Battleground BC: The Econo-Enviro Divide

Paul Stanway
September 21, 2015
The 2015 federal election campaign battle for the hearts and minds of British Columbians is, at bottom, a contest between environmental protection and economic security. If it plays out like the 2013 provincial election, the latter will trump the former and the Conservatives will retain their hegemony. But if fear of pipelines, fatigue with the Harper Tories, and full turnout of progressive voters rules the day, Paul Stanway predicts October 19th will be a good day for the NDP – and to a lesser extent the Liberals – and B.C. may well decide who gets to form the next government.

Battleground BC: The Econo-Enviro Divide

Paul Stanway
September 21, 2015
The 2015 federal election campaign battle for the hearts and minds of British Columbians is, at bottom, a contest between environmental protection and economic security. If it plays out like the 2013 provincial election, the latter will trump the former and the Conservatives will retain their hegemony. But if fear of pipelines, fatigue with the Harper Tories, and full turnout of progressive voters rules the day, Paul Stanway predicts October 19th will be a good day for the NDP – and to a lesser extent the Liberals – and B.C. may well decide who gets to form the next government.
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On September 14th Peter Mansbridge and crew descended on Vancouver for a special edition of the CBC’s The National to inform Canadians that British Columbia voters would likely hold the key to success for whichever party comes out on top in the 2015 federal election.

We seem to reach this point in almost every federal election, with somebody enthusiastically postulating that, this time, Canada’s Pacific province may decide which party forms the government. That’s not exactly sticking your neck out. Being the country’s most westerly time-zone, strictly speaking B.C. voters always have the final say.

The last time those votes actually determined the outcome was 1979, when B.C. handed Joe Clark a short-lived minority government. Yet despite being as rare as a blizzard in Victoria, it might be about to happen again.

On October 19th polling stations in B.C. (and the Yukon) will be open later than anywhere else in the country, and if the 2015 election remains as tightly contested as it appears heading into the final month of campaigning – B.C. voters could well decide who gets the keys to 24 Sussex Drive.

Of course, with its maze of regional and ethnic differences, chronic sense of alienation from Ottawa, and singular focus on environmental issues, there is never anything straightforward about elections in B.C. And this one – with a lengthy campaign, a dozen ridings without incumbents, plus an additional six seats in play (the result of seat redistribution) is more competitive and complex than most.

The portentous polls

As of mid-September, the poll-tracker (which aggregates results from most Canadian political surveys) had the NDP in position to win 18 of B.C.’s 42 seats, with the Conservatives close behind at 16, the Liberals at seven, and Green Party leader Elizabeth May retaining her seat in Saanich-Gulf Islands.

That’s a markedly different outcome than the last federal election in B.C., when the Conservatives comfortably topped the polls at 21 seats and the NDP finished second with 12, while the Liberals got just two seats, and the Greens one.

That 2011 victory for the Conservatives capped more than decade of impressive results for right-of-centre parties in B.C. In that period the CPC, Alliance or Reform never did worse than 17 seats (2006) and managed as many as 27 (2000). Those results were possible because, beginning with Reform in the 1990s, the various conservative incarnations were able to tap into B.C.’s traditional antipathy to far-distant Ottawa.

It’s a given among British Columbians that the folks on the other side of the Rockies don‘t understand their province and federal governments neglect B.C. issues. Yet it’s often forgotten that before the Reform phenomenon it was a populist NDP that was best able to turn this regional alienation into votes.

That’s clearly a tougher proposition with a more centrist NDP whose leader, and power base, are rooted in Quebec. But on the ground in B.C., NDP MPs such as Nathan Cullen, Murray Rankin and others have been very adept at uniting the eco/union/anti-establishment vote (what we might now call the Leap Manifesto coalition), and after almost a decade of Conservative government in Ottawa it’s easier to sell the NDP as the populist, anti-Ottawa choice for disgruntled British Columbians.

The party has been steadily clawing its way back to contention following the disaster of the 2000 election – when the combination of provincial NDP government scandals and lingering resentment over the federal party’s endorsement of the Charlottetown Accord all but destroyed its populist credentials and reduced it to just two seats. But as Innovative Research pollster Greg Lyle points out, “in terms of organizational strength, B.C. has always been a regional stronghold for the NDP, and they remain competitive almost everywhere.”

The Liberals, on the other hand, have long struggled to attract what one might assume is their fair share of B.C.’s “progressive” voters. In the aforementioned 1979 election, the party managed just a single seat in B.C. – and even that wasn’t its worst performance. When Trudeau le père roared back to office in 1980 with a majority government, the comeback was marred by a complete shut-out in B.C.

“Over the past few years the Liberals have done a lot to repair their organization in B.C.,” says pollster Lyle, who has been closely following B.C. politics since the early ‘80s. He believes the party has closed the “organizational gap” with the Conservatives and NDP, and has mostly recovered from the internal wars that were a major reason for the party’s poor performance in 2011. So seven seats this time out might not seem a stretch (they got nine in 2006), yet there’s a problem is identifying where those seats might actually come from.

Sources within the Liberal campaign believe there are 15 to 20 three-way contests “in play” across B.C. They enthuse about five “almost certain” wins, including the two seats they currently hold – Vancouver Centre and Vancouver Quadra. They claim their internal numbers show strong support on Vancouver’s north shore as well as in Surrey and Burnaby.

Yet recent polls show the party running a distant third across the province (22 percent of the decided vote), compared to the NDP (36 percent) and the Conservatives (31 percent). And much of the Liberals apparent improvement in the Lower Mainland could be explained by better numbers in ridings where they finished with less than 10 percent of the vote in the 2011 debacle.

Former Prince George mayor Colin Kinsley, one of the most astute politicians on the right in recent decades in B.C., doesn’t see the Liberals doing much in the B.C. Interior. “There’s a lot of vote-chasing around all sorts of issues, and the media are overwhelmingly against the PM, but the guy on the street is concerned with the economy and still inclined towards the Conservatives. There’s support for the NDP, but the Liberals seem nowhere in this region.”

Simply put, many of the allegedly three-way contests in B.C. are realistically two-way contests between the NDP and Conservatives (the suburban Lower Mainland and the B.C. Interior) or the NDP and the Greens (Victoria and south Vancouver Island).

In addition, there’s a tendency, particularly in the media, to focus on B.C.’s “progressive” votes, while paying less attention to the more conservative ethnic communities that predominate in so many Lower Mainland constituencies. The Conservatives’ concerted efforts to woo these influential voters worked well in 2011, and there’s no reason to expect all that effort will just evaporate this time around.

One toke over the line

A good case in point is South Surrey-White Rock, where Liberal candidate Joy Davies’ outspoken enthusiasm for marijuana – she suggested smoking dope while pregnant results in smarter, more socially developed kids – collided with the reality of politics in a multi-ethnic riding. Her comments were clearly one toke over the line, even for a party that supports legalization of marijuana, and Davies was forced to resign.

(There will be a Liberal replacement, not that it may make much difference. Davies was up against Conservative Dianne Watts, the politically gifted former mayor of Surrey, in a seat where the Tories got 53 percent of the vote in 2011.)

So although there’s no question that polling numbers suggest a retreat in Conservative support from 2011 levels, conversely a relatively small uptick in those numbers could nudge the party past the NDP and into first place in B.C. It’s that close.

As several senior Tories have noted, including B.C. strategist and former cabinet minister Stockwell Day, a split in the “progressive” vote between the NDP and Liberals would give the CPC 15 to 20 seats in the province. In a tight, three-way national contest, that might be enough to give the party a legitimate shot at a fourth consecutive mandate .

It is widely suggested that Stephen Harper is the Tories’ biggest liability in B.C. And indeed, after almost a decade as prime minister, many British Columbians have soured on the Conservative leader, and those who don’t like him really don’t like him. A recent in-depth Innovative Research poll had Harper’s personal popularity languishing in the province, with all the other leaders trending upwards.

But here’s the thing: when asked who would make the best prime minister, the same polls give Harper a slight edge over Mulcair (28 to 26 percent), with Trudeau way back at 15 percent.

In Elizabeth May’s dreams

And the Greens, will they really be a factor in B.C.? According to Elizabeth May the party is knocking at the door in constituencies all over what she calls “the Green Coast”. The party has two well-known CBC personalities running on Vancouver Island who are, perhaps predictably, getting lots of media coverage, and May recently told the Huffington Post to expect “way, way, way more” Green seats in B.C.

Not likely, says Greg Lyle. “The Greens do have strong support in Victoria and south Vancouver Island, but that doesn’t encompass a lot of seats.” And on the mainland, Lyle doesn’t see the Greens being a major factor. “British Columbians are concerned in a general way about the environment, but apart from the southern end of Vancouver Island they’re not riled up – and there’s no doubt May’s blow up at the Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner in Ottawa has not been forgotten.”

As in every other part of the country, the economy is a primary concern in B.C. Recent polls show almost two-thirds of British Columbians believe the country has slipped into recession. Yet in B.C. as elsewhere, the Conservatives are still polling well on economic issues. On the other hand, the closure of the Coast Guard base at Kitsilano (in metro Vancouver) has given the opposition parties a way to attack the Federal Budget that resonates locally. It also allows them to question the Conservatives’ commitment to marine safety, which is a big concern in the province.

The astronomical cost of housing in Greater Vancouver is a top concern of younger voters and families, and the Conservatives have tried to address that with promises to raise the amount that first-time home buyers can withdraw tax free from RRSPs and bring back the home renovation tax credit. But here again, with a month to go that hasn’t translated into a clear advantage.

Ugly Alberta oil

Oil pipelines may be the single most influential issue in the B.C. campaign. Plans for piping more Alberta oil to the West Coast, to increase Canada’s export capacity and provide access to global markets, have been contentious all over the province over in recent years. The 18 months of public hearings into Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project (a pipeline from the Edmonton area to Kitimat on B.C.’s North Coast) became an outlet for emotional opposition to pipelines and anti-Alberta sentiment. It effectively ended an era of increasing political co-operation between the two provinces.

A proposal to increase the capacity of the existing Trans-Mountain oil pipeline between Edmonton and Burnaby, which has been operating safely for half a century, was set for public hearings in B.C. in September. This would surely have ramped up an already emotional debate and made the project a hot campaign issue, particularly in the Lower Mainland. But those hearings have been delayed, and may not now be held during the campaign.

All the parties are treating the pipeline issue with elaborate care. Harper has taken a step back from Finance Minister Joe Oliver’s outspoken support for pipelines and now focusses on the economic necessity of resource development and the strength of Canada’s regulatory system. The NDP and the Liberals are unequivocally opposed to Northern Gateway but couch their opposition to Trans-Mountain and other pipelines in criticisms of the regulatory process.

Overall, there’s no question the NDP are making a strong showing in B.C. They seem on track to do as well as the party’s 1988 election performance when they took 19 seats in the province. Yet Greg Lyle sees some similarities with the 2013 provincial election, when voters retreated from the NDP late in the campaign and gave the incumbent Liberals a fourth consecutive majority. “People were disappointed or angry with the government and open to change, but still dubious about the NDP on economic issues. The (provincial) NDP’s rejection of the Trans-Mountain pipeline (before any hearings) served to remind voters of those doubts and changed the outcome.”

It’s clear from his adamant commitment to balanced budgets that Thomas Mulcair recognizes that concern over economic management is his party’s biggest obstacle to victory – a task made more difficult in B.C. (and elsewhere) by the dubious record of NDP provincial governments, at least among voters old enough to remember them.

In the volatile B.C. election environment a serious misstep by Mulcair, or consistently better news on the economy, could dampen desire for “change” and make the Conservatives look to be the safer bet – which will matter in a province where the NDP and Conservatives are going head-to-head in a majority of ridings.

So despite the cliché, this could very well be one of those rare occasions when, on election night, other Canadians will have to stay up late to find out how British Columbians have decided our country will be governed.


Paul Stanway is a veteran columnist, editor, and author of several books on Canadian history. He has worked as a communications consultant for major corporations (including on the Northern Gateway Project), and from 2007 to 2010 served as Communications Director for former Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.

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