote.  The shape of this win was similar to 2006, except that the Conservatives were stronger in the West (76% of seats) and Ontario (48% of seats).  They continued to fall short in Quebec (13%) and Atlantic Canada (31%).  Compared to 1962 and 1979, the West/Ontario rose from 59% to 65% of the seats in the House of Commons making it more possible to win with a strong position in those regions, but Harper needed a clear win in Ontario in 2008 and he didn’t get it.

Won big in the West, fell short in Ontario

Harper 2011

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Partying likes it’s 2011

Harper finally gets his majority winning 54% of the seats with 40% of the popular vote. The Conservatives dominated the West (78% of seats) and Ontario (69% of seats).  They also raised their game in Atlantic Canada (44% of seats) while falling back in Quebec (7% of seats).  The Harper win was a souped-up Joe Clark pathway to power – winning everywhere while being trounced in Quebec.  The difference was that Harper got more out of the West and Ontario than Clark.

Won very big in the West, won strong majority in Ontario

Table 1:   Popular vote, Percentage of total seats for examples

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What it means for Scheer

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Can he make it to 170?

Even if Scheer wins 20%-25% of the seats in Quebec, he must dominate Western Canada while pushing toward a majority of seats in Ontario.  There are now more seats in these two regions than there were in the examples listed above.

  • West/North 107 seats
  • Ontario 121 seats
  • Combined 228 seats (67% of all seats in the House of Commons)

The Conservatives are expected to dominate Alberta and Saskatchewan, but will need to improve their standings in BC and Manitoba, compared to 2015, in order to get the seats needed to win a plurality of seats.  Without a strong showing expected in Quebec, Scheer would need over two-thirds of the seats in the West to ‘pull its weight’, which would equate to over 70 seats.  Other than Mulroney ’88, the (Progressive) Conservative wins have had at least 42% of all of their seats from the West, and in Harper’s minorities, over 50% of Conservatives seats came east of Ontario.  If that was to be the case this time, Scheer would need to push north of 75 seats in the West, meaning he will need to do much better in BC.

Winning just half of the seats in Ontario would yield 60 seats for the Conservatives. Therefore, the Conservatives could scrape a plurality by adding a combined 20-25  seats from Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

A Scheer majority comes into play if he follows the “Win big in the West, win majority in Ontario” model.  If he has a dominant effort in the West (75-80 seats) combined with majority-plus in Ontario (70-75 seats), topped off by 20-30 seats in Quebec in Atlantic Canada, then a majority (170) is attainable.  The popular vote required to deliver a majority is, historically at least 38.5% of the vote, but with more parties splitting votes (eg. Greens, PPC), it’s possible that the magic number is 37% or even lower.

Prime Minister Scheer?  It could look like a Dief/Clark minority path or a Harper majority path, but it won’t be easy and it won’t look anything like the Mulroney path.

In a future post, I will look at the Liberal path to re-election.

**

Table 1: Results from six (Progressive) Conservative wins

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What is the magic number for a majority in #Elxn43?

We all know that it’s seats that matter, not the popular vote.

How does popular vote translate to seats, and what is the threshold for winning a minority or a majority in federal politics?

In the past 60 years, the magic number has been a minimum of 38.5% for a majority and a minimum of 35.9% for a plurality of the seats, which historically leads to a minority government.  The highest popular vote that did not translate into a majority was 41.5%, therefore, the modern-day range has been 38.5% to qualify for a majority and over 41.5% to be free and clear of a minority.

In 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals finished above the 38.5% ‘minimum’ for majority governments, earning 39.5% of the popular vote.

Chart: Popular vote of party that formed government with plurality of seats

Slide1In fact, only Lester Pearson’s Liberals were unlucky enough to be above the 38.5% mark and not win a majority – in consecutive elections too.  John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives were on the 38.5% line in 1957 and missed out on a majority that time. In 1958, he took care of business with a majority of seats and votes.

Jean Chrétien in 1997 had the lowest popular vote at 38.5% in past 50 years to win a majority.  Here is a list of the majorities and popular vote since 1957:

Majorities PM Vote
1958 Dief 53.7%
1968 PET 45.4%
1974 PET 43.2%
1980 PET 44.3%
1984 Mulroney 50.0%
1988 Mulroney 43.0%
1993 Chrétien 41.2%
1997 Chrétien 38.5%
2000 Chrétien 40.9%
2011

2015

Harper

Trudeau

39.6%

39.5%

Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives had the lowest popular vote to win a plurality of seats (35.9%).  Not only that, he lost the popular vote by five points to Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals, but he still won more seats.  Here are the minority governments:

Minorities PM Vote
1957 Dief 38.5%
1962 Dief 37.2%
1963 Pearson 41.5%
1965 Pearson 40.2%
1972 PET 38.4%
1979 Clark 35.9%
2004 Martin 36.7%
2006 Harper 36.3%
2008 Harper 37.7%

Sure, a majority could be earned nationally with less than 38.5% of the vote.  It’s happened provincially.  François Legault won a majority with 37.4% of the vote in Québec’s 2018 election.  The Bob Rae government scored 57% of the seats with 37.6% of the vote in 1990.

The 2019 election and after

So far in the 2019 election, the public polls indicate that the two contending parties – Liberals and Conservatives – are falling below the 38.5% threshold.

If they continue to hover in the 35% range, the likelihood of Jagmeet Singh’s NDP, Yves-François Blanchet’s Bloc Québécois, and/or Elizabeth May’s Greens holding the balance of power increases.  It could even be an independent if the margin between minority and majority is razor thin.

Canada was governed by minority governments from 2004 to 2011.  It was Jack Layton’s NDP that pulled the plug on Paul Martin’s Liberal government.  Stephen Harper’s Conservatives governed with a minority for five years thanks to the NDP.

This time, winning a plurality of seats is no ticket to the Prime Minister’s Office.  Jagmeet Singh has said as much.  Elizabeth May says she may not decide to prop up anyone.  Andrew Scheer may find it harder to pull together confidence than Stephen Harper – the Bloc Quebecois may be his only hope, which would be ironic when considering the aftermath of the 2008 election.

Crossing that line of 38.5%, or wherever it exactly lies, will ensure the government is decided on election day.  Falling short means that winning the confidence of 338 Members of Parliament will be the election that takes place soon after, and that will be decided in the backrooms.

50 years ago: Sweet triumph and dashed hopes on the campaign trail in B.C.

50 years ago this week, in the riding of Dewdney, an earnest 36-year old father of five stepped into a provincial election campaign, hopeful for a breakthrough for a new generation of politics. Instead, Premier W.A.C. Bennett outfoxed the opposition parties, earning an unprecedented seventh consecutive term.

It was W.A.C.’s greatest and sweetest electoral triumph, but it was also his last.

This is the story of that campaign, what led up to it, and how its outcome changed the course of BC politics. It’s also the story of Peter McDonald, Liberal, Dewdney riding.

My Dad.

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Front page of 4-page McDonald campaign brochure

Leading up to 1969

Politics were very lively in the 1960s. Federally, John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson dueled three times between 1962 and 1965.

Unrest and tumult south of the border were in full view – civil rights, Vietnam, and, in 1968, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Pierre Trudeau catapulted into the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada on a wave of “Trudeaumania.”

The times were a changin’, but not so much in British Columbia.

The Social Credit government was clocking in at 17 consecutive years. Impatient politicians like 36-year old BC NDP leader Tom Berger, an accomplished lawyer, and 42-year old BC Liberal leader Pat McGeer, a prominent academic, sought to surf generational undercurrents into office against the man who seemed from another time – W.A.C. Bennett.

The response from this 69-year old, teetotalling merchant from Kelowna? The Good Life– a grand narrative of progress under Social Credit rule combined with blunt attacks on the Opposition as Marxist radicals.

Like many long-serving governments, they were young when they started but now looking old.

In the previous four elections, W.A.C. had faced NDP (and CCF) leader Robert Strachan. Each time, same result – a Socred majority. In six mandates, the Socreds had disposed of three CCF/NDP leaders, not to mention chewing through Liberal and Conservatives leaders as well.

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B.C. popular vote: 1952-1966

Though Strachan was 13 years younger than W.A.C., he was facing a challenge from a even younger generation within the NDP. In 1966, Tom Berger was elected MLA from Vancouver Burrard at age 32. He had already been a one-term Member of Parliament, president of the BC NDP, and built a reputation as a labour and aboriginal rights lawyer.

There was no doubt he was an up-and-comer.

Berger challenged Strachan in 1967. In a party convention, Strachan pushed Berger back and remained leader, but the damage was done – to Strachan, and ultimately to Berger too. The party was deeply divided. Strachan resigned as leader in 1969, setting up a leadership race between Berger, backed by Labour leaders, and Dave Barrett, first elected in 1960 and, like Berger, still in his 30s.

It was a hotly contested battle. Berger edged out Barrett, entrenching deep divisions. It was now Berger’s task to dethrone W.A.C., a man clearly of another era.

Meanwhile, the Liberals were also in the midst of a change. Outgoing leader Ray Perrault took on the leadership in 1959 and led the party through three elections. He restored credibility, electing a small but talented caucus – but the party was stuck on 20% of the popular vote. It wouldn’t budge.

Perrault opted to leave for federal politics and in 1968, pulled off one of the great upsets in BC federal political history, shockingly defeating national NDP leader Tommy Douglas.

A leadership was contested between two seatmates from Point Grey – Dr. Pat McGeer and Garde Gardom, with McGeer prevailing. The nephew of former Vancouver mayor/MLA/Senator/MP Gerry McGeer, he had a political pedigree and lengthy list of education credentials to match it. He entered the 1969 campaign, leading a strong slate of candidates,  sure it was their time for a breakthrough.

In the riding of Dewdney, stretching from the blueberry farms of Pitt Meadows to the corn fields of Agassiz, a young, small businessman was gearing up for his provincial run.

Peter McDonald engaged his passion for politics when he moved to Haney in 1959. He managed his brother’s federal Liberal campaign in 1965, was elected as Alderman in Maple Ridge, and was an active participant in Liberal conventions. He even had a chance encounter with Robert Kennedy during the 1968 primaries, further adding fuel to his political engine.

PMM launch.png

For years, he ran the Haney Liberal association, which had a strong and active membership. Now was the time to plant a Liberal flag in a riding that had swung in recent years between the NDP and the Socreds. Held by Socred cabinet minister Lyle Wicks in the 1950s, a social worker named Dave Barrett took a job at Haney Correctional Institute. He was encouraged to run by a visiting CCF MLA and then tracked down the local CCF stalwart (and renowned school teacher) Hank Tyson in a Haney parking lot to declare his interest. As Barrett became politically active, he was fired by the Social Credit government. It was front page news; Barrett went on to win the NDP nomination and ultimately dispatched Wicks in the 1960 election.

Barrett represented Dewdney until 1966 then moved to a newly-created seat after a boundaries change. That opened up Dewdney for George Mussallem, a local car dealer whose father, Sol, was a longtime reeve of Maple Ridge. Mussallem restored the seat to the Socreds in 1966 and was readying himself for re-election in 1969. The NDP nominated young lawyer Stu Leggatt.

For McDonald, winning would be a longshot, but the wave of Trudeaumania that propelled Liberals to their best-ever showing in B.C. was just a year old. They hoped a tired governing party would find that momentum irresistible.

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Three images above are a one-fold, horizontal flip brochure for McDonald campaign (front, inside, back).  The candidate is clearly starting far into the future while the rest of the family is clearly delighted that the youngest child is asleep in his cradle. On inside flap, a copywriter’s line has double-meaning: “His wife, Helen, and their five children have provided Peter with justifiable reason to be concerned about problems facing Dewdney and B.C.” I’ll say!

The Good Life

W.A.C. headed into the 1969 campaign touting The Good Life. David Mitchell writes:

Screen Shot 2019-08-29 at 8.39.59 AMAfter seventeen years in power, Canada’s senior premier declared: “Today, British Columbia is the No. 1 haveprovince in the nation… No other government with only 2 million people can do what we are doing”. In the spring of 1969, in what was widely believed to be the kickoff for a provincial election, the premier embarked on a 10,000 mile grandstanding tour of the province showing audiences of all sizes a controversial government-commissioned film, a glossy review of the rise of British Columbia. Its title was – what else – “The Good Life”.

Underpinning TheGood Life were the benefits that flowed from natural resource development, industrial expansion, and fiscal restraint. While governments elsewhere ran deficits, W.A.C.’s governments ran surpluses. This message spoke to the Socred base of small businesses, farmers, and, generally, rural BC. In 1969, the outlying areas of the province had much more political clout than they do today.

The May 8, 1969, edition of the Vancouver Sun ran the transcript of The Good Lifein its entirety. It describes successes, industry by industry, from forestry to petroleum to tourism. W.A.C. describes new programs to assist young homeowners, and extolls the province’s health care and education system, and its parks and natural beauty. The 27-minute film closes with W.A.C.’s final exhortation:

“Through this great unity of purpose British Columbians have achieved the good life and we are on the way to become an affluent society. In this abundant life, God has given us a great trusteeship. He has given us an opportunity to serve our generation not only our generation but those yet to come. And for my part in that purpose I am truly grateful.”

W.A.C. took the film on the road, showing it to audiences across the province. Barely three years into his mandate, only he knew when the next election would take place. The other parties would be kept guessing while the Premier assessed the effectiveness of his publicity blitz.

A Prince George Progress editorial (June 4th, carried in the Hope Standard), sums up the skepticism toward the film and also its effectiveness.

“The Good Life” was shown at the Northern Interior Lumbermen’s Convention on Friday and in several occasions becomes obvious why it’s controversial… The film, which opens and closes with the Premier’s smiling countenance and expansive feelings about B.C. also tends to boggle the mind with facts and figures… All in all, however, the film does justice to the province and if there was ever a media capable of enticing immigrants from “those other provinces”, “The Good Life” is it.

 W.A.C.’s devotion to The Good Life message was impressive. Upon astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps on the moon, he remarked to the press gallery “he still thanks God for ‘the good earth’ and B.C. in particular – the province of the ‘the good life’”. In that same interview, he was asked about rumors of a potential fall election. W.A.C. said his mind “is only on that wonderful flight to the moon.”

He called the election the very next day.

The Electoral Standings

The parties entered the 1969 campaign much as they had in the previous four. The Socreds ranged from 39% to 46%; the CCF from 28% to 34%; and the Liberals were on a very small decline from 22% to 20%. For their part, the Progressive Conservatives had been vanquished.

The Campaign Kicks Off with Turbo-Polarization

“Bennett Lays His Good Life on the Line” is the above the fold headline on July 22nd.

The page one article quotes W.A.C. as saying Marxist socialism is masquerading under the name of the NDP and that he was staking his party on the “bread and butter issue” – the welfare of B.C. workers.

W.A.C. said, “This will be the election of the great switch. Liberals and Conservatives will be voting for us as they have never before… The issue is a clear-cut one between the NDP Marxian socialists and the free enterprise Social Credit.”

Berger retorted that the election announcement was a “hysterical outburst by a pathetic old man clinging desperately to office”.

McGeer was bullish: “I would certainly be satisfied with a minority government, although of course, everyone hopes to win a majority. There’s no region in which we’re weak. I know we’re going to astonish the press who have misread the situation entirely in terms of free enterprise and socialism.”

The Teams

 The Socreds had continuity at the top, but there was some churn in the team. Longtime Attorney-General Robert Bonner left politics in 1968. While a handful remained, many that started the Socred voyage in 1952 and been outlasted by their premier. Phil Gaglardi was back though. He had been bounced from cabinet for transgressions but hadn’t given up on politics.

The pirate mayor of Nanaimo Frank Ney had emerged to take on NDP MLA Dave Stupich. W.A.C. hoped to win Oak Bay with Dr. Scott Wallace and wrestle the seat from the Liberals. Former Vancouver mayor, and former Liberal candidate, Bill Rathie, was recruited to run against McGeer and Gardom. Football and broadcasting legend Annis Stukus contested North Vancouver-Seymour against Liberal MLA and broadcaster Barrie Clark.

Berger had only been leader since the spring. He had 17 seats, and would need another 11 for a majority. Two seats were for the taking in Vancouver-Centre, contested by Emery Barnes and lawyer William Deverell. The Party had won a byelection in Vancouver South and hoped for a second seat for Party linchpin John Laxton. Ridings with significant unionized workforces like Skeena, Alberni, and Rossland Trail were in Socred hands.

McGeer started with a base of six MLAs concentrated in  Point Grey and the North Shore, with one MLA in Oak Bay. Renowned UBC forest economist Peter Pearse ran in Vancouver-Little Mountain. David Zirnhelt, the high-profile head of the UBC AMS, ran in his home riding of the Cariboo. Mel Couvelier and Ian Stewart were regarded as strong candidates in Victoria. Rancher Mack Bryson was expected to make a strong showing in Kamloops, following in the footsteps of Len Marchand’s decisive federal win in 1968. Longtime Prince Rupert mayor Pete Lester signed on to McGeer’s team. Young candidates like Tex Enemark (Fort George) and Bob Plecas (Nanaimo) were recruited to fly the flag.

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Progressive Conservative leader John de Wolf was the only candidate for his party, running in  Point Grey.

 The Dewdney campaign

Looking back on the Liberal campaign in Dewdney, it was impressive. For a party that had not seen great results there for decades, Peter McDonald was all in.

McDonald pushed the issues with vigor. In a hand scrawled list, planned news releases included “School Taxation Cuts”, “North Shore Highway”, “Incentives for Secondary Industry”, “Blueprint for the Fraser Valley”, “Lougheed Highway”, and “B.C. Hydro”. Stories were targeted to newspapers in Haney, Mission, and Agassiz.

IMG_6462He championed water quality in the Alouette River, decrying it as unsafe for swimmers due to a pollution issue upstream from the provincial prison. Photos showed him collecting water samples that were sent to the lab, bolstering his claims.

IMG_6453News releases bombarded local media and he earned mentions in the Vancouver papers as well. Leader Pat McGeer came to the riding to make the rounds (“McGeer listens to Farmers’ Beefs”). Door knocking abounded. Lawn signs sprouted up.

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McGeer (centre) attending campaign event at McDonald home on River Road, Haney.  Helen McDonald (left), Peter McDonald (right)

Political campaigns always have an impact on the family of the candidate; it is very difficult for a candidate to run without his or her family’s full backing. McDonald had the unwavering support of his wife, Helen. Vertical strips from the Haney phone book were tacked to the wall by the phone. Each strip was a column of phone numbers that Helen would phone to seek support for Peter, while raising five kids 13 and under – including me, at 9 months old.

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Shrine to the McDonald campaign on bedroom door

His oldest daughter, Sara, recalled the humiliation of riding in the Liberal parade car desperately trying to avoid being seen by slumping down low and avoiding eye contact with classmates.

McDonald was pulling out the stops – he just needed to wait for that Liberal wave.

NDP candidate Stu Legatt’s campaign ran newspaper ads with that old beauty of a slogan, “Time for a Change.”

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MLA George Mussallem rolled out the Socred messaging: “Socialism has no place here” and “The Good Life is for everybody. We have the system and the government… Our future will be assured.”

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 The Campaign – prosecuting the Marxists

 W.A.C. made his case for the Good Life. However, to sustain his attacks on the new, ‘city slicker’ ‘Marxist’ labour lawyer, Tom Berger, he needed a hook.

Shortly after his bruising leadership campaign against Dave Barrett, Berger said he would nationalize BC Tel. It wasn’t planned, but the policy had been floated by NDP MLAs during the leadership race. It gave W.A.C. an opening. W.A.C. had formed state-run companies BC Ferries and BC Hydro – but in 1969, this was apparently a step too far.

Five days into the campaign, Berger was on page two of the Vancouver Sun explaining his BC Tel promise. That old saying comes to mind, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

According to Pat McGeer’s book Politics in Paradise, Bennett blamed many circumstances on Berger. A wildcat transit strike in Vancouver: “Wasn’t that a terrible thing for Berger to call the bus strike?”

Berger’s own messaging played into Bennett’s strategy. Geoff Meggs and Rod Mickleburgh recount in their book The Art of the Impossible that NDP billboards and newspaper ads featured Berger in a suit carrying a briefcase, with the headline “Ready to Govern.” Berger had told the NDP convention, “The time has come to form government.” Bennett responded with, “Strike pay with Berger or take-home pay with Bennett”.

Having an NDP leader talking about governing was exactly what Bennett wanted. Combined with having Berger on the defensive over BC Tel, he was successfully polarizing the election ensuring that enough voters would reinforce the old premier rather than risk a ‘radical’ NDP government by voting NDP or vote-splitting by voting Liberal.

A key distinction between W.A.C. Bennett’s campaigns and those that followed to current day is the perception of whose side the parties are on. W.A.C. ran against the elites. He nationalized the ferries and the electricity company, and built major hydroelectric dams.

He may have been older, outdated, and not with the times – but he put himself on Main Street, B.C – not a natural place for the labour lawyer or  the Point Grey academic from Point Grey.

The Campaign Takes Shape

There was no leaders’ debate. Opinion polls were forbidden during the campaign. All parties had large rallies around the province where hundreds would attend, often punctuated by heckling.

There was a lot of print media coverage, but it was difficult for the opposition parties to lead the narrative. In a post-election article, Vancouver Sun columnist Allan Fotheringham tabulated that during the campaign, his paper devoted 537.5 inches of type to the Socreds on page one, compared to 273 inches for the NDP, and 159.5 inches to the Liberals. Columnists devoted three times as much ink to the Socreds as the NDP and very little to the Liberals.

Presumably, the Socreds had a much bigger war chest as well, not to mention the Good Life campaign that preceded the campaign.

Regardless, the media –as the media does – generated coverage that built the sense it was a hot race. From afar, the Regina Leader-Post said, “This will be no cut-and-dried contest.” The Toronto Globe & Mail opined that, “Many Canadians, in and out of British Columbia, would rejoice in Mr. Bennett’s defeat”, comparing him to Quebec separatist Réne Levesque. The recent election of Ed Schreyer’s NDP government in Manitoba fueled speculation.

In the first week of the campaign, the Socreds had an unexpected issue in Rossland-Trail. Robert Sommers, who had served as Minister of Forests (and also two years of a five-year jail term for bribery and conspiracy in the issuing of forest management licenses) attempted a political comeback by challenging the Socred incumbent. The drama played out over the first week of the campaign, but ended July 28thwhen Sommers protested the rules and withdrew from the race. A threat to run as an independent did not materialize.

The leaders criss-crossed the province, with a majority of seats outside the Lower Mainland. In fact, it was reported by Canadian Press on July 30ththat McGeer was shadowing Berger’s tour through itinerary a day later.

That same day, W.A.C. struck hard: “Mr. Berger has said himself he’s a Marxist socialist, though he’s trying to back away from it now. He’s scared everybody including himself.” Nine days in, W.A.C. was still on his core message. Ten days in, the Vancouver Sun’s lead editorial was “Mr. Berger and the telephone company…”

On August 7th, W.A.C. continued his focus on making the choice between “Bennett or Chaos; free enterprise or the heavy hand of state socialism”, he charged. That same day, the Province editorial page dedicated more time to Berger’s BC Tel “takeover.”

With 15 days to Election Day, reporter Bob McConnell wrote that, at that point of the campaign, W.A.C. had not toured. While he had traveled to a First Ministers’ conference, when he was in B.C., he was in his riding “sketching out the issue (free enterprise versus Marxian socialism)”.

He had made some promises such as second mortgages at lower interest rates, increased old-age pension supplements, and more spending. None of his cabinet ministers had made any major speeches or policy statements and the party seemed to be relying “mainly on a fat budget for radio, TV, and newspaper advertising.”

Once W.A.C. was on the road, he made waves. In a noisy Salmon Arm rally on August 13th, he said that an anti-Trudeau demonstration in Vancouver was organized by Berger. Amidst the noise of the hecklers, W.A.C. charged, “You can see it here tonight – that’s their tactics.” The Vancouver Sun devoted an article below to Berger’s denial. Berger said, “We have found no one listens to Bennett any more and no one believes him. These attacks make me angry… but I’m not going to reply in kind.”

With 9 days to Election Day, McConnell reported that NDP strategists were “flatly predicting victory,” stating they would hold their 17 seats and pick up another 11 in places like Rossland-Trail, Prince Rupert, Alberni, Dewdney, Nelson Creston, and Vancouver-Centre. The NDP sources claimed they had stronger volunteer support than previous campaigns. Socred strategists responded that they too had unprecedented volunteer support and while Berger and McGeer started touring early, the Socred’s “big guns are just starting to open up.”

At a rally of 800 supporters in Kamloops, W.A.C. promised that ‘Flyin’ Phil Gaglardi would return to cabinet full-time, a rare promise of cabinet-making on the campaign trail. For his part, Berger announced that former NDP leader Bob Strachan would serve his as a “senior cabinet minister” if elected.

On the streets of Vancouver-Centre, NDP candidates Emery Barnes and William Deverell were campaigning aggressively to unseat the two Social Credit incumbents. A post-campaign feature in MacLean’s profiled the duo.

 Liberal Hopes

As the campaign wore on, the Liberals were in desperate bid to stay relevant. They were not without their successes.

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A 700-car parade of Liberal supporters was held in Kamloops, which, by any metric, should be a sign of victory.

McGeer said the Liberals could win a minority government with 21 seats and that eight seats were “swing” seats, which could give him a majority. He even provided a list, which included Dewdney.

 

 

In Dewdney, news releases trumpeted a three-way race. “All our surveys indicate that at the present time the election is a toss-up in Dewdney”, announced the McDonald campaign. “People are dissatisfied with the high-handed, arrogant practices of the Social Credit government.”

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McDonald brought in legendary newspaper editor Ma Murray for a rally late in the campaign, garnering a strong turnout in Haney. Not only did Ma entertain the crowd, she held court at the McDonald household until the wee hours of the morning regaling supporters with her stories while enjoying her drinks.

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McDonald and legendary news editor Ma Murray (Haney, 1969)

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The after-party with Ma Murray, which lasted into the wee hours of the morning.  Ma with promotional posters distributed by campaign volunteers Julia & Sylvia McDonald

The Liberal pitch was that the Socreds couldn’t last forever and a Liberal alternative was needed to keep the NDP out of power. Said McDonald, “Mr. Bennett’s present campaign policy, if successful, would put an NDP government into office in the election after this one.” He was right. But in the meantime, the message wasn’t getting through.

One example of the Socred grip was a generous donation McDonald received from a small businessman. However, not long after, he saw the same man leaving the office of George Mussallem, where he had given an even larger donation. When challenged as to which campaign he was supporting, the small businessman remarked, in effect, “Pete, you’re a nice guy, but you’re not going to win.”

And the water pollution issue that McDonald was making as a centrepiece of the campaign? The Socreds had thwarted him before the campaign even started. The source of the pollution identified, dealt with, and proclaimed safe, with a helpful front page letter to the editor from the local MLA.

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In the outback, Liberals were realistic. In his book, Bill Bennett: A Mandarin’s View, Bob Plecas wrote about his experience as a 24-year old Liberal candidate in Nanaimo. He said he was told by the local newspaper that no matter what he did, including “standing on his head to give answers at all-candidates meeting”, he would get no coverage.

In the final analysis, Plecas said he had more relatives than votes. One headline he did receive in the Nanaimo Daily Free Press was, “McGeer’s Election Tour to Bypass Nanaimo.” McGeer would make it to Nanaimo late in the campaign.

The Final Week

In the homestretch, W.A.C. was returning to his core theme: “NDP Menace to Liberty”. While campaigning on the Sunshine Coast, W.A.C. took on the labour bosses: “It will be a dark day when the workers of this province follow their bosses on political things… I appeal to the union wives. Do you want the good wages you’re getting now? Or strike pay with Berger? Because there will be chaos.”

 Berger was promising to develop a rapid transit system for Vancouver and the Lower Mainland over a new Burrard Inlet crossing. He wanted commuter trains running on existing rail tracks, and BC Hydro (which then ran the bus system) to begin planning a subway system. At an Island rally, Berger promised public auto insurance.

With four days to go, a Canadian Press story quoted W.A.C. as saying, “This is not a campaign. This is just the tour of the province; I’m just a tourist.” He said he was enjoying the campaign “more than any other I’ve ever been in”.

In a separate CP news item, Berger was, again, responding to W.A.C.’s attacks. This time, W.A.C. had said an NDP victory would be like the Russians invasion of Czechoslovakia. Berger called the attacks “absurd.”

Berger pressed on with more campaign planks. On August 25th, he promised a new housing fund to provide first mortgages for home buyers at lower than federal CMHC interest rates.

Berger spoked at a rally of 7,000 in New Westminster. He said, “We’re ready to form a government. I’m calling for unity. I’m calling for mandate. I’m calling for victory.” Manitoba Premier Ed Schreyer voiced his support for Berger and noted that Manitoba has had a publicly-owned telephone company since 1912.

Vancouver Centre candidates Herb Capozzi and Evan Wolfe joined 250 of their campaign volunteers to build a playground at a low-rent housing project in their riding, with donated material. An interesting tactic in a close race.

On the eve of Election Day, Canadian Press reported that election strategists for the three parties were reconciling themselves to a potential minority government. All parties publicly predicted majorities.

Election Night

It was a resounding win for W.A.C. and the Socreds and a crushing loss for the NDP. While not totally unexpected, the Liberals’ optimism was dashed.

Social Credit           46.8%           (+1.2%)        38 seats (+6)

NDP                           33.9%           (+0.3%)        12 seats (-5)

Liberal                     19.0%           (-1.2%)         5 seats (-1)

Riding by Riding results

The 69-year old premier not only secured a 7thmandate for the Socreds, he increased the popular vote and added six seats to assume a dominant position in the Legislature. He defied expectations. He said, “Our cup runneth over.”

While holding the popular vote, the seat count was a disaster for Berger, losing almost one-third of his Caucus, including his own seat. The Liberals were stymied and lost their only seat on Vancouver Island, Oak Bay.

In Dewdney, Socred George Mussallem cruised to an easy victory with 51% of the vote. NDP Stu Leggatt took 37% while Liberal Peter McDonald accounted for 12% of the votes.

Front page headlines:

Vancouver Sun: Socreds Flatten Opposition

The Province: Bennett tightens his grip

Victoria Daily Times: Landslide Win for Bennett

Another Vancouver Sun A1 piece was headlined 7 Straight for Old Master. Sun reporter Dave Ablett writes, “The old man has run out of ideas, they said. And his anti-socialist extremism seemed totally out of place in the sophisticated 60s.” However, according to W.A.C.’s son, Bill, “My father said two weeks ago that it was the easiest campaign he’d run.”

After the Campaign

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Tom Berger (UBC.ca)

At age 36, Tom Berger was done with party politics. Without a seat, he resigned he party
leadership and essentially turned it over to Dave Barrett. Three years later, Barrett would be the premier, decisively defeating W.A.C. Bennett. He ran a very different campaign than Berger, focusing on opposing not governing, and using humor to disarm. Berger continued in law, as lead counsel for the Nisga’a in the historic Calder case, went to the bench, and has enjoyed a celebrated legal career receiving many accolades.

Many NDP candidates who lost in 1969 would be successful in 1972, such as Dave Stupich, Emery Barnes, Bill King, Harold Steeves, and Norm Levi. NDP candidate William Deverell went on to become one of Canada’s best-known novelists.

Pat McGeer continued on as Liberal leader initially, but by 1972 he had stepped away, to be succeeded by David Anderson, then a first-term MP from Victoria. With Anderson, the Liberals regressed. Ultimately, McGeer, his seatmate Garde Gardom, and West Vancouver MLA Allan Williams would cross the floor to the Socreds and join W.A.C.’s son W.R. Bennett for the 1975 campaign, where the Barrett government was defeated. The troika of erstwhile Liberals played senior roles in the younger Bennett’s cabinet.  Gardom went on to be Lieutenant-Governor, McGeer continues, with his wife, as an esteemed medical researcher at UBC.

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W.R. Bennett (2nd from right) with his troika of Liberal MLAs (L to R): Allan Williams, Pat McGeer, and Garde Gardom (Vancouver Sun, 1974)

Liberal candidate Bob Plecas (Nanaimo) would enter the public service and play a major role in the senior ranks for decades. Victoria-area Liberal candidate Mel Couvelier would go on to serve as BC Liberal Party president and Mayor of Saanich, but would ultimately gravitate to the Socreds, running for the leadership in 1986 and served as Finance Minister. Cariboo David Zirnhelt would return to politics as an NDP candidate in the 1989 Cariboo byelection, scoring a major upset over the Socreds, a major event for the NDP on the way to victory in 1991.  He served as senior cabinet minister in the 1990s.

1969: Changing the course of BC politics

The 1969 campaign had two significant impacts.

First, it changed the NDP. Berger’s divisive leadership campaign, which consumed most of the 1966-1969 period, was all for naught. The outcome put the party in Dave Barrett’s hands, who would lead the party in the next four elections – significantly, winning the first in 1972. Under Barrett, the NDP reached record levels of popular vote.

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Barrett’s 1969 brochure

Second, the ’69 campaign had a major impact on the Liberals too. The loss of a seat, and modest dip in popular support were big disappointments. The futility of trying to win as a free enterprise alternative was reinforced in 1972. Within five years of the 1969 election, three Liberal MLAs, including McGeer, dramatically crossed the floor to the Socreds.

In reality, the Liberal formula was flawed. They had not broadened their appeal beyond the “silk stocking” seats of Vancouver and Victoria and lacked a populist appeal. McGeer, an “egghead,” embodied the traditional Liberal base, which Liberals failed to break out of federally or provincially for a generation.

It wasn’t until Gordon Wilson channeled W.A.C. by running against the elites that the Liberals returned to prominence in British Columbia. Gordon Campbell reconstituted the coalition against the ‘Marxist socialists’ that had defined B.C. politics since 1941.

Then there are the little things. In the 1968 Oak Bay byelection, W.A.C. sought the election of a Socred in a seat held by the Liberals for many years. At a rally at Oak Bay High, W.A.C. pleaded, “How many years does a premier have to wait?” Socred Peter Pollen (future mayor of Victoria) was defeated by Oak Bay mayor and Liberal candidate Allan Cox. One year later, Socred candidate Dr. Scott Wallace defeated Cox in what Pat McGeer called “the biggest upset” of 1969. It was certainly upsetting to him.

However, it would soon upset W.A.C. One of only 38 MLAs, Wallace was a mere backbencher and his ideas for health care reform were shot down by the government. By 1971, he had crossed the floor to the Progressive Conservatives, giving them their first MLA in 15 years. Combined with a new, vigorous leader, the Progressive Conservatives would help destroy the Social Credit campaign in 1972. In the end, W.A.C. may have wished Oak Bay voters had waited a little longer.

Thus the stage was set coming out of 1969 for both a stronger NDP and reaction to a stronger NDP – a realigned and consolidated free enterprise movement. By 1975, Barrett had already been premier, and W.A.C.’s son, Bill Bennett, was about to begin, with the former leader of the Liberals at his side.

A candidate’s ending

Like many candidates, Peter McDonald gave it his best shot. “You can’t win if you don’t run” is an argument I have certainly used while recruiting candidates over the years – and his possibilities were much better than other longshot bets that did pay off (like the Liberals in 1991).

And like many candidates, he got it out of his system; he never ran again.

Disappointment at the result, sure, but there’s nothing he could have done. The Liberal opportunity to win in Dewdney would have seemed hopeless after the 1969 campaign – and it was for a generation.

It was the discovery of a box of election materials in the basement that sparked my interest in politics. I could not begin to understand the lists, brochures, and newspaper clippings. It was like another world, one that I would fully embrace once I began to comprehend.

It was a tremendous benefit to me as a young person starting out in politics to have had a father that ran for office, without much chance of winning, but running out of passion and purpose. Much like it was for my friend, Christy, whose dad, Jim Clark, also ran for the Liberals during that era.

As I reflect back on campaigns past, it’s also a reminder that candidates make contributions, even if they don’t have a chance of winning. They drive issues. They hold the leaders accountable. It’s a noble endeavor to run when you are likely not going to prevail.

A further example I took from this campaign was the collegiality. While I was only eight months old during the 1969 campaign, in later years I would often hear my Dad speak about George Mussallem and Stu Leggatt. They were friends. He had a deep respect for both. Despite the polarization and rhetoric at the leadership level, at the local level, there was mutual respect.

Late in the campaign, Dad was going down to defeat. On what I imagine was a sunny August day, he set out to knock on doors on Nicomen Island, a farming community east of Mission. He was greeted like a hero. It seemed like no one had ever bothered to visit farming families there before. He was welcomed into homes for tea and cookies, there were back slaps, and a feeling that support had been won.

On election night, as dismal results flooded in, McDonald leaned over to his brother Harold and said, “Just wait for Nicomen Island to come in.”

Well, the good people of Nicomen Island overwhelmingly voted Socred that day, saving only one vote for McDonald.

Nice guy, that Peter McDonald, but it seems those Nicomen Islanders were enjoying The Good Life and sure as hell didn’t want any Marxist Socialists.

At least, that’s the story I heard.

(Originally published in The Orca)

A local take on the Burnaby South by-election

Guest Shot – by Adam Pankratz.  2015 Liberal candidate in Burnaby South.

Burnaby South has been in the news a lot lately. Burnaby? In the news? Not something we used to read very often, but Burnaby residents have gotten used to the spotlight lately. Whether it’s Kinder Morgan in the north, or Jagmeet Singh in the south, Burnaby’s ridings have been the focal points of several major news stories for 2018 and 2019.

Political observers are talking about how Jagmeet Singh will fare in his bid to gain a seat and become an MP as he deals with turmoil within the NDP. Win or lose Mr. Singh will face serious headwinds…but lose and he’s finished. Will the voters of Burnaby give him his victory and a chance to lead the NDP into the next general election in October?

Kinder Morgan – it’s the issue everyone wanted to talk about 6 months ago, and Jagmeet Singh opened his candidacy by attacking the “leaky pipeline.” I said then that Mr Singh missed the mark with Kinder Morgan, which is a minor issue in Burnaby, and not one that would decide the by-election here. The current situation in Burnaby, despite all the attention heaped on it through the summer and fall, is that no candidate is focused on Kinder Morgan. Burnaby residents are ultimately practical and realistic on Kinder Morgan, as are most Canadians. Responsible resources extraction is necessary for the Canadian economy and the residents here recognize that. It is a very loud minority who made it the issue it was.

What the candidates have all zeroed in on is the major issue in Burnaby of housing. It is the issue which sank Derek Corrigan, the four-term mayor of Burnaby, who lost to current mayor Mike Hurley last October.  Once again, the issue is front and centre. Like all the Lower Mainland, Burnaby is expensive and residents here want to see more action taken at all levels of government.

These issues are in many ways similar to the ones I came across doorknocking and speaking with residents during my 2015 federal election campaign. During that election there was also serious concern about the Harper Government and their impact on Canada’s image and sense of ourselves as a compassionate society. Canadians want a government that listens to them and understands their concerns and Burnaby residents are no different. That is why I always thought, and still do, that Mr Singh’s major challenge this by-election is gaining local credibility with Burnaby voters.

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Pankratz campaign: won Election Day, but could not overcome strong NDP machine delivering support to the advance poll.

Mr Singh clearly thinks Burnaby is an NDP slam dunk or he wouldn’t be here. History is on his side, but will Burnaby voters deliver what Mr Singh expects? “All Burnaby” ridings (that is, ridings entirely within Burnaby, not split over city boundaries) have gone NDP for over 40 years. Mr. Singh and the NDP clearly are hoping for a repeat of the voting pattern in October.

There is, however danger in this. Burnaby is changing and the 2015 general election proved that. In that election Burnaby North Seymour went Liberal and in Burnaby South the incumbent Kennedy Stewart narrowly hung on to best me by 547 votes. But the larger gamble the NDP and Mr Singh are taking is assuming that Burnaby residents are the same as they were 40 years go (they aren’t) and thinking they will readily accept a candidate who parachuted in, with no community connections.

I believe Burnaby residents want an MP who knows the community and understand them. I remember distinctly that the most common response to our team in 2015, an election in which we doorknocked for over a year prior to Election Day, was “No one has knocked on my door since Svend was our MP.” “Svend” is, of course, Svend Robinson, who served Burnaby for 25 years as MP. Like him or hate him, Svend was someone who understood Burnaby, worked tirelessly to be present locally as an MP and develop personal relationships with his constituents. Svend’s rival at the time, Bill Cunningham (Liberal) and successor (Bill Siksay) also had deep, long standing relationships with Burnaby. Burnaby misses this. It is no doubt one of the key reasons our election campaign did so well in 2015, despite the entrenched NDP history. Local wins here. The fact that recent NDP representative Kennedy Stewart resigned as MP and immediately began touting that he was from Vancouver and always wanted the job of Vancouver Mayor has only deepened the desire of Burnaby residents for a long-term MP intent on local priorities and issues.

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Svend: Knocker of Doors, also now on Twitter (photo: CBC)

What can we expect of this by-election?  At the outset my opinion, bluntly put, was that Jagmeet Singh should have lost Burnaby South decisively. However, current events have conspired to make that loss seem unlikely.

Due to the close race in 2015, the story everyone (sensibly) made was that this would be a tight race between the Liberals and the NDP. However, the former Liberal candidate, Karen Wang, was forced to resign due to comments she made on WeChat regarding Mr Singh. This botched campaign start, followed by the scramble to replace her has hurt Liberal credibility locally. Now, the national Liberal scene is being shaken by the SNC-Lavalin affair. Does this mean the Liberals are cooked in Burnaby South? No, but they have made their lives significantly more difficult than it ought to have been.

One party not being talked about at all is the Conservatives in Burnaby. They have flown under the radar in this by-election despite strong results in 2011 (40%) and even 2015 (27%), given the circumstances. In my mind they were a dark horse contender until the People’s Party of Canada was founded. This long shot is now essentially non-existent.

The PPC is running an ostensibly strong candidate in former local school trustee candidate from 2018 Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson. Ms Thompson has been controversial for her anti-SOGI comments and stance on similar issues, yet still received over 15,000 votes in the 2018 municipal election. While campaign signs don’t mean anything at the ballot box, it’s hard not to notice the disproportionately high amount of PPC signs around Burnaby, given the party is supposed to almost be a fringe joke nationally. If Ms Thompson can rally her supporters from 2018, I would watch for the PPC to seriously surprise people and perhaps even see Burnaby South legitimize the PPC as a minor party.

Jagmeet Singh meanwhile continues to be at best an unknown, enigmatic figure for most Burnaby residents. He talks in bland platitudes, doesn’t have a clear stance on anything and equivocates when asked direct questions. At his first press conference he claimed to be “All in on Burnaby.” He isn’t. His strategy seems to be “Burnaby will vote NDP no matter what.” Past that, it’s hard to see any notable impact he has made on the community or its residents.

In the end, despite his lack of connection to the riding and lack of understanding as to what makes Burnaby tick, I foresee Mr Singh and the NDP pulling this one out on the basis of history. The Liberals did themselves no favours in the run up to or first half of the by-election and simply have too much ground to make up. The Conservatives will be split by the PPC and fade away.

So the surprise is that the Liberals and Conservatives do not look like they can take advantage of a weak NDP leader with no connection to Burnaby, while the upstart PPC might have a boost that puts fuel in its tank.  Politics is always interesting in BC.

Whither JWR?

A chain of events has cascaded upon the federal government and Liberal Party of Canada over the past week.

How will this end?

First, where are things at?

  • Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould resigned from Cabinet.
  • She has not resigned from Caucus.  She remains a Liberal MP.
  • She is the presumptive Liberal nominee in Vancouver-Granville for the 2019 federal election, having been ‘green lit’ by the Party in 2018.
  • She has not voted against the government on a whipped vote.  In fact, as a senior member of Cabinet, she helped shape the government’s agenda over the past three-plus years.

As far as I know, the only ‘difficulty’ that exists is disagreement, and related events, stemming from the SNC-Lavalin issue.

Thus, I am going to assume that Wilson-Raybould remains a Liberal in the partisan and ideological sense.  An assumption, but I see no evidence to the contrary.

So, what next?

In Canada, we have not demonstrated a lot of tolerance for public dissent within political parties.  The media punishes political parties for dissent, treating it as a sign of weak leadership.  Dissent certainly exists privately.  Every political caucus in Canada has a wide range of opinion about what its party leadership should be doing and usually a considerable amount of complaining.  It mainly stays inside the room.

In major political parties, not everyone gets along. Uneasy alliances exist, in fact, they are essential to the growth and success of parties. Chretien-Martin.  PET-Turner.  Mulroney-Clark.  Harper-MacKay. Cabinets and caucuses don’t have to like each other to work together. In the UK, dissent is much more of the norm and widely accepted.  MPs routinely challenge and speak out against leadership.

It doesn’t always have to be bunnies and rainbows in order for people to serve together and to campaign alongside together.  A common enemy unites, come election time.

Whither JWR?

Had the shuffle not happened, I assume she would still be Minister of Justice (and the fact the shuffle did happen in the way it did will go down as one of the top unforced errors of the first term).  This would be playing out behind the scenes.

It seems the reactions to the public disagreement exacerbated the situation to the point where she resigned from Cabinet.

Is it possible for her to remain as a Liberal MP?

If, as outlined above, she remains a ‘Liberal’ and continues to support the broad policy agenda of the government, not only should she remain a Liberal MP if she chooses, but she is basically untouchable.  Party leadership would have to proactively rescind her candidacy, which I am sure they would be loath to do.

The support of her local membership is not a requirement, however, it is probable that she is well supported locally.

There is an assumption held by many that the only meaningful way to contribute in politics is to serve in Cabinet. But one can make significant contributions outside Cabinet, especially an MP who has a strong national profile.

Over the past week, Wilson-Raybould has enhanced her stature in Canada. She has a constituency of support out there in the country.  When she speaks on an issue, she will be heard.  She would be a force to be reckoned with in Parliament.

Most Liberals are unhappy about these events, and some have come to the public defense of the PM, and others to ‘Team Jody’. Such controversies compromise the ability of colleagues to get re-elected, and may even jeopardize the survival of the government.  It’s also fair comment that almost all Liberal MPs are all there because of one guy – Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau – who rescued the Party from oblivion and led them to an improbable majority in 2015.   In fact, the sense of invulnerability has contributed to the magnitude of this issue. Yes, Liberals do owe Justin Trudeau. But, they also owe him their honest opinion, for the good of his leadership and the party.

Wilson-Raybould staying in Parliament, serving as an MP, running for re-election as a Liberal is not something that is really being contemplated publicly in the current context.  It seems to be assumed that this is leading to a break-up.  By staying put, Wilson-Raybould would have presence in Parliament and serve as a moral conscience from outside Cabinet. In time, who knows where the road will take her?

She could cross the floor and serve with another party.  But if she continues to identify as a ‘Liberal’, that doesn’t work, and where would she cross to, anyway? Neither the Conservatives nor NDP would seem to be attractive options for her.

Or she should could leave federal politics, but that would be regrettable.  She has barely started, and Vancouver-Granville voters permitting, should have more runway ahead. This is about more than one MP’s political future  Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould is the first indigenous woman to ever be elected from British Columbia.  It took 148 years to get there.

Making room for disagreement and dissent is messy, and as a former political manager, it made my life complicated and could be very frustrating.  But, it’s ultimately good for the system.

Let the events of SNC-Lavalin play out.  Changes can be made, lessons can be learned, people will move on to other issues once that has all taken place.

“How this ends” could well be JWR on the ballot as a Liberal in October 2019.  In fact, it would be a new beginning, for everyone.

(photo credit: CBC)