The BC Battleground

British Columbia has 42 of Canada’s 338 seats. When the votes are being counted on the evening of October 21st, British Columbians may push one of the contending parties into a plurality, or even a majority.

In 2015, the Liberals won the most seats in British Columbia for the first time since 1968. Heading into BC on election night, the Liberals were three seats short of a majority. A record 17 Liberal seats west of the Rockies gave them a majority, and a comfortable one at that.

Table 1: 2015 BC results and current standings

Party Vote Seats At dissolution Incumbents seeking re-election
Liberals

35%

17

17 (1 gain, 1 loss) 16
CPC

30%

10

8 (1 loss, 1 vacant) 8
NDP

26%

14

13 (1 loss) 10
Greens

8%

1

2 (1 gain) 2
Independent JWR 1

Between 1968 and 2015, the leading conservative/right wing party – whether that was Progressive Conservatives, Reform Party, Canadian Alliance, or Conservative Party – had the plurality of seats in BC 11 out of 13 times.  Through most elections, the blue team has been at the top while the NDP and Liberals flipped positions.  In the 1970s and 1980s, the Liberals were mainly in decline due to a strong sense of western alienation and atrophy of the party’s base in BC.  In the 1990s, when the NDP were in power provincially (and unpopular mostly), federal NDP vote plummeted while the populist Reform and Alliance campaigns surged – a populist crossover – demonstrating that BC voting is not strictly a left-right continuum.  The Liberals also gained during this time, but plateaued between 1993 and 2006.  As the NDP regained strength post-2001 (now out of power provincially), the Liberals slipped again, this time reflecting the party’s woes nationally. It all changed in 2015 when Justin Trudeau brought it full circle back to 1968.

Chart 1:  Popular vote and seats in BC from 1968 to 2015

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Liberal (red); NDP (orange); leading conservative party (blue): PC (1968-88); Reform (1993-97): Canadian Alliance (2000); Conservative (2004-15)

2019 context

The Conservatives will be looking to restore the historic pattern and win a plurality of seats, as they have consistently done over the years.  The Liberals hope to make the 2015 election a new, sustained pattern.

The NDP will be looking to BC for survival. With its gains in Quebec evaporating, the NDP is desperate to hold its remaining 28 seats in English Canada – half of which are in BC. 

The Greens have an opportunity to grow their caucus from two to five or more on Vancouver Island. Just like the Nanaimo byelection, it requires traditional NDP voters – and Liberals – to move over to the Greens.

BC’s regional picture

While BC has 42 seats overall, the federal election will play out in four regions that have unique battlegrounds.

The Lower Mainland has a majority of seats and is multiculturally diverse. Within the Lower Mainland, there are key differences, similar to core Toronto seats and the 905.  The urban core (Vancouver and adjacent communities) have different characteristics than the outer suburbs and Fraser Valley – different housing density, immigration patterns, and transportation habits, for example.

While both regions are more rural and less multicultural than the Lower Mainland, they have very different voting patterns. Vancouver Island leans granola and the Interior/North leans hardhat.

Vancouver Island

The Island’s seven seats may elect representatives from four separate parties. The NDP managed to win 6 of 7 Island seats with only 33% of the vote, a very efficient result, but one that puts them on the edge of major losses if they fall back in public support. The Greens proved this point in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith byelection, catapulting over the NDP to win their second seat.

Table 2:    Vancouver Island 

2015 Vote%

2015 Seats At dissolution

Incumbents seeking re-election

NDP

33%

6 5

4

Greens

24%

1 2

2

Liberals

21%

0 0

0

Conservative

21%

0 0

0

Elizabeth May is the safest MP on the Island.

Jagmeet Singh is not well known on Vancouver Island and is under significant pressure to hold the NDP’s remaining five seats. The NDP held off a strong Green charge in Victoria in 2015 due to the strength and popularity of MP Murray Rankin. He’s not running again and his successor lacks his personal standing. Of the NDP’s four remaining ridings, the NDP won two of them with 35% of the vote and the other two with 38% to 40%. They are all vulnerable to a Green surge that could either overtake them or split the vote and elect a Conservative, or even a Liberal.

The Liberals are keying on Victoria, a seat that Liberal David Anderson held between 1993 and 2006, and look longingly at Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, which erstwhile Reform/Alliance MP Keith Martin won for the Grits in 2006. Anderson and Martin had strong personal brands so it remains to be seen if the Liberals can win with lesser-known candidates.

The Conservatives are likely pinning their hopes on Courtenay-Alberni and North Island-Powell River. These ridings are more resource dependent and less urban, and overlap with areas where the provincial BC Liberals are strongest. The Conservatives will be in the conversation in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, and Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, where vote splits could deliver a Conservative win with 28%-30% of the vote.

Upshot:
A Green ‘breakthrough’ would be a minimum of 3 seats.

A ‘successful’ NDP salvage mission would be maintaining a minimum of 3 seats. Holding 5 seats would be a remarkable accomplishment considering the low expectations.

The Conservatives need a minimum of two gains to contribute to a winning plurality nationally.

The Liberals will be happy with one seat. The action is elsewhere for them.

Vancouver Core

Thirteen seats in the western portion of the Lower Mainland, around Vancouver’s urban core including the North Shore, Burnaby, and Richmond, strongly favoured the Liberals and punished the Conservatives in 2015.

Table 3:    Vancouver Core  

2015 Vote

2015 Seats At dissolution

Incumbents seeking re-election

Liberal

44%

8 7

6

CPC

26%

1 1 1
NDP

24%

4 4 4

Green

5%

0

0

0

The NDP won four seats in this area due to a concentration of vote in historically strong seats. The Greens are not a contender in any seats on BC’s mainland.  If they get close anywhere, it would probably be West Vancouver-Sea to Sky-Sunshine Coast where they have some history of strong showings and the absence of an incumbent.

There is limited opportunity for the Conservatives to claw back seats in 2019 in this area, but Steveston-Richmond East will be highest on its list. It’s a rematch between the 2015 Liberal and Conservative candidates. Liberal MP Joe Peschisolido is a former Canadian Alliance MP and Reform Party candidate, a maverick, who has been an active campaigner in Richmond for almost twenty years.

The Conservative breakout opportunity would be winning Vancouver South and seats on the North Shore, but they have already punted their candidate from the winnable seat of Burnaby-North Vancouver, a costly loss where a smarter candidate strategy would have made a difference.  In the blue target riding of Vancouver South, the Conservatives are running former MP Wai Young (Young ran a distant fourth. Her breakaway civic party clearly cost the centre-right NPA a majority on Council and was decisive in enabling former Burnaby South NDP MP Kennedy Stewart to win the mayoralty with only 28.7% of the vote. Interesting footnote is that Young’s party released a poll from Hamish Marshall’s firm in dying days of campaign that showed Young only three points behind the NPA mayoralty candidate and Kennedy Stewart 14 points in the lead.  On election night, the NPA lost to Stewart by half a point while Young had less than 7% of the vote).

The Liberals are seeking to win Vancouver Kingsway from the NDP with well-known news anchor Tamara Taggart, but she needs national wind in her sails to knock off popular MP Don Davies.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh hopes to retain his Burnaby South seat and would appear to be in good shape. Svend Robinson is campaigning hard in Burnaby-North Vancouver, however, with the demise of the Conservative candidate, it’s hard to see how he overcomes Terry Beech and the Liberals. There is no orange wave yet in Metro Vancouver to lift the boats of NDP candidates in Metro Vancouver.

Then there is Vancouver Granville. Independent Jody Wilson-Raybould hopes to make history by being the first indigenous women re-elected in BC and to pull off the rare feat of being elected as an independent and the first to do so in BC since Chuck Cadman in 2004. Last election JWR and the Liberals took 44% of the vote with the NDP and Conservatives taking 27% and 26% respectively. JWR will need to take many NDP (and Green votes), along with Liberals who stick with her. How many Liberals will stick by their brand? Can the Conservative make it to 30% and win on a split? At this point in the campaign, it looks like JWR may have the largest pool of potential votes.

Upshot:
Overall, this area looks fairly static.

There are not a lot of gains in this area for the Conservatives. To win a plurality of seats in Canada, they need to win seats like Steveston. To win a majority, they need to win seats like Vancouver South and the North Shore. Right now, it looks like two seats is a realistic goal.

The NDP hope to hold their four seats but do not have a very good opportunity to add others.

The Liberals should be in a position to hold at least 6 of the 8 they won in 2015.

Lower Mainland suburbs/Valley

Further from the Vancouver core, there are a baker’s dozen of suburban and Fraser Valley seats stretching east to the Fraser Canyon. There are a lot of commuters, an especially strong South Asian population, and traditional conservative farming areas. You could call it BC’s 905, to some degree.

The Liberals picked the Conservatives’ pocket in this region in 2015, winning unexpected seats in places like Langley, Abbotsford, and James Moore’s old seat in Coquitlam, while gaining a new dominance in Surrey.

Table 4:             Lower Mainland suburbs/Valley

2015 Vote

2015 Seats At dissolution

Incumbents seeking re-election

Liberal

40%

8 9

9

CPC

34%

4 2 2
NDP

21%

1 1 0

Green

4%

0

0

0

The Conservatives used to ‘own’ Surrey so must claw their way back, but it won’t be easy. The Liberals took four seats handily in 2015.  Sukh Dhaliwal’s Newton seat is a fortress, while Surrey-Centre, Fleetwood-Port Kells, and Cloverdale-Langley City were all won with healthy margins and over 45% of the vote. In 2015, Dianne Watts preserved South Surrey-White Rock for the Conservatives in the face of a red tide in Surrey, but in a 2017 byelection, the Liberals stole the riding, leaving the Conservatives with only one seat west of Langley. Now, the Liberals may hold South Surrey-White Rock because they have a candidate advantage, and withstand what should be a Conservative pick-up.

Of all the regions in BC, this is the one where the Conservatives need to make major gains. Liberal wins in Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam, Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge, and Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon were won with 33% to 37% of the vote and are at high risk. The Conservatives will also key on Delta, but incumbent Liberal cabinet minister Carla Qualtrough is popular. The Conservatives can count on three Fraser Valley seats between Langley Township and Chilliwack.  Long-time MP Mark Warawa passed away recently leaving a vacancy, however, the Conservatives should have little difficulty winning the seat.

The NDP’s only MP in this region, Fin Donnelly, is retiring, opening up a three-way fight in Port Moody-Coquitlam. This will be a tough one for the NDP to hold. The Liberals and Conservatives both have an opportunity to win a new seat.

Upshot:
This will be the region to watch. It could go 7-6 or it could go 10-3 either way, and have a major impact on national seat totals. If Andrew Scheer becomes prime minister, he will have made major gains here.

The Liberals have very little history of winning seats in this region  Taking even half of the seats would represent a sustained shift in BC’s federal voting patterns.  Winning 4 or 5 out of 5 seats in Surrey would provide the Liberals with an ongoing power base that complements its traditional base in Vancouver.

As for the NDP, they have historically won seats in Surrey and northeast suburbs, but have been eclipsed by the Liberals.  They have not yet demonstrated they have the formula to flip the dynamic and may well be shut-out here on election night.

Interior and North

BC’s Interior and North holds nine of BC’s forty-two seats. This is an area where Conservatives should make their easiest gains, at the expense of the struggling NDP, and another potential pickup from the Liberals in Kelowna.

Table 5:  Interior/North

2015 Vote

2015 Seats At dissolution

Incumbents seeking re-election

CPC

37%

5 5

5

Liberal

30%

1 1 1
NDP

28%

3 3 2

Green

4%

0

0

0

Until they won in Kelowna in 2015, the Liberals had not held a seat in the Interior since 1979. BC’s Interior cities have gradually become more urbanized with stronger university presence over the years in Kelowna, Kamloops, and Prince George. A Liberal win in 2019 would make a turning point, and they hope to do the same in Kamloops with star candidate Terry Lake, a former BC health minister.

NDP seats in the South Okanagan and East Kootenay are very vulnerable. High profile NDP MP Nathan Cullen is retiring in Skeena-Bulkley Valley. However, this is a riding with different politics than the rest of the Interior and North – perhaps belonging with Vancouver Island region, and will likely stand as the lone NDP seat ‘beyond Hope’.

Upshot:

It should be a major disappointment for Conservatives if they do not take 8 of 9 seats in BC’s Interior. Given their struggles to make gains in urban Canada, they must clean up outside the major cities.

The Liberals hope to maintain its Interior beachhead in Kelowna. While they are making a spirited charge in Kamloops, a win there would be political gravy. The Interior is not a region that is critical to win in order for the Liberals to hold power.

NDP disaster would be losing Skeena-Bulkley Valley. A key part of holding that seat is the First Nations vote, where it is one of the highest in Canada (I’ll look at First Nations vote in more detail in another post). Holding its two southern Interior seats looks unlikely in the face of a Conservative challenge combined with a new leader that is struggling to make his impact in BC.

Provincial wrap-up

National momentum can make a big difference in BC where three and four-way fights may send an MP to Ottawa with 30% of the vote. Certainly, BC is a region where the Conservatives have a significant opportunity. If they are able to reach north of 35% of the vote and have more than a 5% lead over the Liberals, they could win a majority of BC’s seats.

It’s fair to say the Liberals have a candidate advantage this election.  Almost all of their incumbents are running and they are strongly contesting what they feel are winnable seats.  The Conservatives squandered Burnaby-North Vancouver and, overall, their BC team lacks recognizable figures.  Both parties can look back to 2004 when the Paul Martin Liberals, and BC master strategist Mark Marissen, put a lot of focus on gaining seats in BC, recruiting Ujjal Dosanjh and David Emerson, and issuing a ‘made in BC’ agenda. That extended to the 2006 election when the Conservatives won the federal election, but paradoxically lost some ground in BC.  It takes commitment and support from party leadership to recruit candidates and strengthen the ground game. 

As outlined in an earlier post, the Conservative pathway to power depends on winning in the neighbourhood of 75% of the seats in Western Canada. While Alberta and Saskatchewan are looking very good for Andrew Scheer, winning at least half of BC’s 42 seats will be a necessity.

As of today, the Conservatives are poised to make some gains, nibbling away at seats in the Interior and possibly on the Island.  The big question mark is whether the Conservatives can challenge the Liberals’ strong position in the Lower Mainland.

We can expect to see four parties, and quite possibly an independent, win on election night.  We can also expect to see BC play an important role in shaping the next government.

As of today, expect the parties to be in the following range:

Table 6:     Party ranges Island (7) Vancouver core (13) L.M. suburbs / Valley (13) Interior / North (9)
Liberal 0-2 6-10 3-10 0-2
CPC 0-4 0-5 3-10 5-9
NDP 0-6 3-5 0-3 0-3
Green 1-5 0 0 0
Independent 0-1

My general range estimates provide a universe of 24 seats of the Liberals, 28 for the Conservatives, 17 for the NDP, 5 for the Greens, and 1 for JWR.  Conversely, the floor for parties in BC looks to be 9 for the Liberals, 8 for the Conservatives, 3 for the NDP, and 1 for the Greens.  So, that’s a range of 21 (low) to 75 (high) seats across the party universes. Obviously, I’m hedging with two weeks to go, but in BC, it’s wise to hedge.  Given the nature of this campaign, a soft breeze one way or another may tilt three and four way races into the lap of our next prime minister, or into the lap of a leader – Mr. Singh or Ms. May – who will decide who is the next prime minister.  They both represent BC ridings – if BC doesn’t ‘elect’ a majority government at the polls, a BC leader will likely help ‘elect’ a new government at Rideau Hall or in the House of Commons.

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

Screen Shot 2019-10-03 at 10.45.59 AM.png

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

Screen Shot 2019-10-03 at 10.42.44 AM

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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A deeper dive into the conditions for majority and minority governments

I was having a perfectly nice Monday morning doing what most normal people do – blog about obscure electoral statistics.  After posting about the minimum threshold historically needed to secure a majority in Canada, ink-stained wretch Vaughn Palmer entered the conversation on Twitter to make things more complicated.

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My point was that no majority government has ever been formed in Canada over the past century with less than 38.5% of the popular vote.  Fairly straightforward, but Vaughn wanted to belabour it.

So, fine, let’s get into it – when Jean Chrétien won a majority with 38.5% in 1997, he had some help.  The right was hopelessly splintered.  Despite a low popular vote, the Liberals had a 19-point margin over the second place Reform Party, the sixth-largest margin-of-victory, in terms of popular vote between 1921 and 2015. Plus, the Liberals annihilated the opposition in Ontario.  They won virtually every seat.  Let’s also remember the NDP was in the serious doldrums nationally in the 1990s.  It was easy street for the Chrétien Liberals.  Ridiculously easy.

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Of course, Vaughn couldn’t leave it at that.  He had to consult his groaning book shelves for more statistical peculiarities.

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By extending this barely-read Twitter thread, Vaughn was making me think I needed to do a deeper statistical dive.

And I did.  Is there a pattern between polarization and majority/minority governments?  After a pile of work, the answer is… not really.

Here is a chart that shows the combined amount of the top 2 federal political parties (popular vote) from 1921 to 2015.  The blue dots represent majority governments and the black dots represent minority governments.  Some majorities happen when there is low polarization and some

Screen Shot 2019-09-16 at 11.10.55 PM.png

The ‘extreme polarization’ occurred in 1925 and 1926 when William Lyon Mackenzie King and Arthur Meighen waged battle, and in 1930 when R.B. Bennett prevailed over Mackenzie King, peaking at 93% (combined votes of Liberals and Conservatives).  In spite of the polarization, Mackenzie King and Meighen both failed to win a majority, with the Progressives holding the balance of power.

Screen Shot 2019-09-17 at 12.54.02 PM.png

William Lyon Mackenzie King: “Majorities are hard”, he might have said.  He finally got one on his 5th try.

Extreme polarization flared up again in 1958 when the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals combined for 87% of the vote (mainly PC).  That’s the last time any two parties combined for over 80%.

The Liberal – PC oligopoly held between the 70% to 80% level from 1962 to 1988.  In the 1990s, all hell broke loose when the PC coalition shattered with the Bloc Québécois going on a five election run of 10% to 13% of the national vote, and the Reform Party devouring the PC’s starting in western Canada.  For six elections between 1993 and 2008, the top 2 level ranged from 58% to 66%.  Very low polarization with many parties receiving double-digit popular vote amounts.

In 2011, the top 2 level rose above 70% and was 71% in 2015.

While this is kind of interesting (to me) about federal polarization, it doesn’t really say much about likelihood of minority and majority governments.

Screen Shot 2019-09-16 at 11.24.07 PM.png

Vaughn then helpfully recounts how the BC NDP did better in the popular vote – losing – than when they actually won.  True, Glen Clark with 39% and Mike Harcourt with 41% won majorities, while Bob Skelly at 43% was crushed.  Difference was that Skelly faced a dominant Social Credit party while Clark and Harcourt faced a split opposition.

So, I looked at it further, putting aside family time and personal wellness, to deal with Vaughn’s haranguing.

In the past 29 elections, there were 12 where the #1 party won by about 12% of the popular vote or more.  All of those were majorities.

Then there’s a set of 8 elections where the winning party had a popular vote edge of about 7.5% to about 11.5%.  Half of those were majorities, half were minority governments.

Finally, there is a set of 9 close battles where the party with the plurality of seats won the popular vote by 7% to minus 4%.  Huh?  Yes, three governments in the past century lost the popular vote but won the plurality of seats – Mackenzie King in 1926, John Diefenbaker in 1957, and Joe Clark in 1979.  (I should add that Meighen won the popular vote and the plurality of seats in 1925, but Mackenzie King hung on with support of the Progressives, ultimately leading to the King-Byng Affair).  Of those 9 elections, there was only one majority: R.B. Bennett in 1930.

Moral of the story: in #elxn43, the margin between the two parties appears to be pretty close.  The public polls indicate a way lower spread than 7%, at this time.  History tells us that there is strong likelihood of a minority government if it is a tight race, especially if third parties have strongholds where they have a greater chance of winning.

I think we all knew most of that already, but Vaughn has succeeded in sparking a tour through dusty old election results.  Ah, it wasn’t so bad.

***

See below for stats:

Table 1: Results of top 2 parties (1921- 2015); sorted by difference in popular vote between party with plurality of seats, and second place party (pop vote)

Top 2 Margin Plurality 2nd Majority
1993 59.9% 22.55% 41.24% 18.69% y
1940 80.6% 22.08% 51.32% 29.24% y
1984 78.1% 22.01% 50.03% 28.02% y
1958 87.4% 19.92% 53.67% 33.75% y
1949 78.8% 19.50% 49.15% 29.65% y
1997 57.8% 19.11% 38.46% 19.35% y
1953 79.5% 17.41% 48.43% 31.02% y
2000 66.3% 15.36% 40.85% 25.49% y
1935 74.5% 14.84% 44.68% 29.84% y
1968 76.8% 13.94% 45.37% 31.43% y
1945 67.4% 12.16% 39.78% 27.62% y
1980 76.8% 11.89% 44.34% 32.45% y
2008 63.9% 11.39% 37.65% 26.26% n
1921 71.1% 11.20% 41.15% 29.95% n
1988 74.9% 11.10% 43.02% 31.92% y
2011 70.3% 8.99% 39.62% 30.63% y
1963 74.3% 8.68% 41.48% 32.80% n
1965 72.6% 7.77% 40.18% 32.41% n
1974 78.6% 7.69% 43.15% 35.46% y
2015 71.4% 7.58% 39.47% 31.89% y
2004 66.4% 7.10% 36.73% 29.63% n
1925 85.9% 6.39% 46.13% 39.74% n
2006 66.5% 6.04% 36.27% 30.23% n
1972 73.4% 3.40% 38.42% 35.02% n
1930 93.3% 2.29% 47.79% 45.50% y
1962 74.2% 0.25% 37.22% 36.97% n
1957 79.0% -2.00% 38.50% 40.50% n
1926 88.3% -2.45% 42.90% 45.35% n
1979 76.0% -4.22% 35.89% 40.11% n

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.

Will the biggest surprise of #Elxn43 be that there’s no surprise?

There seems to be a growing media / insider consensus about the October 21st federal election:

  • Liberals will win a plurality of seats
  • Conservatives can’t win because they are being held back by Doug Ford
  • The NDP are in double trouble
  • The Greens are going to increase their seat count, notably on Vancouver Island
  • The Peoples’ Party remains a fringe party, unlikely to be a major factor

With 38 days to go until election day, it’s worth noting that the past two federal elections featured major surprises . The convention wisdom of Day 38 was turned on its ear by Election Day.

In 2011, according to public polls, Jack Layton’s NDP started a fair distance behind Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals.  Within the first two weeks, the cane-wielding Layton made his move, based on a groundswell in Quebec, and eclipsed the hapless Liberal campaign. Once the NDP passed the Liberals, the equation changed and the Liberal business case collapsed (‘vote Liberal as the main alternative to Stephen Harper’).  Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were an immovable block in that campaign and stayed on top throughout, but the churn below in the opposition was dramatic.

Chart 1:  2011 federal election polling (source: Wikipedia)

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In 2015, Thomas Mulcair’s NDP were seen as the prime opponent of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives leading into the election.  While Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were successful attracting candidates and generating crowds, it took a while before the polls responded.  No one was predicting a Liberal majority in early August.

Two significant events happened.  The Trudeau Liberals’ jujitsu move on deficit financing caught the NDP flat-footed.  Mulcair’s conservative approach was addressing a perceived weakness on their competence and to make the NDP less scary to Canadians on economic issues.  The Trudeau campaign detected a mood in the electorate that wanted more activism from government.  The Liberal move shook up the campaign on the left side of the spectrum.

Second, there was a huge political disruption in Quebec.  The Harper Conservatives move to stimulate a debate on cultural issues backfired.   By devastating the NDP campaign, the Conservatives elevated the Liberals.  As the NDP dropped in Quebec, its national polling numbers dipped allowing the Liberals to surpass them.  Once that happened, the business case for the NDP collapsed with the Liberals winning the ‘primary campaign’ to be the main challenger to Stephen Harper.  The NDP tanked and finished over 10 points below where they started the campaign.

Chart 2:  2015 federal election polling (source: Wikipedia)

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Campaigns matter.  The events of the 2011 and 2015 campaigns were driven by campaign strategy.  This is how surprises happen, when smart campaigns detect a ripple and turn it into a wave, while less seaworthy campaigns are beached.

Sure, this federal campaign could be about as boring as the Chrétien re-elections of 1997 and 2000.  The Stephen Harper re-election in 2008 was about as exciting as watching paint dry.

What constitutes a good and bad surprise for the parties in 2019?

Liberals: despite controversies, they win a majority at or above 2015 or fall below the Conservatives in seat count

Conservatives: Andrew Scheer outperforms low expectations and wins a majority or significantly falling below 2015 performance in seats and popular vote

NDP: Jagmeet Singh outperforms very low expectations and wins 30+ seats or the NDP is driven deep into single digits and fall behind Greens

Greens: Move into third place nationally in seats or fail to make a meaningful breakthrough

Peoples Party: Win more than 5% nationally and contest seats other than Maxime Bernier (this would be a big surprise) or … expectations are so low that I’m not sure there is a bad surprise.

Turnout – Will turnout be as strong as 2015 or will it fall below 50%?

These good/bad surprise scenarios seem timid.  There could be wilder outcomes (eg. Rachel Notley-esque). The biggest surprise will be if there is no surprise at all.

Campaigns matter.  We’ll see in the next two weeks if there is a big move to be made.

The pollsters, pundits and political scientists now take a back seat to the people.  They will decide what happens and no one truly knows what to expect.

** Media elder Vaughn Palmer notes the Bloc Quebecois’ ability to surprise, which I overlooked.

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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.

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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.