At a chic Fraser Valley restaurant on Thursday night, New Democrats thronged around the bar for “infused martinis” to down with their salmon canapés. The reason for the euphoria was displayed on a monitor behind the busy bartender, a simple grid showing the by-election voting results broken down by neighbourhood. In almost every part of Chilliwack-Hope, NDP candidate Gwen O’Mahony was in first place.
“That’s a new front here,” Ms. O’Mahony noted. Chilliwack voters have never sent a left-of-centre politician to Victoria before.
As the New Democrats revelled in their breakthrough, two parties at the other end of the political spectrum exchanged bitter barbs about who should take the blame for the NDP victory.
On Thursday, voters in Chilliwack-Hope, and to a lesser extent, Port Moody-Coquitlam, delivered a split verdict on the centre-right parties. The B.C. Conservatives’ share grew – but with no money or campaign apparatus, they remained mired in third place. What they did manage to do was damage the B.C. Liberals’ claim to be the sole representative of the “free enterprise” coalition.
Now, the war of attrition between the centre-right parties begins, and it may not be decided before the general election in May, 2013.
Some long-time B.C. Liberals are steeling themselves for a return of New Democratic Party government next year. Only then, they believe, will the pressure build for a new free enterprise coalition.
The Premier’s Office is not among this group – chief of staff Ken Boessenkool began to reach out to senior B.C. Conservatives on Friday. Mr. Boessenkool’s goal is to find out if a reunified right-of-centre party can be forged in time for the next election. That could mean a new name – but not a new leader.
Others are pushing for an even more urgent and massive overhaul – perhaps a new leader – in a bid to restore the coalition before the next campaign.
“Chilliwack is a prime example of a seat that should never go NDP,” said John Reynolds, a prominent federal Conservative who is now calling for a convention – not of the B.C. Liberals, but of centre-right voters – to establish a new party. “I had a business leader say to me the other day, ‘I’m not giving to the B.C. Liberals, they are a lost cause.’ We have to change that.”
Business leader Philip Hochstein, an opponent of the B.C. New Democrats, questioned whether Premier Christy Clark is the one to lead that new entity.
“If there is no way to have unanimity, then we lose the election. How that comes about and who brings that together, I’m not sure who that is,” he said in an interview.
He’ll be at the Premier’s fundraising dinner in June, but he is ambivalent about Ms. Clark’s insistence that she is the leader who will be on the ballot. “It’s obviously not resonating with half the people on the right. Something is amiss and I don’t know what the secret sauce is, but we have to figure it out.”
The NDP opposition gained two seats in the legislature this week, but it also demonstrated what could happen next year: In a three-way race, the NDP would be the winner. It didn’t take long after the results were in for Ms. Clark to offer her analysis: “It's never been clearer that only a unified free-enterprise coalition can defeat the NDP.”
But the B.C. Conservatives, having seen their vote in Chilliwack-Hope grow to a respectable 25 per cent from 7 per cent in the 2009 election, saw no reason to back down from this fight. “The Liberal vote disintegrated,” Leader John Cummins observed, watching the results at the party’s spartan campaign headquarters in Chilliwack on Thursday night. If voters want change, he maintained, his party will be there as an alternative to the NDP.
There is a rhythm to these upheavals on the centre-right.
Throughout B.C. history, the coalition of federal Liberals and Conservatives that is crucial to winning elections tends to fall apart under stress. Talk of uniting under a new banner or a new leader begins.
In 1952, the Liberal-Conservative coalition imploded and the Social Credit formed the government, narrowly defeating the precursor to the NDP, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation.
The Socred dynasty lost its grip in 1972 – the NDP won with just 39 per cent of the popular vote because three parties split the centre-right support. The Socreds rose again under a new leader, Bill Bennett, who brought Liberals and Conservatives back into the fold to regain power in 1975.
Hugh Curtis was elected as a Conservative in B.C. in 1972 and crossed the floor to join Mr. Bennett’s fresh start. As a coalition veteran, Mr. Curtis doesn’t believe the parties led by Ms. Clark and Mr. Cummins are ready for convergence.
It took new leadership to rebuild the Socred party, he said. B.C. voters seem to be in a similar mood now: “Maybe the electorate is looking for something new and different, a new person, whoever that may be.”
The Socred-led coalition again fractured, and the NDP regained power in 1991. This time, the B.C. Liberals emerged as the dominant centre-right party.
The B.C. Liberals have been in office since 2001. But Ms. Clark hasn’t yet undone the damage wrought by the ham-fisted introduction of the harmonized sales tax.
A year into her mandate, party insiders say, financial contributions are below what is needed to wage a full election campaign. Like Mr. Reynolds’s business pal, some are simply not willing to hand over money until Ms. Clark can demonstrate she can put the coalition back together.
This week, the Premier suggested a solution to fix the B.C. Liberal brand: she’s willing to junk the party name.
But a name change might not be enough to address the deep-seated problems that have dogged Ms. Clark’s tenure. Despite her efforts to shore up the party’s conservative support, Chilliwack-Hope voters demonstrated there is still a pull to another vehicle.
Business leader Peter Armstrong, owner of Rocky Mountaineer, has been a significant contributor to the B.C. Liberal coffers, and he says he will still open his wallet for the party come the next election. However, he acknowledged that the business community is worried about the collapse of the coalition. “Everyone is on edge – it’s kind of like with the Canucks,” he said.
But he added that Ms. Clark should be given a chance to lead the rebuilding effort.
“I haven’t heard one person say they would give one nickel to the Conservatives,” he said. “We need to give Christy time to coalesce the caucus, to establish what she stands for.”
With the next election campaign starting in less than a year, that time comes with a limit.