Fasten your seat belts, British Columbians – and enjoy the political ride

By Shachi Kurl, Executive Director

May 10, 2017 – Sometimes, democracy can be breathtaking in the elegance of its simplicity. Voters can do exactly what they say they will, even if we experts would second-guess their intentions, and our own work.

Such was the case Tuesday night, when the British Columbia electorate returned a desire for a minority government with a popular vote that closely reflected the neck-and-neck, too-close-to-call nature of public opinion polls, (including our own) in the run-up to election day.

So close, indeed, that political watchers were looking through the entrails of that vote intention, looking for paths for victory for each of the main parties, hedging their bets, predicting one side would pull out a majority government one way or the other. Instead, we face a minority government situation.

The vindication of those who said it would be close is based on several factors. The first is a partial repudiation of the message from the BC Liberals that, to paraphrase, the land is strong. Christy Clark’s main campaign message was that she and her team were the most able keepers of a growing economy – and that it was this rising tide that floats all boats. But it’s a message that hit a sour note with the 72 per cent who reported to us last week that they felt too many people were being left behind, and the two-thirds who expressed a desire for a government that would spend more on social programs and people, even if it meant raising some taxes.

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The result may also reflect a more pointed rejection of the Premier herself. Ms. Clark was the centre of the BC Liberal re-election strategy. An effective retail politician, her team counted on voters coming around to her on the basis of a busy campaign schedule that saw her crisscross the province over four weeks. But Ms. Clark always faces a big hill to climb when it comes to likeability. To say she trailed both the NDP’s John Horgan and the Greens’ Andrew Weaver on measures of favourability and positive momentum would be an understatement.

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Which isn’t to say British Columbians were any more enamoured of Mr. Horgan. Kept largely under wraps until the writ was dropped, the opposition leader was far more unknown going into the campaign and had relatively few chances to introduce himself to voters. What people saw of him, they didn’t exactly warm up to. Slightly more people were inclined to choose “not sure” as best premier, rather than Horgan. His momentum score, while better than Clark’s, was still a net negative.

What voters reacted to positively, but stopped short of embracing wholesale, was the NDP message that people’s lives – particularly in vote-rich Metro Vancouver – were being diminished and squeezed by high housing costs, long commutes and an insecure job market. The number of seats that changed hands in this region from the Liberals to the New Democrats demonstrates the resonance of these themes.

The big question that hung in the air before the polls closed was whether soft NDP supporters – most of them younger, with a lower propensity to vote – would show up. Many did, but not enough to deliver the NDP the majority it has coveted for so long. For the party to have obtained that decisive win, it needed to not only pick up seats in Metro Vancouver, but hold seats in its traditional stronghold of Vancouver Island.

The Green Party of British Columbia – first in the hearts, if not the heads, of voters – and, by far, the winner in the second-choice sweepstakes. Its leader, Mr. Weaver, was the only one of the three to enjoy positive momentum scores going into election day. The result: the wrestling of a couple of must-win seats for the other two parties into their own column.

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It’s the Greens that now hold the balance of power in a minority situation unseen since the 1950s. Which party will it work with? How will it work with that party? For how long? Will either the Liberals or the NDP succeed in convincing one or more to cross the floor to give either side the majority it wants?

B.C. politics is never boring. Buckle up, and get ready to enjoy the ride.

Image Credit – Jonathan Hayward/CP

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