Voters in Nanaimo will decide Wednesday if B.C’s New Democrats and their Green allies will continue to govern with a majority in the legislature. A by-election loss by the NDP to the Opposition Liberals would result in a tumultuous shift, with a perfect balance of votes.
Sixteen months ago, the new government averted a crisis by persuading Liberal MLA Darryl Plecas to sit as Speaker of the House. That move gave NDP Premier John Horgan, backed by the support of the three-member Green caucus, the relative security of a bare majority.
Then, the resignation of Leonard Krog, Nanaimo’s veteran New Democrat MLA, put the minority government’s ability to control the House in doubt again.
“The stakes couldn’t be higher,” NDP candidate Sheila Malcolmson said in an interview – a line she has delivered at every opportunity throughout the campaign.
By-elections in B.C. are typically cursed for governing parties – the opposition has won seven of the past nine contests. But Nanaimo is an NDP stronghold – the party has lost only two of the past 15 elections here. With no clear advantage, none of the parties is taking the contest for granted.
The New Democrats have fought this campaign as though the survival of their government is at stake. During the four-week-long campaign, the government found money for a new $34-million intensive-care unit at the hospital, as well as new funding for classrooms. Premier John Horgan has visited the riding four times in the past month, and will be in Nanaimo again on election night.
A loss to the Liberals would not cause the government to fall, but it would give the Liberals 43 seats – against 40 New Democrats and three Greens. It would mean that the passage of legislation, including the budget, would require the Speaker to abandon neutrality and vote to break ties.
Alan Mullen, special adviser to Mr. Plecas, said in an interview that Parliamentary convention requires that the Speaker must vote with the government in the event of a tie. Mr. Plecas was expelled from the Liberal party after taking the Speaker’s office, and now sits as an Independent.
Ms. Malcolmson resigned her seat as the NDP MP for Nanaimo-Ladysmith to take a chance on entering provincial politics. She maintains this is a two-horse race: “The two choices are clearly, New Democrats who are investing in communities and making life more affordable, or BC Liberals and their history of looking after the wealthy and well-connected.”
Liberal candidate Tony Harris isn’t playing with a typical partisan playbook, however. He stresses his family’s roots in the community, going back six generations, and says the ballot question should focus on what’s best for Nanaimo, rather than the dynamics in Victoria.
A businessman and philanthropist, Mr. Harris wears his lack of political experience as a badge of honour. He was vague about his history with the BC Liberals, saying he renewed his membership only when he decided to seek the nomination in this contest. “I’ve never worked on a campaign. The first time I door-knocked was when I went to the door for myself," he said.
“I bring fresh perspective, and a good moral and ethical compass that guides me."
The Green candidate, Michele Ney, scoffs at the idea that voters only have two choices in this race. The Greens took 20 per cent of the vote in Nanaimo in the 2017 provincial election, and she says the role played by the three-member caucus in the Legislature since that time has shown voters that her party offers a viable alternative.
“The momentum is growing incredibly,” the long-time Nanaimo school teacher said. “I think people are frustrated with both of those parties.”
Ms. Ney is a veteran campaigner in the city – she and her siblings were all drafted to work in her father’s political races. Frank Ney was mayor of Nanaimo for 21 years, and was one of the few Social Credit candidates to break the NDP hold on the riding.
“People voted for my father because they believed in him and trusted him and the constituents here know me, and believe I am a true strong voice for them. If my father was alive today, he would have been supporting the Greens.”