For the last 45 years, British Columbia voters have used by-elections for the cheap thrill of smacking the government of the day around like an inflatable Bozo Bop Bag – that completely inappropriate toy from the 1960s that kids were encouraged to endlessly knock over, secure in the knowledge that it would pop back up.
That general rule has provided a convenient way for the governing BC Liberals to lower expectations about holding on to the two seats that are up for grabs in by-elections next week.
But conventional wisdom may not prove helpful here, especially in Chilliwack-Hope where a three-way race seems to be in the works between the BC Liberals, the opposition New Democrats and the upstart BC Conservatives. In a province that is usually dominated by just two parties, that is exploring mostly uncharted territory.
To cover the possible outcomes facing the Christy Clark government next week, here’s a host of potential parallels culled from the dusty archives of B.C. politics:
Scenario One: The B.C. Conservatives win
The 1994 by-election in Matsqui saw three centre-right parties vying for the “free enterprise” title. The battle was between BC Reform, Social Credit and the BC Liberals. The result: The recently revived BC Liberals won the seat vacated by Socred Peter Dueck, and the once-mighty Socred party was buried there in the motel where party leader Grace McCarthy fought the last campaign of her 33-year-long political career.
But the centre-right split would take a few more years to sew up. Gordon Campbell won his own seat as the new leader of the BC Liberal Party in a second by-election on the same night. He vowed then not to try to appeal to his political rivals on the centre-right, saying such a coalition effort would be a turnoff to voters. “I think people are tired of broker politics,” Mr. Campbell said then. “The message from Matsqui is that the people want a new generation of politics in British Columbia.” Of course, it was only when Mr. Campbell did draw Reformers and Socreds into his party that the BC Liberals were able to win three consecutive terms in office.
Scenario Two: The BC NDP win
In 1989, the governing Socreds were in deep trouble. A by-election was called in Oak Bay-Gordon Head, a riding the NDP had never won. Socred candidate Susan Brice openly acknowledged during the campaign that her leader, Premier Bill Vander Zalm, was unpopular. “People want greater tolerance from the government, the party and the Premier. It's a message I feel I could deliver,” was her weak pitch to voters. It failed and NDP candidate Elizabeth Cull’s victory made history – a sign that the electorate was in a punishing mood.
Mr. Vander Zalm, absorbing the results, openly mused that he might resign. But he took a while to reach that conclusion, and, by the time he finally left, the Socred party limped into a general election with no hope of winning.
Scenario Three: The BC Liberals win
Going back a little further into the archives, we arrive at Claude Richmond’s remarkable by-election win in 1981. (Since 1967, only Mr. Richmond and Ms. Clark have won a provincial by-election in B.C. on behalf of the governing party.) At this point, the Socreds were in power but lagging far behind in the popular opinion polls. A confident NDP leader Dave Barrett didn’t even hang around to help his candidate campaign. “They said the NDP could run a mop and win,” one Socred observed as the campaign wrapped up.
Mr. Richmond recalled this week that the job of representing an unpopular government was made tougher by a strong Conservative candidate siphoning votes from the right. He didn’t even have a victory speech prepared. “There was the feeling that you could take a smack at government without bringing the government down.” But the Socreds decided to experiment with a new “get out the vote” strategy, and, by golly, it worked. And it wasn’t a fluke: The Socreds won in a landslide in the next general election.
Scenario Four: Whoever wins, it doesn’t mean a thing
When more than two parties are in the running, sometimes the results don’t foreshadow anything. In 1974, a by-election in North Vancouver-Capilano was billed as a political weathervane that would determine who would be the standard-bearer for the political right. But the results proved nothing. Gordon Gibson held on to a Liberal seat with just 31 per cent of the vote – the result of a tight, four-way race. In the general election the following year, the NDP government was dumped, Social Credit was back in power and the Liberals were reduced to a single seat.
One last history lesson: No matter what happens in the by-elections next week, it is still a long, long way from the next provincial election, if Ms. Clark sticks to the May, 2013 date.
Former BC Liberal MLA David Mitchell, now president of the Public Policy Forum, an Ottawa-based think tank, was part of the 1991 election upset where the BC Liberals came from nowhere to form the official opposition. “It happened on the turn of a dime,” he noted. “It shows what can happen in supercharged B.C. politics.”
There was a time when B.C. by-elections were regularly won by the party in government, but that trend went out the window decades ago. Here’s a look at the past 60 years of B.C. by-elections where the voters picked a candidate from the governing side.
1952 – Robert Bonner, Social Credit (Columbia)
1952 – Einar Gunderson, Social Credit (Similkameen)
1955 – Donal Robinson, Social Credit (Lillooet)
1955 – Leslie Peterson, Social Credit (Vancouver Centre)
1957 – William Speare, Social Credit (Cariboo)
1957 – Gordon Gibson, Social Credit (Delta)
1958 – Donald Brothers, Social Credit (Rossland-Trail)
1963 – Frank Greenwood, Social Credit (Columbia)
1966 – Robert Bonner, Social Credit (Cariboo)
1981 – Claude Richmond, Social Credit (Kamloops)
2011 – Christy Clark, BC Liberal (Vancouver-Point Grey)
Source: Elections BC