The meaning of Surrey South

BC Liberal candidate Eleanore Sturko marched to victory on Saturday in Surrey South, winning a seat that the party would typically view as a ‘safe seat’ until recently.

Here are the results of the by-election compared to the 2017 and 2020 general election results:

*By-election results are not final

Hot take:

  1. The BC Liberals won, which was no small thing. A loss here would have been a major setback. After being pummelled by John Horgan’s NDP in the 2020 general election, the BC Liberals have shown they can win again, albeit in very friendly territory. Moreover, the BC Liberals gain a potential frontbencher from the Lower Mainland who, among other things, presents a new face for the party in the LGBTQ+ community.
  2. NDP poll results didn’t translate to Surrey South. In 2020, the NDP won the popular vote 48% to 34% – a massive margin. Since then, the NDP have sustained that polling gap in many polls, including a Leger poll that recently showed a 16 point gap. With those kind of numbers, we could have expected a close race in Surrey South, similar to 2020. Instead, the final result (percentage of vote) looks very much like the 2017 dead-heat general election. The NDP didn’t go all-out to win this by-election – the leadership vacuum existing between Premier Horgan packing his bags and David Eby, presumably, waiting to pick up the keys may have been a factor.
  3. Neither party got the vote out – while the BC Liberals got enough votes out to win, both the BC Liberals and NDP received significantly fewer votes than previous elections. Low turnout is normal for a by-election, indicating low voter interest and perhaps low voter anger too. The summer timing certainly conspired against high turnout as well.
  4. The BC Conservatives showed up and it didn’t impact the result– the BC Conservatives didn’t run a candidate in 2017 or 2020, but they showed up for the by-election and garnered about 13% of the vote. This could have been highly problematic for the BC Liberals in a close race, but Sturko still won with a Cadieux-like margin. Let’s say Jinny Sims becomes mayor and resigns her seat in neighbouring Panorama – a 13% BC Conservative vote there would make life more difficult for BC Liberal chances.
  5. What happened to the Greens? – Sonia Furstenau’s Greens fell to less than 4% of the vote. Is the Green brand in a funk? Normally, a by-election would be a time to stand out, but they ended up in fourth, here, well behind the BC Conservative. Surrey is not a Green hotspot though so their attention may be elsewhere.

I recently wrote about the consequential BC by-elections of the past 50 years. In Surrey South, BC Liberals held a seat they have traditionally held so it doesn’t appear to be historically important, except that the margin of victory could indicate that BC politics is returning to a more competitive footing. The by-election result may not be the cause of a new dynamic, but rather an indicator of what is already taking place. The 2020 general election was an outlier in terms of the pandemic and that the NDP had a major leadership advantage. Perhaps it was an aberration, like 2001, and we are slowly returning to the polarized, competitive political landscape that has been typical of BC politics since the mid 1970s.

I guess you could say the Surrey South by-election was like an NHL exhibition game – interesting, sparsely attended, an opportunity to see some new talent (Sturko), but the real action will be when the regular season starts in December once the new NDP leader gets on the ice.

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

Premier John Horgan called a by-election in Surrey South for September 10th

What happens in a by-election, anyway?  For a brief time, all of the political parties are focused organizationally on one place because someone resigned, died, or, worse yet, was recalled.  By-elections usually have low voter turnout and may appear to average voters to have little consequence to their daily lives. The host riding is deluged with professional campaigners and out-of-town volunteers that door knock the riding like never before then, when it’s over, they all go home.  By-elections are a pulse taker, a message tester, and a get-out-the-vote drill –  a political laboratory for political parties to try new things to apply in the next general election.  Sometimes, they are the doorway for a new political leader to enter the Legislature (or prematurely return to private life).

And while it seems that the Surrey South by-election is a non-event that won’t have any impact on the power balance in the Legislature, by-elections in British Columbia have often been harbingers of things to come.  In the past 50 years, there are many examples of by-elections influencing future events, especially in regard to the leadership of ‘free enterprise’ forces in BC.

1973: The Re-Making of the Free Enterprise Coalition Part 1

In 1972, Dave Barrett’s NDP put an end to 20 years of rule by W.A.C. Bennett and the Social Credit Party.  In September 1973, Bill Bennett was elected in the Okanagan South by-election, assuming his father’s seat.  However, this was not necessarily a straightforward dynastic succession. For starters, the by-election took place in the midst of a leadership race to replace Bennett the Elder.  If Bennett the Younger lost the by-election, it would have been a pretty hard sell that he could win the province.  Meanwhile, 33-year-old BC Conservative leader Derril Warren had led his party in the 1972 election from zilch to 10% of the popular vote, vote-splitting the Socreds and contributing largely to their defeat.  Now, a year later, Warren was still chasing the Bennetts in a ‘By-election Battle for Free Enterprise’ between the tired old Socreds and the surging Conservatives.     

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

In Bob Plecas’s biography of Bill Bennett, he described the view of the Vancouver business establishment that Warren was BC’s version of Peter Lougheed, the popular Alberta premier, who had taken the Alberta Progressive Conservatives from the wilderness to power in 1971, vanquishing the tired Alberta Social Credit dynasty that had governed for over 35 years.  Recounted Bennett in Plecas’s book, “I had to set the trap.  First of all, I had to wait and wait and wait, making it possible so he [Warren] could be drawn in”.  It was no sure thing that Bennett would win. According to Allen Garr in his book Tough Guy: Bill Bennett and the Taking of British Columbia, “Twenty-five Kelowna businessmen gathered at one of their regular watering holes to decide who they would back in the by-election, and they had two choices: Bill Bennett… and the new leader of the BC Tories [Warren]. The vote was twenty-two to three in Warren’s favour. When Bill heard about the decision he went on an arm-twisting mission against his old high-school buddies.”  When the Vancouver Province endorsed Warren as the best pick to take on the Barrett government, “ten thousand tear sheets were distributed across the riding.  It reinforced anti-Vancouver sentiment, the big-city-knows-best feeling that many residents feel.  Suits from Vancouver seldom understand the Interior, and the backlash hurt Warren,” wrote Plecas.

A day before the vote, Warren complained to Sun reporter Marjorie Nichols, “The people running the Social Credit show” had carried on a vicious personal campaign.  “One Social Credit campaigner said they had a tape… they didn’t say whether they tapped the phone or what.  They said they had a tape of me applying for a Social Credit membership but being rejected.”  

Bill Bennett prevailed, albeit with a modest 39% of the vote, holding off Warren who came in third with 24%, behind the NDP.  Bennett would go on to win the leadership, recruit five MLAs to cross the floor (3 Liberal, 1 Conservative, 1 NDP), recruit former BC Liberal leadership candidate Bill Vander Zalm, and lead a revitalized Socred-led free enterprise coalition to a decisive victory in the 1975 election over Barrett’s NDP.  In fact, the NDP’s popular vote barely changed but Bennett’s free enterprise unification plan, starting with the 1973 by-election, put most free enterprise votes under his umbrella.  Warren didn’t make it to the 1975 election and both the Conservatives and Liberals collapsed. As a post-script, Barrett lost his own seat in the 1975 election and would contest and win the 1976 Vancouver East by-election, which took place when outgoing cabinet minister Bob Williams made way to allow Barrett to re-enter the Legislature.  Barrett and Bennett would face each other two more times, with Bennett the Younger winning each time.

1981: The Roadmap to Victory

Mid-way through Bennett’s second term, the Socreds were flagging.  The 1979 election win was the most polarizing result in BC electoral history and Bennett realized his party would need to regroup and retool. Bennett dispatched his friend Hugh Harris to survey the landscape outside BC with a view to modernizing how the party fought elections, eventually gravitating toward the “Big Blue Machine” approach of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party.

Harris brought back his learnings in time for the 1981 Kamloops by-election created when Socred MLA and Minister Rafe Mair resigned to pursue a career in talk radio. The smart money was on the NDP picking up the then-bellwether seat of Kamloops (“so goes Kamloops, so goes the province”).  

As Plecas describes, “The political machine that Bennett had built using Hugh Harris’s advice was ready for a test drive… For most of the by-election, Barrett was in New Zealand attending a world conference on socialism.  Every weekend of the by-election Bennett was in the riding spending day after day in the small towns that surround Kamloops.”  The modernized campaign model was “coupled with the efforts of thousands of volunteers, many who travelled up to the Loops for the weekend.  They out organized the NDP and worked door by door on the ground”.  Bud Smith, who had worked closely with Harris rebuilding the party, ran the local campaign.

Local Socred candidate Claude Richmond was propelled into office, aided by Harris’s blueprint, with a win that was arguably a template for the forthcoming 1983 general election.  The 1981 by-election win remains a part of free enterprise lore. 

1988-1989: Socred Death Spiral

In 1988 and 1989, the Vander Zalm government was beset by controversy and being beset by controversy is not a great time to face a series of by-elections where you have to defend your own seats.  First up was Boundary-Similkameen in June 1988.  Long-time MLA Jim Hewitt resigned. The riding had been Socred even before his time; not even the Barrett sweep in 1972 could wrest control of it away.  The NDP’s Bill Barlee stepped up to run, after previous unsuccessful attempts, and wiped the floor with the Socreds winning by 17%.  The win sent shockwaves through the Socred government.  A footnote to this race was Liberal Judi Tyabji winning 11% after a high-profile campaign.  BC hadn’t seen the last of Tyabji nor the new BC Liberal leader Gordon Wilson.

Next up in the Socred By-election Horror Series was Vancouver Point Grey in March 1989.  The circumstances of this by-election are historically important.  First-term Socred MLA Kim Campbell resigned to run federally after falling out with Premier Vander Zalm on the abortion issue (and other issues).  Campbell won federal office as a Progressive Conservative and was prime minister within five years, the first and only female prime minister in Canadian.  Back in Pt. Grey, the Socreds put up financial analyst Michael Levy while the NDP nominated Dr. Tom Perry in an upset over establishment NDP candidate Johanna den Hertog.  Perry trounced the Socreds, winning 53% of the vote.  (The NDP picked up a second win that night in Nanaimo where Jan Pullinger assumed the seat from outgoing veteran Dave Stupich, but there was little doubt about the outcome there.)

BC Liberal leader and Sunshine Coast resident Gordon Wilson parachuted into Point Grey as well.  His campaign did not lack for money and had high hopes given that the riding overlapped with the federal riding of Liberal leader John Turner, and received a boost from popular federal Liberal leadership candidate Jean Chrétien.  An interesting back story is that when Kim Campbell resigned in the fall of 1988, businessman Jack Poole was traveling BC meeting grassroots Liberals to assess the viability of reviving and leading the party. Though Wilson was leader, Poole and his team, which included former leader Gordon Gibson, were of a mind that there needed to be a fully funded, credible free enterprise alternative to Vander Zalm’s Socreds that was seemingly beyond the capability of a Sunshine Coast college instructor/pig farmer (Wilson). West side Vancouver Liberals were very keen on Poole, but over the fall, he got cold feet. After the federal election concluded, Poole ditched the idea, and Wilson swiftly announced he would run in Pt. Grey, over the wishes of the locals. I would say the Leader always has the prerogative to run, especially if he or she doesn’t have a seat, but in this case, it did not end up happily ever after. Wilson came a disappointing third with 20% of the vote (he would have their day in the sun later).

Onto the Cariboo for a by-election caused by the death of long-time MLA Alex Fraser, an institution in the region.  Like Boundary-Similkameen and Point Grey, Cariboo was a 2-member seat, an oddity of our system until 1986.  Fraser’s seat-mate was Socred MLA Neil Vant who was assuredly not an institution in the Cariboo.  Expecting to retain the riding, the Socreds had a hotly contested nomination meeting between auctioneer and Vander Zalm-loyalist Joe Wark and Quesnel Mayor Mike Pearce.  Wark won by one vote squeaker (337-336) at the Williams Lake curling rink, and remarked, “We have no room in the Social Credit party for rebels and that sort of thing”.  Pearce, who self-described as representing a “new style”, was probably more electable, in part because he was endorsed by Alex Fraser’s widow, Gertrude.  Wark was a ‘Zalmoid’ and bedevilled by Premier Vander Zalm’s decision to remove Alex Fraser from cabinet while he was battling throat cancer.  During the by-election campaign, Fraser’s widow suggested strongly that the NDP candidate, Dave Zirnhelt, would be just fine as MLA. Zirnhelt, a rancher and horse logger, had run as a Liberal in the 1969 provincial election before migrating to the NDP.  He would go on to wallop Wark with 56% of the vote and serve as a senior cabinet minister in the 1990s. More than Boundary-Similkameen, this result was a very bad omen for the Socreds.    Pearce would try again and got the Socred nod in the 1991 election in Cariboo North (the riding was split) and would lose to the NDP’s Frank Garden. The Liberals were confined to a meagre 3% in the by-election despite their authentic and good-humoured candidate Darwin Netzel. He would contest the 1991 election in Cariboo North and see his vote grow 6-fold.

Finally, and mercifully, the fourth and final by-election featuring a Socred-held riding was Oak Bay-Gordon Head, held on December 13, 1989.  Attorney General Brian Smith resigned his seat following a public clash with Premier Vander Zalm.  Smith was the runner-up in the 1986 leadership race to Zalm, but it didn’t take long for their working relationship to go off the rails.  The Socreds recruited a top-notch candidate, Susan Brice, then the Mayor of Oak Bay.  They could not have found a better candidate. Brice and her campaign manager, Frank Leonard, ran essentially a local campaign focusing on her strengths and downplaying the premier.  Said Brice, “People want greater tolerance from the government, the party and the Premier.” The NDP nominated Elizabeth Cull who started out as the underdog but was backed by a major organizing machine on the South Island that could taste victory.  The Liberals nominated an active party member, Paul McKivett, who ran a fully funded campaign with lots of volunteers too, and attracted support from Socreds who wanted to see the end of Vander Zalm. In fact, McKivett’s 9% was probably the difference in Cull’s 377 vote win over Brice.  There was a sense that Zalm would pack it in if he lost Oak Bay-Gordon Head and for 35 days he kept British Columbians in suspense.  In January 1990, he scheduled a province-wide televised address to reset his agenda and managed to survive a little longer in the job before being forced from office a year later.  Cull would go on to become Health Minister and Finance Minister in the Harcourt government.

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

Each by-election loss reinforced the death spiral of the government.  Heretofore safe seats were coughed up.  Earlier in the decade, the Bill Bennett Socreds confidently won the Kamloops by-election demoralizing the NDP.  Now, later in the same decade and under a different leader, the by-election losses were crushing to the Socreds and helped create an inevitability of NDP victory.  Mike Harcourt would cruise to victory in 1991 with a majority government.  The by-elections also meant something for the third-party BC Liberals.  While their by-election results were underwhelming compared to the NDP, they were a training ground for leader Gordon Wilson.  His breakthrough in 1991, when the party went from zero seats to 17 and Official Opposition, was a result, in part, of their determination to hang in there and be in a position to take advantage of good luck and timing when it materialized during the general election campaign. Thus, as events turned out, the Socred death spiral benefited the BC Liberals every bit as much as the NDP. 

1994-95: The Re-Making of the Free Enterprise Coalition Part 2

The 1991 general election remade BC politics with the BC Liberals jumping to Official Opposition and the Socreds declining to third-party status.  While the BC Liberals now had the advantage, the question was not settled as to which party would lead free enterprise forces going forward.  By 1993, each party had a new leader.  BC Liberal leader Gordon Wilson lost his leadership to Vancouver Mayor Gordon Campbell, while Socred legend Grace McCarthy took on the task to rebuild the party she had helped save, with Bill Bennett, in the 1970s.

A pair of Abbotsford-area by-elections in 1994 and 1995 would settle the question of who would lead free enterprise – for the most part.  

One of the seven Socreds elected in 1991, Matsqui MLA Peter Dueck, decided it was time to force the issue and resigned his seat after having had spent time as an Independent MLA.  Meanwhile, BC Liberal MLA Art Cowie (Vancouver-Quilchena) resigned his seat to make way for Campbell.  Two by-elections were called for February 17, 1994.  Socred leader Grace McCarthy chose to run in Socred-friendly Matsqui rather than take on Campbell near her home base in Vancouver.  Campbell would cruise to an easy victory and the real fight was in Matsqui where the BC Liberals could put a stake in the heart of the Socreds for good.

In Matsqui local members of the BC Liberal Party gathered at a high school gymnasium to nominate their giant killer. Some BC Liberal insiders favoured a Vancouver lawyer and high school basketball star who had strong ties to the area, but a young country lawyer and school trustee upset those plans by winning 102 – 84 (back when nomination meeting results were disclosed). The task of defeating Socred legend Grace McCarthy was thus on the shoulders of Mike de Jong, then shy of his 30th birthday.  It was a new vs. old generational match up.  De Jong had a spirited team, led by campaign manager Dave Holmberg and wily ex-scribe Mark Rushton.  The Socreds dug in and had a deep supporters list to draw on though there was much attrition to the oncoming BC Liberals and bleeding to fledgling Reform BC (unaffiliated with federal Reform Party) and the Family Coalition Party.   A sidebar to the Battle of Free Enterprise was the NDP candidate situation.  Sam Wagar was nominated but it became known to the media that the government’s candidate in the Bible Belt was actually a witch.  Wagar, who practiced the Wiccan religion, was non-plussed, but it was apparently too much for the political managers at Party HQ.  Wagar was sent packing as a new candidate was conjured. So much for religious freedom.

It was a heated campaign in the depths of the Matsqui winter. All candidates meetings were tense and scrappy. BC Liberal plants took the microphone to ask McCarthy detailed local questions to make hay of her parachute candidacy. De Jong defeated McCarthy by a mere 42 (41.77% to 41.45%) votes in a dramatic win. As Vaughn Palmer reported, at about 10:15pm, de Jong showed up in his blue Miata sports car, “mounted the platform amid general delirium and shouts of ‘Banzai’ from an enthusiastic Japanese supporter”.

A key part of the story was also the other parties: Reform took 1,250 votes and Family Coalition Party took 275 votes, both making it harder for the Socreds to save their leader.

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

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

The free enterprise question seemingly settled, McCarthy sailed off into the political sunset.  But the issue of who would lead the free enterprise coalition was actually still unsettled.   With the ink barely dry on the by-election results in Matsqui, Social Credit MLAs Jack Weisgerber, Lyall Hanson, Richard Neufeld, and Len Fox stunned BC Liberals and Socreds alike by joining the BC Reform Party, whose leader, Ron Gamble, had contested the Matsqui by-election.  Reform was a hot brand federally at the time and had no baggage provincially.  Weisgerber and co. wanted a fresh start.   This was a massive setback for consolidating and unifying the free enterprise vote. 

Fast forward one year to 1995.  One of the last remaining Socred MLAs, Harry de Jong, resigned to run for mayor of Abbotsford. This again set up a ‘Battle for Free Enterprise’.  This time, the BC Liberals nominated dairy farmer John van Dongen while BC Reform – now led by Weisgerber and the competing free enterprise alternative to the BC Liberals – put forward Rev. Bill Kilpatrick. In contrast to 1994, the BC Liberals brought a more modernized approach and more resources, spearheaded by newly recruited provincial campaign director Greg Lyle.  Reform BC had a strong brand that was aligned with historic voting patterns in the Fraser Valley.  Liberal?! In the Fraser Valley? That was a tough sell.  But the BC Liberals gutted it out with van Dongen winning by 291 votes after a late campaign controversy dogged Kilpatrick.   

Now, the free enterprise coalition question was mainly settled, again, so it seemed.  Mike Harcourt’s NDP government was in a tailspin and Campbell’s BC Liberals were way ahead in the polls. The NDP switched leaders, with Glen Clark taking the helm and reviving the party’s fortunes.   In the subsequent 1996 election, Campbell’s BC Liberals won 42% of the popular vote, more than the NDP, but had fewer seats, which is all that matters.  BC Reform had about 9% of the vote and 2 seats and played the spoiler, especially up country.  The BC Liberals had become the dominant free enterprise alternative, but not dominant enough to defeat the NDP.

1997-99: The Re-Making of the Free Enterprise Coalition Part 3

Never before had the NDP won back-to-back general elections in BC.  After the 1996 campaign, there was a sense of urgency that free enterprise forces needed to unify, however, there was still some disagreement that the BC Liberals were the best vehicle.   Glen Clark’s NDP government got off to a very rough start, but Gordon Campbell still had to prove that his BC Liberals could go the distance if he was going to get another shot.  From 1997-99, he faced a string of by-election tests – in his own party’s seats – that would settle the question once and for all.

First up was Surrey-White Rock.  Wilf Hurd, elected as a BC Liberal in 1991, decided to try his luck in federal politics.  Once an MLA is nominated as a candidate in a federal campaign, he or she must resign their seat in the provincial Legislature, even if they lose their federal bid (as Hurd did).  Former White Rock Mayor Gordie Hogg stepped up to contest the riding for the BC Liberals.  Hogg had encountered some negative publicity not long before dating back to his time as a provincial public servant in the Corrections branch, which created some nervousness among BC Liberals, but he had been a popular mayor. He was challenged by BC Reform candidate David Secord.  South Surrey-White Rock seemed like fertile territory for Reform – it voted strongly Reform federally and had the demographics that suited them (old and white).   It did not look like an easy win for the BC Liberals as they had been having a rocky year, but Hogg won the by-election handily, with 52% of the vote to Reform’s 26%. The NDP were an afterthought at 12% (no one expected them to contend). Campbell’s BC Liberals had passed this test.  Shortly after the by-election result, Peace River North MLA Richard Neufeld, elected as a Reform MLA in 1996, crossed the floor to the BC Liberals, helping to fortify the BC Liberals.

Next up was the Parksville-Qualicum by-election in 1998.  This by-election came about in the oddest of circumstances when BC Liberal MLA Paul Reitsma, a five-term mayor of Parksville elected to the Legislature in 1996, conducted a comically inept stealth mission on the letters to the editor pages. Concocting the identity of ‘Warren Betanko’, Reitsma fired in letters to the local paper under Betanko’s name that attacked his enemies.  The local paper got wise and outed Reitsma publicly one morning.  By lunchtime, Reitsma was out of caucus.  Not long after, local residents launched a recall campaign, which had never been successfully undertaken before (recall laws had only been in place for a few years).  The recall mechanism was viewed as impossible given the high bar to exceed, however, the good people of Parksville-Qualicum got busy with supporters of all parties backing the petition.  The petition was filed, but before the signatures were counted, Reitsma read the room and resigned his seat, paying a very steep price for his shenanigans.  Because of Gordon Campbell’s quick action to jettison Reitsma, the BC Liberals didn’t wear the scandal and got to work on finding a replacement.  

At the mid-point of 1998, the Glen Clark government was doing very poorly in the polls.  BC’s economy had gone from “first to worst” in Canada – a mantra of the BC Liberals – and the Fast Ferries were a monumental political disaster for the government.  To those not familiar, the government had commissioned three fast ferries, built in BC, that never worked properly costing over a half-billion dollars.  They were eventually scrapped.  The business community was very riled up as well and much more vocal against the government than they are today. Into the breach went former NDP MLA Leonard Krog who held Parksville-Qualicum between 1991-96 before losing to Reitmsa.  Krog was well respected locally and probably the best candidate possible for the NDP.  The BC Liberals had an open nomination race (remember those?) with six or seven candidates vying to be candidate.  In a packed auditorium in North Nanaimo, BC Liberal members chose shellfish farmer Judith Reid over a slew of credible candidates – a mayor, a councillor, a former president of Reform BC, a regional district director – a sign of a growing and healthy party.

Though politically inexperienced, Reid was a fresh face for the BC Liberals.  She was challenged by a hard-right Reform candidate that was supported by – he’s baaaack – former Premier Bill Vander Zalm.  The by-election was a long grind as the NDP waited until the last moment to call it, taking place December 14, 1998.  During the campaign, Krog complained that the Glen Clark government was an “albatross around his neck”.  Reid clobbered Krog 53% to 23%.  It was a decisive win in a seat that the NDP had barely lost in 1996.  Reform lost votes, falling further behind. The BC Liberal free enterprise train was speeding down the tracks. 

One more test.  In 1999, BC Liberal MLA Fred Gingell passed away after a battle with cancer.  Gingell, who had served as Opposition Leader between Gordon Wilson and Gordon Campbell, was a beloved figure in the party, and its conscience on finances and fiscal policy.  His riding, Delta South, was a BC Liberal stronghold under Fred and the opening drew a lot of interest.  Again, the Party unleashed an open nomination process that attracted multiple candidates and throngs of voting members. Local farming fixture Val Roddick prevailed on the final ballot, though was to set upon a somewhat crazy political path as Bill Vander Zalm had, by now, assumed control of the BC Reform Party and, as a resident of Delta South, he contested the seat.  BC Liberal free enterprise train? Bill Vander Zalm was prepared to stick up that train like Billy Miner and ride away with Gordon Campbell’s votes.

The by-election campaign was a tense affair as Roddick was very much the community candidate and not accustomed to Zalm’s showmanship nor the strong media interest from outside Delta.  Her campaign turned its guns on the former premier’s record and made the case for moving forward, not backward.  One of their ads warned against “Zalmnesia”. The BC Liberals brought in every available body and resource to get the job done and prevailed with 60% of the vote, almost double Zalm’s 33%.  Between the two parties taking up 93%, there wasn’t much room for others.  Though not expected to contend, the NDP government’s own candidate, Richard Tones, gained 2.44%, which may be a record for the lowest percentage every received by a government candidate in BC by-election history.  By the time the by-election took place, Glen Clark had resigned, the party was in shambles, and caretaker Premier Dan Miller was in place.   Credit to Tones for putting his name on the line and taking it for the team. That’s what party diehards do when things are grim.

About 18 months later, Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals won 77 of 79 seats, and 57% of the vote, in the most lopsided win in BC electoral history.  The gauntlet of free enterprise tests in the 1990s would help them to a sixteen-year run in power from 2001-2017 and the undisputed free enterprise alterative. 

2011 Canary in the coal mine

Every term of government in the past 50 years, and before, has had at least one by-election take place as was the case between 2001-2005 and 2005-2009.  It’s worth noting that the election of the NDP’s Jagrup Brar in Surrey-Panorama (over Mary Polak) in a 2004 by-election increased the NDP caucus by 50%, from two to three and was arguably a sign that the NDP were on the comeback trail under new leader Carole James, which she proved in the 2005 campaign.  Notable about the 2008 Vancouver-Fairview by-election was the resignation not the vote.  First-time NDP MLA Gregor Robertson resigned to run for mayor, starting a ten-year run at City Hall, but also removed his green sheen from Carole James’s team prior to the 2009 campaign, which is remembered as an NDP fumble on climate change. 

The next real consequential by-election after the 1990s to take place was in Vancouver-Point Grey in 2011. When Christy Clark won the BC Liberal leadership, Gordon Campbell resigned his Pt. Grey seat, which he had held since 1996.  It was not a ‘gimme’ though BC Liberal support had always been pretty strong there.  Enter David Eby.  The activist lawyer was seen initially by some as being miscast for the riding, but the results show that he effectively mobilized NDP support among renters and environmentally-minded voters while the BC Liberal base – homeowners – was a diminishing percentage of the riding. 

It’s a tricky thing for a new leader coming from the outside to enter the Legislature – you need to find a dance partner.  In this case, the outgoing leader’s riding was the obvious place but it wasn’t a perfect fit.  Barely a month on the job as premier, Clark called the by-election for May 11th, 2011.  This was a very busy time for the Christy Clark government as it was trying to find its feet, while at the same time, hoping the by-election would take care of itself.  Meanwhile, David Eby was campaigning with laser focus.  As the results came in on May 11th, Clark trailed for much of the night, but a 635-vote cushion in the advance polls (counted last) gave her an overall win of only 564 votes.  This was a very close call and would have been a political disaster if Eby had won.  Yet she won and planned to represent the riding for a good long while.

The real consequence of the 2011 Point Grey by-election is not the close call, but what it represented.  BC Liberal support was draining out of the city.  A shift was taking place where urban voters were increasingly going NDP while rural voters were leaving the NDP to go BC Liberal.  In 2013, in the face of a dispiriting loss for the NDP province-wide, David Eby defeated Clark by over 1,000 votes in Point Grey.  The BC Liberals lost four seats in Vancouver and Capital Region combined, but made them up in the suburbs and rural BC that time.  By 2017, the urban shift would have deeper consequences for the BC Liberals.

2012 The Deferred Remaking of the Free Enterprise Coalition

In Christy Clark’s first year as premier, two of her MLAs resigned for greener pastures.  Iain Black vacated his Port Moody seat to head the Vancouver Board of Trade and Barry Penner gave leave of his Chilliwack-Hope seat to return to resume his legal career.  Neither by-election was particularly welcome as the BC Liberals knew they would be tough battles and divert much attention and resources.  Adrian Dix’s NDP salivated at the opportunity. 

As far as Port Moody goes, Dix shrewdly recruited former BC Liberal and Port Moody Mayor Joe Trasolini as the NDP candidate.  News of Trasolini’s candidacy added another two-hundred-pound sack on to the back of the struggling BC Liberals.  Meanwhile, in the ‘safe seat’ of Chilliwack-Hope, the BC Liberals recruited Laurie Throness, a former Chief of Staff to Chuck Strahl, a much-admired figure in the area.  Strahl really leaned into the campaign to support Clark and Throness, no small thing as the BC Liberals worked to fend off the rising BC Conservatives led by one of Strahl’s former colleagues, John Cummins. 

Throness did not have a very high profile in Chilliwack-Hope and did not bring a lot of volunteers, but he campaigned hard as one expects of a local candidate and benefited from Strahl’s backing.  He refused to ‘go negative’ on his key rival, BC Conservative candidate John Martin. The BC Liberal campaign, with its back against the wall, was trying everything and wanted to throw the kitchen sink at Martin.  The NDP’s Gwen O’Mahony would win the by-election with 42% of the vote, defying a natural law of BC politics – that NDPers could never win in the eastern Fraser Valley.  Throness and Martin split the vote with 32% and 25% respectively.  Over in Port Moody, Trasolini trampled the BC Liberal candidate Dennis Marsden (now an elected City Councillor in Coquitlam).  

The news was all bad but for two glimmers.  First, the BC Liberals finished ahead of the BC Conservatives in Chilliwack-Hope.  It could have been worse. Third place would have been very bad indeed.  Secondly, four days after the bruising by-elections, Alberta Premier Alison Redford made an improbable comeback, against the WildRose Party’s Danielle Smith of all people, to win a majority.  Redford had been given up for dead by the Holy Trinity of Pollsters, Pundits, and Political Scientists.  Her comeback made the idea of a Christy Clark comeback slightly more plausible. 

The real difference, though, is what happened later.  After the by-election in Chilliwack-Hope, Throness and Martin stayed in touch as they developed a respect for each other (recall that Throness wouldn’t go negative). As the BC Conservatives started to fall apart over the summer of 2012 (as third parties like to do), conversations started to take place about Martin coming over to the BC Liberals.  Incumbent MLA John Les provided a guiding hand.  When these whispers reached party HQ, a gift horse was not looked in the mouth. In September 2012, John Martin was announced as the candidate in Chilliwack, to succeed Les, and Throness would team up with him and run again in neighbouring Chilliwack-Hope. On switching parties mere months after the by-election, Martin, the master BBQ-er, quipped, “If anyone can make eating crow taste good, it’s me”.

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

This event was a pivotal moment for the BC Liberals rebuilding the free enterprise coalition leading up to the 2013 general election.  Martin and Throness would both win their seats, Clark would win the province, and the BC Conservatives were pushed back to 5% and the sidelines ever more.  Over in Port Moody? Trasolini was a one-year wonder losing to BC Liberal candidate Linda Reimer. Over the longer-term, things didn’t work out as well for Martin and Throness, both losing to the NDP in 2020, who won in the eastern Fraser Valley for the first time ever in a general election. The party had considered allowing a nomination challenge to Martin but ultimately relented. Throness’s social conservative musings, which had not been much of a distraction under Clark’s leadership, burst into the general election campaign of 2020, disabling Andrew Wilkinson’s provincial campaign effort, and leading to him being removed as candidate.

2013 Back to the Cradle

Despite Christy Clark’s general election win in 2013, she lost her seat in Point Grey to David Eby.  She, again, had to find her way into the Legislature through a by-election.  

What might have seemed like a straightforward process, given her stunning election victory, was surprisingly tortured as it became clear that an ideal Lower Mainland seat was not going to present itself. 

One MLA who did understand the importance of securing a safe seat for the premier was Westside-Kelowna MLA Ben Stewart.   Clark accepted his offer to resign and entered the Legislature via a by-election from the ‘cradle of free enterprise’, forty years after Bill Bennett secured his seat there in 1973.

The consequence was the cementing of the Interior on the psyche of the government.  Not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily.  The Interior had rewarded the BC Liberals in the 2013 election with 18 of 24 seats.  Clark felt at home there, especially in Kelowna which had a tradition of strong support for free enterprise.  But the premier’s move up-country arguably contributed to the party drifting further away from the vote-rich urban areas.  It may have been only a few degrees of difference, but between 2013-2017, the government was losing ground in the Lower Mainland and would pay the price on Election Day. Had Clark taken a by-election seat in the Lower Mainland instead in 2013, would it have made a difference?  She lost power by the narrowest of margins, mainly on account of the party’s losses there.

As was the case when Dave Barrett ‘returned’ his seat to Bob Williams in 1984, Clark did the same for the honourable Stewart who returned to office in a 2018 by-election. 

2016 Making a Mark on Indigenous representation

While it did not have any bearing on general election results, the 2016 Vancouver-Mount Pleasant by-election was notable for sending the first First Nations woman, Melanie Mark, to the BC Legislature since the province came into existence 145 years before. The by-election was fait accompli as the NDP cruised to victory with over 60% of the vote. The real ‘race’ would have been the jockeying around the nomination once long-time MLA Jenny Kwan had decided to run federally the previous year. The NDP’s decision to go with Mark made history, and one year later, she was joined in the Legislature by two additional First Nations MLAs – Ellis Ross (BC Liberal) and Adam Olsen (Green). In the history of the BC Legislature, there have only been five First Nations MLAs, with Atlin MLAs Frank Calder, serving between 1949-1979 and Larry Guno (1986-1991) preceding Mark. Mark then became the first First Nations woman to serve in Cabinet. Her by-election competitors didn’t stop after losing to Mark. Green candidate Pete Fry went on to win handily as Councillor in the 2018 City of Vancouver election, while BC Liberal Gavin Dew threw his hat into the ring for the 2022 BC Liberal leadership race.

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

2019 High Stakes and High Tide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2022 Surrey South: Renewal or ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEE post on Surrey South by-election result

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

UK Election: Smash and Grab to Victory

1/        It’s Election Day in the UK. The culmination of a fascinating period of political upheaval with two leaders – Boris and Jeremy Corbyn – that could not be more different than David Cameron and Tony Blair.  They eschew modernity for a new polarizing populism, chucking the old rules into the cut.  This is not the hopeful UK of Love Actually, the stoicism of Dunkirk, or the dash of 007. This election is a Peaky Blinders smash and grab.

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2/        Boris has remade the UK Tories. This guy.  An excellent writer with sense of humour, he was bedevilled by personal scandal as MP. And lying. Pulls off election as London mayor in a Labour city. Shores up David Cameron’s campaign in 2015 that led to surprise majority. At last-minute, joins Leave campaign and, unquestionably, made the difference. No Boris, no Brexit. His partnership with Michael Gove trumped Remain establishment.

3/        Instantly, David Cameron resigns from office. A leadership campaign kicks off (the Brits don’t mess around). Boris is not ready and stumbles. At deadline for filing, Michael Gove (Judas) wields the knife against Boris by jumping in race suddenly. Boris is shocked out of the race he was supposed to win. Theresa May emerges as safe alternative to stabilize divided Tory party. Gove loses and is sent to purgatory, Boris to Foreign Office. May starts strong with positioning that foreshadows a shakeup of Tory base.

4/        May moves to an election within the year, with a huge lead in the polls.  I mean, she’s going to clean up against Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn (more on him shortly). Her campaign is a disaster. Textbook case of fuzzy strategy and failure to execute.  She falls short of majority by 5 seats.  Worse yet, she is already a dead duck.  Hobbled by blown opportunity, May attempts to finesse her Brexit deal through Parliament and fails again, again, and again.

5/        Meanwhile, Boris flew the coop to sit as backbench MP. He wants no part of wearing May’s deal.  But Gove was resuscitated to serve in Cabinet (he is a clever boy) to try to rally Brexiteers. Out in the countryside, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage (leader most likely to enjoy having a pint with) starts Brexit Party and is inhabiting the Tory electoral base like necrotizing fasciitis.

6/        Finally, Jeremy Corbyn. In 2015… hold it… need to go back more… in 2010, the Tories had a plurality of seats under David Cameron but far short of majority.  Labour PM Gordon Brown (UK’s Paul Martin) tried to extend Labour to a fourth term and failed. The Lib-Dems negotiated a true coalition government with the Tories with leader Nick Clegg serving as Deputy PM for five years.

7/        Labour has a leadership vote. Unlike Tories, this is membership-based vote.  Labour is divided into Blairites and Brownites.  Blairite David Miliband, a former Foreign Minister, is seen as frontrunner.  His younger BROTHER Ed, a Brownite, challenges him. Political fratricide.  Ed wins! Based on support from lefties and union supporters. It’s a bit of a mess, especially at Christmas dinner in the Miliband household.  Ed is not really up to it but he is competitive in the polls. The 2015 election is going to be a horse race!

8/        David Cameron, and his advisor Sir Lynton Crosby, with Boris’s help, surgically detach Lib-Dem voters.  You see, Scotland was feeling quite uppity at the time and Middle England did not see Red Ed as strong enough to preserve the union.  Cameron shocks by winning a majority. Five more years! Just have to deal with this election promise to hold a Brexit referendum then it’s onwards and upwards. (Of course, he loses referendum, resigns immediately, and squanders the 2015 majority).

9/        Ed is toast.  He didn’t even have time to change his underwear before resigning.  Again, the Brits don’t mess around. There’s a leadership contest and many Labour MPs jump in.  While the members vote, candidates must have papers signed by at least 40 or 50 MPs in order to qualify.  Jeremy Corbyn is running around getting signatures at last minute.  People sign because they feel sorry for him.  He has no chance of winning!

10/      Here’s the thing about political parties.  They are vulnerable to takeovers. Few people actually belong to parties.  An emerging group, Momentum, decides to take the piss out of the Labour establishment by backing Corbyn.  Corbyn represents what is on the minds of disillusioned activists. Blair brought them the Gulf War and ‘New Labour’ that looked like moderate Toryism to many. Gordon Brown hated Tony Blair but he was very much associated with that agenda. Ed was transitional and not strong.  Here comes ‘Jezza’ who voices the frustration and it catches fire.

11/      This is all happening around the same time as Trump is catching fire and Bernie is making his move.  The insurgents are on the move in the industrialized world, and in Jezza’s case, the party rules work for him. Mass sign ups and support from existing base steamroller over establishment candidates.  Labour grandees are sputtering in their protestations. Blair, Brown, et al. issue dire warnings.  No one listens.  Corbyn wins big.  What now?

12/      The Labour Caucus is having none of it.  Not long after, there is a push to remove Corbyn. He is not a conventional leader and routinely is taken to task by the merciless UK media. The Deputy Leader (who is not Corbyn’s man) returns to another caucus revolt early from Glastonbury, interrupting the good time he was having at the silent disco. Ultimately, Corbyn consents to a new leadership contest.  Finally… let’s get a real Leader, says Labour MPs.

13/      Corbyn wins again! He increases his margin.

14/      Theresa May is, like, “I’m having an election.  This guy is a clown, Labour is a disaster”.  We are now in 2017.  Please follow along.

15/      May is way, way ahead.  Her campaign chokes. Corbyn has one of the great comebacks of modern political history.  This is actually his first election campaign as leader after TWO leadership processes. Turns out UK voters like his sincerity and honesty.  “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” becomes an anthem on the left.  In fact, the election is polarizing between the two parties in England where most of the seats reside. Fun fact: Tories and Labours have held 1-2 position exclusively for about a century.

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Two party domination by Tories and Labour.  Lib-Dems and predecessor parties peaked out at 25% (1983)

16/      Corbyn is secured in his leadership.  It’s virtually a hung Parliament and Corbyn has centre stage across the dispatch box from the PM.

17/      [Intermission]

18/      Fast forward to summer 2019. May is out, Boris is in. After all of the feeble attempts to get her Brexit deal passed, the party turned to Boris. It wasn’t close, he won in a landslide. He arrives to office with his advisor, the Dark Lord, Dominic Cummings, who masterminded the Leave campaign.  Who is at Boris’s side in Cabinet? Judas! Boris and Michael Gove have kissed and made up.

19/      Jeremy Corbyn is still there, looking a bit wobbly, and does not have clear position on Brexit.  At first, they have Boris on the run.  He wants to have an early election but new legislation blocks him without consent of the House.  He wants to have the leverage of threatening to crash out of the EU without a deal. A majority of MPs flip out and force him through some humiliating votes.  Boris removes the whip from over 20 Tory Remain MPs, including Churchill’s grandson! Things are getting rough. Elites are aghast! Tory and Labour MPs are joining the Lib-Dems, who have the clearest Remain position.

20/      Why is Labour so fuzzy on Brexit? Many Labour voters in their traditional heartland outside of London voted Leave.  They are very split while Tories are more Leave than Remain, and Boris is betting that Tory Remainers fear Corbyn more than they fear Brexit.  The Lib Dems are banking on owning Remain and also riding unicorns chasing rainbows.  They are about to get squeezed like a lemon in a lemonade factory.

21/      Boris negotiates a deal! It’s oven-ready! Pop it in the microwave, let’s get Brexit done.  Enough’s enough!  We’re getting ready to have the election. Time to see the Queen.  Corbyn’s response, while fending off serious charges of anti-semitism in his ranks, is to make the ballot question all about health care. People don’t care about Brexit, they want someone to stand up for them.

22/      At the heart of Boris’s strategy is a ‘smash and grab’ of Labour voters in traditional Labour seats.  It would be like Stephen Harper trying to win East Vancouver.  Except, Boris might pull it off.  British voters feel like they know him.  They know he’s glib, stretches the truth, and puts his foot in his mouth, but, like Trump, there is high familiarity with him.  He’s been around a long time, leading a public life.  His flaws have already been discounted. They know what they’re dealing with.

23/      Personality aside, Boris has a proposition: get Brexit done and, unlike Thatcher and other Tories, he will spend bigly on health care and other core services. No more austerity!  He is coming for 30-50 year old working women.  He wants the mums.  He wants the union guy.  He is saying, “I don’t care about London bankers, I’m with you blokes in Birmingham!” In fact, he was out delivering groceries in Leeds this week in the early hours (before hiding in a walk-in cooler to avoid the media). He is looking to realign the political map.  Theresa May got started on this and Boris aims to finish it.

24/      Corbyn’s play is to remind people that the Tories don’t care for regular people – working people – and hopes to boost turnout among younger people, who strongly support Remain and the values that Corbyn represents. They are still singing “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” in Liverpool. Like Canada, the Conservatives in the UK have low support among under 35s.  They own old people.  The election battle is with middle-aged, workforce-aged voters.

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25/      The Lib-Dems have been cast aside despite floor crossings and thirsting for an election. They have fallen flat with new leader Jo Swinson. She has been unable to move the dial. In an existential battle between two populist insurgents, the Lib-Dems find it very difficult to elbow in to relevance.

26/      This post is about 2% political science and 98% soap opera. But there are a few things about the UK politics and this election that stand out:

27/      There is way more outspoken behaviour from backbenchers in the UK. Professor Greg Lyle counselled me that it’s because there are more MPs at Westminster (650 in total).  The chances of promotion are much lower so backbenchers feel more freedom to do as they like. There is no question that Westminster is a much, much, more vibrant cauldron of political debate than Ottawa.  I blame all Canadian parties for this. They are too focused on party discipline and dissent.  Loosen up!  Maybe we need more MPs in Ottawa? Did I say that out loud?

28/      Parliament really matters in the UK. The level of debate is high.  There are no desks.  Many MPs must stand at Prime Minister’s Questions (once a week).  There’s a sense that debates can turn issues. Even the TV angles are better, covering reactions of MPs and creating a sense of the environment in the Chamber. Maybe I’m mythologizing a bit, but I would sure like Canada to do a better job emulating Mother Parliament.

29/      The media is very diverse.  While Boris has taken on the BBC (and others), the reality is that there are clearly Labour papers (The Guardian), Tory papers (Times of London), Brexit papers (Daily Mail), and many others in between and all over. It may be suffocating for those in politics, but it also enlivens debate. BBC coverage is generally excellent, IMO.

30/      The advertising is more creative and to the point than anything we saw in the recent Canadian election.  The main parties are keying on emotions, using digital as key medium. In this election, Boris is rejecting old rules of mainstream media.  Declining some debates, and refusing outright to do a popular interview show. While the BBC sputters indignation, Boris is happy to have that fight.

31/      There are many more parties represented in Parliament than the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems.  First past the post also produces Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, Ulster Unionists, a Green MP, independents, and seven Sinn Fein members who refuse to take their seats. It’s a dynamic place.

32/      Around the UK, candidates will gather in their constituency at a central polling location where they will climb on stage to hear the results together, each wearing a candidate ribbon bearing their party’s colours. The losers will congratulate the winner – a much more community-spirited ceremony than the Canadian tradition of hanging out exclusively with supporters at campaign offices.

33/      I think Boris is going to pull off his smash and grab in the Labour heartlands.  As Tory grandees like Rt. Hon. John Major reject him, he gains elsewhere. He put Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party to bed. He may lose his own seat in London, but may gain Tony Blair’s old seat in northern England. He will receive a working majority and implement Brexit.  Can he hang on to be a competent prime minister? Who knows.  Labour will give Corbyn the heave-ho finally, but it will be Momentum that holds the cards.  Their own smash and grab of the Labour Party apparatus likely continues.

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Lib Dems fading down the stretch. Light blue line is Brexit Party.  Peaked around the time that Theresa May left office.  Boris has put them to bed.  Night, night.

34/ What happens when a powerful movement drives the politics of a party away from the mainstream (and victory)?  Is it a policy problem, or is it just a matter of leadership? The reality is that its problems pre-date Corbyn and he may have been the one to breathe new life into it. A new Corbynista could be the PM next time.  Our parties in Canada are very vulnerable to such movements ‘taking over’.  That’s democracy.  Anyone can join.  Don’t blame Momentum, or dairy farmers, or pro-lifers – anyone can join, but most don’t.

35/      What Boris and Corbyn realize is this – power is ‘out there’, to be harnessed. A strong message is the power to break, reshape and coalesce an electoral base, or motivate a narrow group to action, to supersede a passive majority.  Either way, it goes against the old rules. They are both prepared to “alienate the base” in order to – they hope – grow their movements. They are making new rules.

36/      Thanks for reading, if you made it.  This started as a tweet storm and ended as a blog post.  At 2pm Pacific / 5pm Eastern, the polls close. BBC will release immediately the results of exit polls that forecast what will happen with analysis by the brilliant Professor John Courtice.  Unlike Canada, the UK rolls out results slowly, over 6-8 hours.  It will be great entertainment, as usual.

(Apologies for errors and emissions)

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)


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)


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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The math of the Nanaimo by-election

What can we expect for turnout in the Nanaimo by-election?

I took a look at five competitive by-elections since 1989 – government-held seats where both the government and opposition had a good chance to win.

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In all of these cases, there should have been ample incentive for both government and opposition to win and, therefore, work hard to get their vote out.

By-election turnout as a percentage of the previous general election ranged from 40% to 89%.  None of these examples, nor any example of any by-election in recent memory, saw a higher turnout than a general election.  Therefore, it is pretty safe to say that fewer people will vote than the 2017 general election even though Press Gallery sage Keith Baldrey calls it “pivotal” and NDP candidate Sheila Malcolmson calls it, “The most important by-election in BC history.”

The NDP pulled off by-election upsets in 1989 and 2012 when they over-performed declining turnout.  In both cases, they had more votes than the previous general election.   Part of that was motivating their supporters and part of it was winning votes from non-traditional supporters.  In two other cases, the NDP still won by-elections from the BC Liberal government even though they had fewer votes compared to the previous election (in which they lost).

Poor old governments.  They have a tough time in by-elections.  In these five examples, the government of the day had between 30% and 75% of the votes from the previous election.  In Oak Bay in 1989, 75% should have been enough to elect Susan Brice.  Campaign manager Frank Leonard probably thought he had the votes.  But NDP candidate Elizabeth Cull really brought the vote out in an anti-Vander Zalm tide.  (It didn’t help the Socreds that Liberal Paul McKivett grabbed 9% either – a story for another day).

The 2011 Pt. Grey by-election is a good parallel for Nanaimo.  Here was a newly elected leader of the governing party, Christy Clark, seeking her way into the Legislature.  I can say, as her then-Chief of Staff, that I never seriously contemplated losing this by-election.  We were too darn busy at the time to think about losing.  Yet, with our campaign only garnering 68% of the votes from the previous election, and NDP David Eby garnering 78% of the previous campaign’s NDP votes, it became uncomfortably close.  If Eby had taken 90% of the votes of Mel Lehan’s 2009 effort in Pt. Grey, he would have won then, instead of 2013, and created a major problem for me.

In 2017, the Nanaimo riding results were as follows:

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So, you can expect there will be less than 27,399 that vote in this by-election.  According to recent history, we might reasonably expect a range of 69% (Pt. Grey) to 85% (Chilliwack-Hope) of the previous election, or a range of about 18,900 to 23,300 voters.  If 40% share of the popular vote is a win, because of a strong Green in the race, then 7,600 to 9,300 votes might be enough to win.  Maybe less if this emerges as a three-way race.

A more recent example is the ProRep referendum.

A total of 19,938 Nanaimo riding residents voted, with a majority (10,785) voting for First-Past-the-Post.  Perhaps that’s the floor for the by-election turnout.  I will leave it others to speculate what 10,785 First-Past-the-Voters might be thinking about BC politics right now.

Why does this matter?

Because when turnout declines, as it surely will, in this by-election, motivating supporters becomes more important.  The three main parties will work very hard to motivate their support base.

The NDP base may not be as strong as some assume.  First of all, Leonard Krog is not on the ballot.  How much of the vote was NDP and how much was Leonard Krog?  We’ll soon find out.

Secondly, Sheila Malcolmson’s support as NDP MP was not as strong as some assume.  She only received 33% of the vote in the past federal election.  I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I think she did better south of the current provincial riding than she did within.  That may have been more of a problem with Tom Mulcair’s flagging fortunes than anything, but the fact remains that Malcolmson did not have huge coattails of her own.

You might crunch the 2017 numbers and say, “The NDP still have a pretty big cushion”.  You would be right.  But go back to 2013 and look at those results.  It was a lot closer between the NDP and BC Liberals. How much of a difference will Andrew Wilkinson and Tony Harris make in favour of the BC Liberals, and how much difference did Leonard Krog make for the NDP?  We’ll see.

For a deeper dive on BC by-election turnout, see my 2016 posts: A Deeper Dive on By-election Turnout and Turnout goes Underground.

Hot Take on ProRep Referendum Results

Last week, I wrote that First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) would prevail by “a whisker, a few grey whiskers”.  It turned out that it was a full-on Santa’s beard of whiskers as it prevailed with 61% of the vote, far exceeding projections by public pollsters.

The Regional Story

What’s striking about the win for FPTP is its dominance in the Lower Mainland.  It took 63% of the vote in BC’s most populated area.  The Interior delivered a resounding 67% verdict, but it represented just over a quarter of the votes for FPTP.  The Lower Mainland did the heavy lifting.  The Island was a 50-50 split, a disappointment to ProRep supporters, especially the Greens.  However, as I wrote last week, there are a lot of ‘experienced’ voters (hint: old) on the Island and experienced voters don’t care much for ProRep.

Feast your eyes on this table then I will break it down for you…

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  1. The South Island (south of the Malahat) was the best area of the province for ProRep, delivering a 55% win across seven ridings in the Capital region.  Those efforts were cancelled out by the seven ridings north of the Malahat.  As was the case up north, rural, resource-producing areas are very skeptical of ProRep, which partially explains the difference on the Island between north and south.
  2. In the Lower Mainland, Vancouver-North Shore’s 15 ridings were close with FPTP edging ProRep 53% to 47%.  This stands in stark contrast to the rest of the Lower Mainland and should serve as a wake-up call to the NDP.  Richmond-Delta-Surrey voted 72% for FPTP and Burnaby to Mission went 70% FPTP.  This is exactly where Christy Clark’s government met its demise in 2017.  In these areas alone, eight BC Liberal seats flipped to the NDP.  In this referendum, they were clearly not buying what the GreenDP were selling.  The Fraser Valley went strongly for FPTP, as expected, even then, 75% is emphatic.
  3. In the Interior, the northernmost ridings, including the Cariboo, strongly backed the current system with 74% support.  I return to the previous point – it is surprising to me that the suburbs of the Lower Mainland matched the North.  Frankly, it’s shocking, to a guy like me, who obsesses over numbers and ridings.  The Okanagan and Kamloops region were in lockstep at 68-69%.  The Kootenays demonstrate, yet again, that they march to the beat of a different drummer – at least those in the West Kootenay.  Both NDP-held seats there voted ProRep, the only two of the 24 Interior seats to support the proposal.  The region overall was 55% for FPTP due to the East Kootenay BCL-held seats.

Results by Party 

The BC Liberals elected 43 seats on Election Day 2017 and those 43 seats voted 70% for FPTP, nine points above the 61% average province-wide.  The NDP’s 41 seats leaned toward FPTP with 54% compared to 46% for ProRep.  The Green held-seats slightly favoured FPTP, by a margin of 51% to 49%.

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Let’s look at the NDP seats.  ProRep was blown out in Surrey seats with Panorama leading the way at 74.5% for FPTP.  Newton 73%.  Green Timbers 73%.  Fleetwood 72%.  Delta North 70%.  Hop over to Maple Ridge where it was 68-69% for FPTP.

I don’t want to overstate the importance of this referendum to the next election but it’s not great when your initiative, which sucked up a lot of political oxygen, is thumped.

In the Interior, the four NDP held seats did OK, relative to the overall result.  Stikine was 60% for FPTP which is better than Surrey, I guess.  North Coast was close (53% FPTP) while, as mentioned above, the NDP seats in the West Kootenay backed ProRep.  Is there anywhere to grow for the NDP?  When you see 25% for ProRep in the Cariboo, where the NDP had seats not long ago, and 26% in Fraser-Nicola which was held up until 2013, it’s hard to see this referendum as an Interior growth strategy for the NDP.

Here are the 16 of 87 seats that voted ProRep:

  • Vancouver Mt. Pleasant (NDP)
  • Victoria-Beacon Hill (NDP)
  • Victoria-Swan Lake (NDP)
  • Vancouver-Hastings (NDP)
  • Vancouver-Fairview (NDP)
  • Vancouver-West End (NDP)
  • Nelson-Creston (NDP)
  • Powell River-Sunshine Coast (NDP)
  • Oak Bay-Gordon Head (GREEN)
  • Vancouver Pt. Grey (NDP)
  • Esquimalt-Metchosin (NDP)
  • Saanich North & the Islands (GREEN)
  • Vancouver-False Creek (BCL)
  • Kootenay West (NDP)
  • New Westminster (NDP)
  • Langford Juan de Fuca (NDP)

The top four on the list are probably the top four safest NDP seats in the province.  For the BC Liberals, it stands out that ProRep won in False Creek.  Sam Sullivan hung on by his fingernails last election and this riding is evolving.  The BC Liberals held Pt. Grey, Fairview, Saanich North, and Oak Bay up until 2013.  The BC Liberals, strong proponents of FPTP, continue to go against the grain of these type of ridings.

Another riding, which was very close between FPTP and ProRep was West Vancouver-Sea-to-Sky.  This is a riding that should be on the BC Liberals’ “watch list”.  It’s changing, as is North Vancouver-Seymour.  Ridings that used to be safe, aren’t as safe anymore.    The key is the suburbs. There are a lot of seats out there and, like Quebec in federal elections, they can go one way or the other, en masse.

In this referendum, ProRep did not have a broad enough coalition.  It did poorly in the suburbs and the regions, and in ridings with higher proportions of people who do not have English as a first language.  This pretty well sums up the Green Party actually.  While it won in Andrew Weaver’s riding (which hosts UVic) and in Saanich-North & the Islands, where it has two elected Green representatives (Adam Olsen and Elizabeth May),  it lost in Cowichan Valley.  It’s more rural, and it’s less typical of the Green base.  The Greens like PR because they haven’t been able to break through in FPTP because of their limited appeal.  The referendum reinforces the Greens’ weaknesses.

ProRep also lacked meaningful support from BC Liberals.  NDPer Bill Tieleman was extremely important to the FPTP campaign, along with other traditional FPTP supporters in the NDP.  Glen Clark’s support for FPTP was an important signal to an element of the NDP base.  Former Premier Ujjal Dosanjh also made interventions into the campaign in favour of FPTP. There was no signalling from iconic BC Liberal / Socreds-of-old to the free enterprise base that ProRep was ok.

The process

At the end of the day, this was a process that was nakedly designed to support the partisan interests of the Green Party, and to a lesser extent, the NDP (who were more interested in keeping the Greens happy).  There was no secret about it.  The consultation had all the appearances of a sham, especially when compared to the much-admired Citizens’ Assembly process prior to 2005.  Here was a Premier, Gordon Campbell, who had 77 of 79 seats.  He put the power of recommending a new system in the hands of two citizens per riding.  They spent months learning and deliberating.  I didn’t like their recommendation but I admired their efforts and their example.  It was democratic jury duty.  That process also had a much better result for electoral reform than what just transpired.  Is this a lesson learned for David Eby? Too clever by half?

Another sign of a flawed process is that 40% of the voters did not even vote on Question 2. There were 1.391 million voters overall, but only 832,000 chose one of the three PR options, while 559,000 skipped the question. Of the options, MMP had the most with 343,000. That would not have been a resounding mandate and such a gap in responses between Q1 and Q2 would have undermined a positive ProRep outcome.

The players

FPTP supporters, like Bob Plecas, Suzanne Anton, and Bill Tieleman, got started early.  They branched out to bring in other voices in multicultural communities. They had the experience to focus their resources and messaging effectively.  They worked on persuading likely voters and punched through with clear arguments.  The ProRep campaign appeared to focus a lot of effort on getting non-voters to vote.  That is harder to do.  As with many campaigns, followers can get fooled by their echo chamber.  If your social media galaxy is made up of people just like you, then you can be led to believe there is more support than really exists.  Clearly, the ProRep campaign was spanked once it left the cozy confines of Victoria and Vancouver.  It did not have a ground game or a regional game.  This was a similar challenge in the Transit Referendum.  The suburbs rose up and defeated the initiative (though there wasn’t a great deal of support in Vancouver either).  What’s the answer?  Show up, listen, engage.  Get out of your comfort zone if you want to grow your cause.

This is why the system works

As the results indicate, there is dynamism in the system.  I can see in these results how the electoral landscape continues to shift.  It’s not a given how the province will vote next time.  Big-tent parties have to get their arms around the largest swath of voters possible in order to govern.  That requires overarching vision, compromise, and brokering, but all within a unified structure that brings forward a coherent program that that party is accountable for if they win.  Moreover, it is highly competitive.  Elections between two or more big-tent parties bring clarity and a clear choice for the electorate.  Smaller parties play an important role too.  They push issues on to the agenda that big-tent parties must respond to.  If they don’t, big tent parties can disappear and smaller parties can emerge to take their place.  As a Teenage Vote Splitter, that was my story – that of the BC Liberals supplanting the Socreds after 1991 and the Reform Party overtaking the Progressive Conservatives in 1993.  It happens all the time.  We have a highly competitive, dynamic electoral system.  It’s not perfect, but it’s not static either.

The best argument I heard during this debate was that FPTP is the most effective system for throwing out a bad government.  It’s decisive.    In most cases, these parties are the better for it.  Out goes the old and in comes a new generation of leaders that rebuild. ProRep would allow power structures to linger like last year’s salad dressing.  So, I’m obviously happy with the outcome.  Our system largely works.  There are a few changes that could be made that would help, not requiring a referendum, but that is a post for another day.

Now that this is over, next stop for BC politics: Nanaimo.

FPTP vs. PR – and the winner is?

If this was a conventional election, it would appear First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) will prevail over Proportional Representation (PR).  Is it a conventional election? Let’s take a look.


It’s all over but the counting. (photo: Times Colonist)

It appears, according to public polls, that it’s a competitive race between the two options. Various polls have it in the 50-50 range.  There is also a consensus among public polls that PR is strongly favoured among young people and FPTP is strongly favoured among older people.

There are regional variations.  Areas where PR appears strong are Vancouver Island (where the Greens are strongest) and the City of Vancouver. FPTP appears strongest in BC’s Interior.

Ethnicity and language also appear to play a role.  Public polls do not show breakdowns by ethnicity (and I wonder if they are properly represented in sampling), but we can see that turnout has been lower in ridings that have lower English-first language populations, such as Richmond and Surrey.

There has been some interesting analysis conducted by Star Metro reporter David Ball and Langara College professor Bryan Breguet (an unabashed PR supporter) who has a blog called “Too Close to Call”.

Ball tracked the rate-of-return of the mail-in-ballots and compared it to the HST and Translink referendums.  The seemingly slow rate of response at the outset of the process was typical of these processes.


Brequet ran regressions and other analysis to determine who might be voting.  He’s also conducted Google polls, that show the race very tight.  I’m a bit more primitive in my approach so take the following as you will.

Here’s what we know:

1,361,000 ballots were received, and Elections BC has published the riding-by-riding totals for over 92% of those ballots, providing a fairly clear picture of the regional breakdowns.


On the spectrum of turnout for province-wide votes over the past seven years, the PR referendum was low.  Take into account population growth and the PR turnout was even weaker when compared to the HST referendum.

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Regional Differences

One of the wrinkles with looking at these results by region is to look at raw votes rather than ridings.  There are 24 seats in the Interior and only 15 on the Island/Sunshine Coast.  Yet the average riding population on the Coast is higher.  In the final analysis, there are about as many votes from the Island/Sunshine Coast as there are from the Interior.

The Interior received ballots earlier, and returned them earlier.  Over the course of the balloting period, the Interior’s share of the overall pile of votes diminished to about its share of registered voters.  The FPTP advocates may have hoped that the Interior would punch above its weight in terms of turnout.  The region that did over-perform its share of the electoral pie was Vancouver Island / Sunshine Coast.  By the time the final 8% of ballots are allocated to ridings, the Island will likely surpass the Interior in terms of overall votes, and will have over 20% more influence on the process than compared to its share of registered voters.  The Lower Mainland will have about 8% less influence on the process that its share of registered votes.

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Partisan Differences

We can also track where the votes came by held-seat.  In the HST referendum, every NDP seat voted against the HST, while half of the BC Liberal seats voted for the HST.  Who represents a seat can be an indicator of support – not because of the MLA, but because of the underlying attitudes that got that party and MLA elected in the first place.  One could reasonably assume that BC Liberal seats will lean FPTP and NDP/Green seats will lean PR.  That will probably be the case writ-large, though there will be exceptions.  (For the purposes of this analysis, I am basing it on held seats as of election night, 2017).

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What does this tell us?  The three Green seats over-performed on turnout, while the NDP under-performed.  NDP held-seats in Surrey, for example, had very low voter turnout.  Apparently, voters in Cowichan, Oak Bay, and, Saanich North & the Islands were more eager to receive their ballots than to have a visit from Santa.  But there may be other reasons for that, stay tuned (see below).  The BC Liberal seats held their own, but no advantage in turnout.  Again, those 20 of 24 seats in the Interior held by the BC Liberals did not generate as much in terms of turnout percentage as I would have thought.

In the Lower Mainland, it was very close in terms of raw vote turnout between the NDP-held seats and the BC Liberal-held seats.  The NDP’s 26 Lower Mainland seats account for about 50.5% of all votes in the Lower Mainland processed already versus 49.5% for the 22 BC Liberal-held seats.  There are no Green seats in the Lower Mainland.  So, in the Lower Mainland, the BC Liberal seats did better relative to the NDP.

In the Lower Mainland, the turnout was highest in Vancouver-North Shore and the Fraser Valley, relative to Burnaby to Mission corridor and Richmond to Surrey corridor.

Older people vote

It is a consistent truth in Canadian elections that turnout is higher among older people than younger people.  In the 2015 federal election, there was a bigger turnout among all age groups, but the old geezers still outpaced the Millennials.

Let’s look at turnout-by-age in the 2017 provincial general election.  Work with me here.

The 18-24s represent 11.1% of the eligible voters (the red bar).  However, they represented only 6.3% of those who actually voted (the blue bar).  Meanwhile, the 65-74s are busy voting on the first day of the advance polls following their coffee and muffin at Tim Horton’s.  This group represents 12.7% of eligible voters (red), but 17.6% of those who voted (blue).  There are only about 10% more 65-74s than 18-24s in terms of eligible voters, but almost a 3X difference between them in terms of who voted.

Chart 1: Turnout by Age, 2017 BC provincial election (source: Elections BC)

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So, the question is, given that public polls indicate a strong preference among seniors for FPTP, did old voters rule the roost in the PR referendum too?

Bryan Brequet from Too Close to Call has undertaken some analysis and he sees a trend toward more younger voters.  I think what he means is that the gap between younger and older voters in the PR referendum may not be as pronounced as the 2017 general election.

I’m not so sure.  When you have a lower turnout, the age discrepancy is usually bigger.  When you have a higher turnout, more younger people (and other less-likely voters) are showing up to the polls.

So here’s what I did…

I ranked the ridings 1-87 in terms of turnout in the PR referendum.  Parksville-Qualicum is #1, at 46% turnout. Surrey Whalley is #87, at 18%.  (This is, as of, 92% of ballots being screened.  Turnout by riding will increase but the ranking of ridings 1-87 will probably not change that much).

Then I took BC Stats data and looked at the 18-44 population per riding.  I ranked the ridings 1-87 in terms of their proportion of 18-44s relative to the overall adult population of the riding.

The green shading indicates the ridings that are in the lowest quartile of 18-44s (the oldest) ,and the red shading indicates ridings that are in the top quartile of 18-44s (the youngest).

What did I find?  The top 8 ridings in terms of voter turnout in this referendum are also in the oldest quartile when it comes to age by population.  Six of the 8 lowest turnout ridings are in the youngest quartile.  In fact, as you go down the list from highest turnout to lowest turnout, you will see 19 oldest-quartile ridings before you hit the first youngest-quartile riding.

The Rosedeer Decision Desk calls it:  Older people vote more.

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Older People vote more … but what does that mean?

If I’m right, and a similar pattern exists in this referendum as it does in most general elections, then it’s good news for FPTP.  But there are definitely some mixed messages.

One of the oldest ridings is Saanich North & the Islands represented by the Greens.  Will older people deliver this riding for FPTP or will the Greens deliver it for PR?  I think it’s both.  I’m sure the Greens will have worked hard to deliver votes there (they get elected there for a reason), but age will be a bit of a mitigating factor.  This could be the story of the Island – an inexorable pull to PR by the Greens (and to a lesser extent, the NDP), restrained by a sizeable population of old geezers.

In older, BC Liberal-held Lower Mainland ridings like Delta South, West Vancouver-Capilano and White Rock, you might see some of the largest margins for FPTP.

Even if there are more older people voting than younger people voting, the question is, where is support at for FPTP and PR?

If it is 50-50 in the polls, and if public polls are correct in so much as older people favour FPTP and younger people favour PR, and IF an age turnout factor is present is as above, then 50-50 becomes 47-53 or even 45-55 in favour of FPTP.

However, if PR has burst through, and if it has weakened opposition among older people down the home stretch, and made a breakthrough with 35-54s, then overall support of 55% among eligible voters may translate to just enough (50% +1) among those who actually voted.


As mentioned, some of the Lower Mainland ridings have the lowest turnout of any seats in the province. The Lower Mainland also has the highest share of non-English (first-language) households in the province as well.

Similar to age, there is a correlation between turnout and English-language skills.  This table, like the previous, is ranked by turnout. The green shading indicates ridings in the lowest quartile when it comes to non-English households.  The red shading indicates ridings in the highest quartile of non-English households.

What does this tell us? We can hypothesize that election materials were not accessible to some voters, or was not debated as extensively in their language (via media) compared to English-speaking media.  Unlike turnout-by-age data supplied by Elections BC, we do not have comparable data for ethnicity or language.  I can merely point out the correlation.  Anecdotally, the HST referendum appeared to have had a high level of engagement in the Chinese community, owing in part to mobilization of Chinese restaurateurs who opposed the tax.  It’s fair to say, I think, that the PR referendum did not hold the attention of the Chinese media (or Punjabi media) like the HST issue.

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While Chinese voters tend to favour the BC Liberals, historically, and voters from Punjabi-speaking households have leaned more to the NDP over time, the Greens are clearly weaker in these communities relative to support they have elsewhere.  Therefore, one could argue that lower turnout in parts of Surrey, Richmond, and other Lower Mainland areas might be good news for PR, if you think you are more likely to find PR voters where the Green Party finds more fertile territory, generally.

The Upshot?

The voting is done.  I made my case for FPTP (“I was a Teenage Vote Splitter“) and have also pointed out how PR advocates should be careful what they are wishing for.

I think the final result will be close.  I think there was momentum toward PR in the final weeks which helped close a (perceived) gap.  For PR to win, it will have had to have done quite well with 35-54s (assuming young and old cancel each other), and have won the Lower Mainland (assuming Island and Interior cancel each other).

If PR does win, then it will have likely done so with less than 22 to 23% of registered voters.  We can debate the legitimacy of that if it happens.  Gordon Campbell had set a 60% threshold which seemed to be a reasonable threshold for a fundamental change to the electoral system.  The current government obviously thinks otherwise!

I do not think 42% turnout is enough for PR to win with a majority.  I think they needed more voters to flood the polls.  I expect FPTP to win by a few whiskers, a few grey whiskers.  We will know soon enough.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to PR and FPTP supporters alike !

30 years later: the election that shaped Canada in 1988

November 21st marks 30 years since the most consequential election in a generation – the 1988 federal election.   This rematch of 1984 was remarkable for its substance, its strategies, and its aftermath.

It demonstrated that campaigns matter, with huge momentum shifts and gutsy, dramatic performances by John Turner and Brian Mulroney. It was an election that pivoted on Canada’s image of itself in relation to the United States and drew 76% of voters to the polls. Not only did the election decide Canada’s course on free trade, it represented the climax of the Mulroney era. No Conservative government had won back-to-back majorities since John A. Macdonald in 1891. Despite this moment of triumph, five years later the Progressive Conservative Party would be a smoldering ruin, its grand coalition (Quebec-Alberta Bridge) ravaged by regional alienation and Quebec nationalism.

It was the first general election where I was able to take a peek in the campaign cockpit. It was an election I will never forget.

The Substance

Like no other campaign in the past 30 years, it revolved around one major issue- Free Trade. Canada had signed a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. At that time, there was a much stronger sense of Canadian economic nationalism than there is today.   Already a prominent issue, Free Trade dominated the agenda when Liberal leader John Turner instructed Liberal senators to block Free Trade legislation. The Liberals had a majority in the Senate. The Mulroney government was powerless to pass Free Trade without Senate approval. Turner had forced Free Trade as the defining issue of the election.

The other centerpiece of Mulroney’s agenda was the Meech Lake Accord. In 1987, Mulroney secured the approval of all ten premiers for a package of constitutional reforms that would bring Québec ‘into the Constitution’. The most contentious aspect was recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society”. Many critiques complained about its decentralizing power. It became a very controversial issue among elites (particularly liberal elites) and discontentment grew, especially in Western Canada.

The Strategies

Screen Shot 2018-11-21 at 10.56.10 AMJohn Duffy’s excellent book, Fights of Our Lives, outlines the political strategies used in the 1988 campaign – he named 1988 as one of the five top campaigns in Canadian history.

The Mulroney campaign started off in a bubble – a frontrunner campaign. After three years of scandal in his first term, Mulroney had righted the ship, in part because Free Trade provided him with a proof point of his leadership traits and economic agenda. The Liberals were internally divided and Ed Broadbent’s NDP were threatening to vault into second place. It seemed that Mulroney just had to play it safe, but that was hard to do in what was a seven-week campaign.

John Turner had his back to the wall. He had embraced the Free Trade issue and took some control of the agenda through the Senate gambit. He had public backing for his position: “Let the people decide”. However, by the time the election was called on October 1st, the Liberals were sagging in the polls. The Meech Lake Accord had badly divided them, while Free Trade also exposed a major rift. As Duffy writes, Turner supported Meech Lake for Quebec, and opposed Free Trade for English Canada. That was the bargain. In the first two weeks of the campaign, Peter Mansbridge breathlessly reported that there was a push within the Liberals to replace Turner mid-campaign with Jean Chrétien, his leadership rival. Turner stared them down and held on for the national TV debates taking place October 24 and 25.

NDP leader Ed Broadbent did not want a referendum on Free Trade. He wanted to talk about social issues and trust. He had successfully likened Mulroney and Turner as “Bay Street boys” in 1984, hurting Turner, and by 1988, there was also an aroma around Mulroney on trust. A Free Trade election would relegate Broadbent to the sidelines while Mulroney and Turner went mano a mano.

Meanwhile, out in the hinterland, Preston Manning was recruiting candidates and running a slate of candidates in Western Canada. He was gaining notice in church basements and in rural areas, but not seen as a major threat.

Mulroney, Turner, and Broadbent all supported Meech Lake. It did not become a vote-driving issue in the campaign.   This all-party consensus would have far-reaching implications after the election.

In 1988, campaigns could not advertise on TV until the time of the TV debates toward the end of October. The first few weeks were the ‘phony war’. It was the debates that changed everything, until they changed again.

John Turner limped into the debates looking like a political dead man – metaphorically and physically. He was fighting immense back pain. In the French debate, he exceeded expectations and brought some fight. Ed Broadbent, with limited French skills, was peripheral.

In the English debate, the fireworks came near the end. In 1984, Mulroney had destroyed Turner with a devastating attack on political patronage. In 1988, Turner assailed Mulroney on Free Trade, demonstrating considerable passion and conviction. As Duffy points out, Turner had been coached specifically on body language. While Mulroney returned Turner’s salvos, Turner was simply more convincing and authentic.

As has been the case with highly-charged leaders’ debates, the full impact is not known until days or even a week later. The same-night judging is conducted in a vacuum. It’s not until news clips have been repeated endlessly, and water cooler discussions take place, that momentum truly forms. Within a week, the Liberals were on a big-time roll, galloping into the lead. The PCs were on their heels. At this point, there were three weeks to go.

The Liberals also released one of the best TV ads ever produced in Canadian elections. It showed the Canada-US border being erased as part of Free Trade negotiations.

As a Young Liberal working in the trenches in BC, the sense of momentum was palpable. Excitement flowed through the campaign. For the first time since John Turner was elected leader in 1984, there were real grounds for optimism. Turner had been a major star as a cabinet minister, but after his retreat to law, he had not thus far returned to form as leader. The debate was a major turning point for him.

As Duffy chronicles, Mulroney held things together using his instincts while his strategists, like polling wizard Allan Gregg, crafted a new approach to deal with the Liberal insurgency. Ultimately, the PC campaign, which had lots of money, sent in the B52 bombers to pound the Liberal campaign, “bombing the bridge” of Turner’s credibility. The PCs had wisely agreed to TV debates well in advance of Election Day. This allowed them crucial time for a course correction. In provincial campaigns in BC in 1991 and 2013, and in Manitoba in 1988, TV debates that led to huge momentum changes occurred relatively close to voting and had big impacts. Mulroney’s forces turned back the Liberal tide.

The campaign saw a gutsy charge by Turner, taking his opponents by surprise with his passionate opposition to the Free Trade Agreement. It also saw a skillful counterattack by Mulroney in the final weeks, restoring the PC’s advantage. Both campaigns showed initiative and resolve. The Liberals, weakened by years of infighting and the disastrous 1984 campaign, simply did not have the wherewithal to win.

The Aftermath

Mulroney held Québec for which he had a clear proposition – pro-Meech Lake and pro-Free Trade. He held the West, which also embraced Free Trade. The Quebec-Alberta Bridge of 1984 was kept in tact, but would soon crumble.

Turner’s Liberals reclaimed some of their lost ground in English Canada, especially in Ontario. The Party, reduced to rubble in 1984, now had a much stronger caucus and a lot of new blood.  Turner left the Liberals in better shape then he found them in 1984.

The NDP had its best showing, in part because it did very well in British Columbia. Strategic voting against Free Trade in BC meant voting NDP instead of the Liberals. Overall, the results were a disappointment for Ed Broadbent in his fourth campaign as leader.

With a majority in hand, the Senate relented, and Free Trade was passed. In the 1990s, it would morph into NAFTA. As a national policy, it has stood the test of time.

The re-election of the Mulroney PCs also led to the introduction of the GST. The GST had as much or more to do with its ultimate demise than anything. But again, it’s a policy that has stood the test of time. No government will get rid of the GST.

Has there been an election since Confederation that led to two foundational blocks of our national economy like 1988?

Despite the all-party consensus over Meech Lake, the consensus would break down as new premiers were elected. Liberal Frank McKenna expressed his doubts. A minority government in Manitoba in 1988 forced PC Premier Gary Filmon to take hard line, in step with his opposition leader Liberal Sharon Carstairs. Then Clyde Wells was elected as Premier of Newfoundland, the staunchest critic among the premiers. Preston Manning and the Reform Party were a gathering storm in Western Canada. With Free Trade settled, westerners turned their attention to a constitutional deal that went against their grain.

In 1990, the Meech Lake Accord fell apart in a final desperate week to salvage it. Regional forces were unleashed that blew up the PC’s Quebec-Alberta Bridge. Brian Mulroney’s star recruit in Quebec in 1988, Lucien Bouchard, spectacularly resigned and formed the Bloc Quebecois, later leading the Oui forces in the 1995 Quebec referendum. Mulroney would try again in 1992 with the Charlottetown Accord which was put to national referendum. Everyone was in favour of it, except the people. Lucien Bouchard’s Bloc Quebecois and Preston Manning’s Reform Party would be the 2nd and 3rd parties in the House of Commons after 1993.

Kim Campbell became the first female prime minister, and first home-grown British Columbian to be PM, and went down to a historically brutal defeat. A mere five years after its climactic victory, the PCs had virtually been wiped out, reduced to two seats. They would limp along until merging with the Reform Party’s successor, the Canadian Alliance. In effect, the Canadian Alliance conducted a reverse takeover of this venerable national party.

Jean Chrétien won the first of three successive majority governments, based largely on an Ontario vote split caused by Meech Lake and the GST.

The aftermath of 1988 also had a huge impact on Canada’s aboriginal peoples. As Meech Lake reached its final moment, Manitoba MLA Elijah Harper blocked approval in the Manitoba legislature.  Harper’s act of defiance put aboriginal issues front and centre on the constitutional agenda.

What If?

What would have happened if John Turner had won in 1988? He would have had a huge challenge holding his government together on Meech Lake.   Is it possible that Turner could have resolved the impasse with Liberal Premier Clyde Wells. Unlikely, but it’s possible. Mulroney was unsuccessful, but Turner would have had a shot.

Turner would have had a very difficult road ahead in re-negotiating or walking away from the Free Trade deal. He would have faced blistering opposition from the Canadian business community.

It’s unlikely the Liberals, given these challenges, would have had the courage to bring forward a value added tax, like the GST on the same timetable as the Mulroney government.

The PCs would not have been decimated in 1993. Had they lost in 1988, they would have had a strong opposition. Perhaps a new leader would have taken over, or Mulroney would have stayed to fight another day.

Would we have seen Jean Chrétien as prime minister?  Probably not.  He would have been on the outside looking in while Turner governed.

Campaigns matter. They change the course of our country, provinces, and communities. And no campaign in recent times changed the course of Canada like 1988.

For further reading:

Fights of Our Lives is an outstanding (and fun) analysis of election campaigns in Canada since Confederation. John Duffy pulled off an epic volume. My only complaint is that he hasn’t updated it!

Letting the People Decide. A scholarly analysis of the 1988 election by UBC Professor Richard Johnston and other academics. It takes a deep dive into (credible) polling data.

Elusive Destiny. Paul Litt’s book on John Turner’s political career. Strong recommendation.

And finally, my Poli Sci guru Prof. Ken Carty weighs in on the reading list:

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Six-pack of BC local elections columns

Global News has kept me busy over the past six weeks thinking about BC local elections on October 20th.  Here are six columns covering Vancouver, Surrey, the wave of changes in Metro Vancouver, voter turnout, and how candidates are seeking votes this time around.

The tepid race to be Vancouver’s next mayor, Global News/CKNW (October 15, 2018)

Surrey election may be BC’s most consequential, Global News/CKNW (October 12, 2018)

Crowded races and changing times – the many ways candidates can seek your vote, Global News/CKNW (October 3, 2018)

Voter turnout in local elections trails federal and provincial elections – why?, Global News/CKNW (September 28, 2018)

A surprise exit opens up Vancouver’s mayoral race, Global News/CKNW (September 21, 2018)

Wave of changes coming in Metro Vancouver politics, Global News/CKNW (September 15, 2018)

Wave of changes coming in Metro Vancouver municipal politics

Published via Global News and CKNW (September 15, 2018)

First, the Sedin twins retired. Now, it’s the local mayor. Two-thirds of Metro Vancouver’s mayors have decided that it is time to bow out and won’t be seeking re-election this October.

Only 8 of the region’s 21 mayors are seeking re-election, compared to 16 who campaigned to keep their job in 2014 (with 14 winning re-election).

Why so much change? Like the Sedins, some veteran mayors have run their course after lengthy careers in office. After ten years as mayor of Vancouver, Gregor Robertson is leaving office, as is Metro Vancouver chair and Port Coquitlam mayor Greg Moore. All three mayors on the North Shore are hanging up their chains of office. While Delta’s Lois Jackson plans to run for Council, she leaves the Mayor’s chair she held since 1999. Ralph Drew has been the mayor of tiny Belcarra for over 34 years. He’s like the Gordie Howe of Metro Vancouver mayors.

However, four rookie mayors are “one and done”. Newly elected in 2014, Surrey mayor Linda Hepner, Maple Ridge mayor Nicole Read, Bowen Island mayor Murray Skeels and Lions Bay mayor Karl Buhr have decided to head to the locker room after one term.

Is the high number of retirements the ‘cycle of life’ or is there something deeper happening?

First of all, politics in Metro Vancouver have been disrupted significantly by housing affordability. It may well be the single most important factor toppling the Christy Clark government in 2017 as her party lost significant ground in the region. One year later, it may have also resulted in a game misconduct for Vision Vancouver. Voters are grumpy, whether they are renters or homeowners, with policy prescriptions and blame zigzagging all over the political spectrum. It feeds ‘time for a change’.

Second, is serving as the mayor (or Councillor) becoming a thankless task? Earlier this year, Metro Vancouver board members were roasted over a one-time retirement allowance and pay increase.  In this age of social media, reactions can be immediate and harsh. Greg Moore complained about the change in discourse this week at the Union of BC Municipalities convention. Many local politicians are paid for part-time work and expected to work full-time hours. Well, they did sign up for the job four years ago, but re-upping for another four years requires a heavy gulp.

Finally, there are new campaign financing rules restricting donations to individuals which makes fundraising harder. Not that the old days were particularly desirable, but campaign finance records show that developers and unions took care of most of the financing. The new rules will be a chore to put together the funds necessary to order signs, print brochures, run social media ads, and otherwise get the word out.

Yet despite these reasons, the lure of politics and service is drawing flocks of candidates. Mayoralty races are flourishing throughout the region. Vancouver will have in the neighbourhood of 40 ‘serious’ Council candidates seeking 10 spots. It’s fair to ask all candidates rushing headfirst into politics– do you know what you are getting into? Are you ready? Do you have your head screwed on right?There will be a lot of rookies around Metro Vancouver board table and at Translink Mayors’ Council meetings.

Will wily veterans like Derek Corrigan, Richard Stewart, and Malcolm Brodie, assuming their re-elections, skate circles around the newcomers? Or will the rookie mayors bring a new dynamic, a new style, and new priorities to regional politics? That’s unclear. Voters have the opportunity now to press all candidates on their agenda. How do they propose to implement their ideas? How will they move things through the process? It’s one thing to promote an idea, but how prepared are they to get it done? Are they surfing on sound bites alone, or have they done their homework?

The campaign is only just beginning and, with the new timetable moving the election from November to October, there are only five weeks remaining to Election Day on Saturday, October 20th.

The next five weeks will be like training camp. Voters will need to give these candidates a good workout because they’re signing their mayor and council to a four-year contract.