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(ILLUSTRATION BY David Parkins for The Globe and Mail)
(ILLUSTRATION BY David Parkins for The Globe and Mail)

DISPATCH

By-election shows that hope floats Add to ...

Andrew Weaver spent Monday night in Green candidate Don Galloway’s campaign office as the federal by-election results came in. He was no ordinary well-wisher – as the B.C. Green Party’s star candidate in Oak Bay-Gordon Head, he had a stake in the outcome.

The well-known climate scientist felt a growing excitement as scrutineers returned clutching manila envelopes with results from polls in neighbourhoods that had surprisingly gone Green. Many of those communities happen to also be in the provincial riding he hopes to win next May.

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When votes in the advanced polls were tallied, the NDP’s Murray Rankin pulled ahead to take the Victoria seat. But there was plenty to lift the Greens’ hopes for Dr. Weaver. A platoon of enthusiastic volunteers – many of them now prepared to leap onto his team – came close to toppling the well-oiled New Democrat campaign machine in Victoria.

“It sends a clear message that people in this area are tired of the old politics,” Dr. Weaver said in an interview. His definition of the new politics is positive, interactive and issues-based. “That’s one of the beauties of the Greens, they are a bunch of nice people who want the world to be a better place. They work their butts off to make a positive difference.”

There is a danger in extrapolating by-election results to the general political landscape. Voters think differently about by-elections, because they are not choosing a government, but are free to send a message to one. Still, politicians and pundits are picking this race apart for lessons as they prepare for the provincial election just months away. Of the three by-elections held across Canada this week, the highest voter turnout was in Victoria. It was a close race between two left-of-centre candidates who tested the notion that a positive campaign can’t work. Because in this case, it did.

Dr. Rankin bested Dr. Galloway by a narrow margin. Both are professors in the Faculty of Law at the University of Victoria, both cut from the same progressive cloth. Despite the close race, they didn’t really trade blows.

“It had to be, they have offices three doors away from each other,” Dr. Weaver noted.

The Liberal who ran the most aggressively negative campaign, Paul Summerville, was rewarded with a fourth-place finish in a riding that used to be strong Liberal territory.

Elizabeth May, the Green Party Leader, said her party managed to triple its vote in this riding by offering a reason to be happy about casting a ballot. If that's the secret to turning around the trend of declining voter turnout – to appeal to people who are turned off by today’s usual brand of politics – then this little experiment may get a bigger trial run next May. BC NDP Leader Adrian Dix has vowed to avoid the traditional attack ads and negative messaging that have been the hallmarks of election strategy.

It is a tactic that comes with risks, because his opponents, the BC Liberals, have no intention of laying down those weapons.

But New Democrat Carole James, a key player in crafting the BC NDP's election campaign, believes the by-election results validate the NDP’s new strategy. She spent a lot of time knocking on doors to help Dr. Rankin – her Victoria-Beacon Hill riding also overlaps with the federal one. “The negative campaign didn’t work, it didn’t resonate with people,” she said. “They liked the positive campaigns of both the Greens and the NDP.”

In provincial polls, there is little indication the BC Greens will be contenders in the coming B.C. election, but in Victoria at least there is the prospect of riding on Ms. May’s coattails and making a breakthrough. In May, the highly popular Ms. James will be on the ballot against BC Green Party Leader Jane Sterk. If the BC Greens learn from this by-election, they will concentrate their resources on their best bet, which is Dr. Weaver.

Now, if one were to take this collegial atmosphere to the next level, you’d see the provincial Greens and the BC NDP strike a deal to ensure they don’t split the progressive vote in Oak Bay-Gordon Head. Far-fetched? Quite.

Follow on Twitter: @justine_hunter

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