A long road down - The Orca
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A long road down

Maclean Kay
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Maclean Kay looks at long, medium, and short-term issues that played into the BC Liberals’ defeat.

As the saying goes in football, you are what your record says you are.

For the first time since 1996, British Columbia has a majority NDP government. For the first time since 1991, the NDP won the popular vote. For the first time ever, an NDP Premier has been re-elected with a majority.

For now, the BC Liberals have less than 30 seats – though mail-in ballots may well switch a handful. But even if the party does extraordinarily well with votes yet to be counted, they’re still back in opposition, this time facing an NDP government than can do whatever the hell it wants for four years – and the stark reality that only one-third of voters chose them.

The results speak for themselves. The BC Liberals were swept in the Tri-Cities, lost significant ground in Surrey, Richmond, and the North Shore, and lost previously unthinkable seats in Langley and Chilliwack. (I admit myself among those who could not think it.)

It’s natural to ask “what happened,” but there’s no one answer. Issues and problems in the long, medium and short-term all played a role.

Long-term

In the 2018 leadership race, party membership almost doubled to 60,000. Of the 30,000 new memberships sold, two candidates accounted for some two-thirds: rookie MLA Michael Lee, and former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts. Together, they accounted for more than half of all first-place votes on the ranked ballot. It wasn’t hard to detect a desire to adapt with the times, and showcase some new blood.

For whatever reason, that didn’t happen.

Andrew Wilkinson emerged as leader, despite finishing fourth on the first ballot. To his credit, he tried to put his former leadership rivals front and centre – but Lee was largely invisible, content to focus on bill committee debates in the legislature. Even worse, Watts disappeared entirely, choosing not even to pursue a seat.

From day one of his leadership campaign, Wilkinson was viewed as the favourite. He was backed by the biggest portion of MLAs, and a substantial cross-section of recently-dismissed government staff, including many experienced and very talented campaigners.

In many ways, Wilkinson represented continuity, and the idea that the 2017 election and fallout was a blip; given even one break, the party could and would return to government. No change required.

The danger with this way of thinking is it almost worked.

A hundred votes in Courtenay, or a byelection win in Nanaimo, or the NDP deciding Darryl Plecas was unreliable – just one happy random event somewhere, anywhere – a return to government was tantalizingly close. But this was a dangerously solipsistic view, ignoring broader trends in vote share and changing demographics.

As apparently-defeated MLA Jas Johal put over the weekend: 2020 finished what voters started in 2017.

Medium-term

The pandemic presented opposition parties across Canada with a dilemma. Two choices, both with significant upsides and downsides.

Option number one: adopt a wartime stance, and line up behind the government in a united front. The upside is it’s the right thing to do – lives are literally at stake. The downside is making your opponents look wise and competent in the process, and risk being blindsided. The BC Liberals and BC Greens both chose this course.

Option number two: continue to criticize, and chip away. The upside is staying in the spotlight, and appearing as though you’d naturally do things better. After all, things are bound to go wrong (it’s a pandemic) there will be no shortage of choices to second guess. The downside is it’s irresponsible, and ignores the enormous risk of undermining public confidence at the most dangerous possible time. The Alberta NDP chose this option.

The latter is more politically expedient, but I will always believe the former was, and is, the ethical choice. The risk is what happens if the governing party takes advantage of the opening.

Short-term

Given the issues above – especially the medium-term one – the election was probably unwinnable for Wilkinson the moment it was declared; certainly the NDP thought so. But even so, once the campaign began, the BC Liberals suffered more hits than they inflicted.

It’s almost forgotten now, but they enjoyed a solid first week. John Horgan was on the defensive, inexplicably having trouble settling on a justification for forcing the election. Even the second week was relatively positive; the proposal to temporarily cut the PST attracted attention and genuinely surprised the NDP.

But for good moments and momentum, that was kind of it.

The party was forced to grapple with a series of embarrassments, none worse than dismissing Laurie Throness for remarks comparing contraception to eugenics (which still feels bizarre to type, much less contemplate uttering aloud in daylight.) Wilkinson was sometimes slow to react, taking two full days of hits for Jane Thornthwaite’s sexist joke before addressing them.

Whether those moments were decisive, or if voters were never going to vote for change during a pandemic, is moot. They happened, and they certainly didn’t help.

What’s next?

Is this the new normal? It doesn’t have to be. The next election is four long years from now – an eternity and a half in politics – and even the most orange-tinted NDP partisan will admit there are steep challenges ahead. And while he just won a massive victory, John Horgan’s media honeymoon is over.

After losing what seemed an unlosable election in 2013, some NDP supporters recognized the party desperately needed to modernize, or else was doomed to perpetual opposition. A group called Forward BCNDP was formed to help nudge the party ahead.

Four years later, the party made up enough ground to deny the BC Liberals a majority, then toppled it in the legislature. If nothing else, they proved four years is a very long time indeed.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca

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