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The Globe and Mail

B.C. Liberals desperately seeking a by-election game-changer

There isn't a governing party in the country that needs some good news as badly as B.C. Premier Christy Clark's Liberals.

Every few weeks, it seems, another poll is published showing Ms. Clark's personal popularity in free fall. Support for her Liberals, meantime, has plunged to historic lows. Some surveys have them tied with the B.C. Conservatives – a party that was all but extinct a year ago.

It is against this backdrop that two by-elections will be held next week in ridings that the incumbent Liberals would normally do well in. But these aren't normal times for B.C.'s governing party. Today, it's the one facing possible extinction.

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The Liberals are desperate for a bounce to go their way. Typically, with any kind of vote, that would mean a win. In the case of these by-elections, however, it may mean a loss.

It seems the Liberals have all but ceded the contest in Port Moody-Coquitlam to the NDP's Joe Trasolini, a former long-time (and popular) mayor in the area. Ms. Clark was hoping he'd run for her. Now he's likely to cost the Premier's party a seat.

The Liberals' best hope is in Chilliwack-Hope, a conservative riding preternaturally inclined to support a candidate representing a so-called free-enterprise party. In recent years that has been the Liberals. Before them it was Social Credit.

The Liberals are running a strong candidate: Laurie Throness. It is not completely outside the realm of possibility he could win. If he did, it would rank as one of the most important victories in B.C. Liberal Party history, given how desperately it needs a game-changer.

Right now, however, most polls put Tory candidate John Martin, an affable, arch-conservative newspaper columnist, out in front. A Conservative win would give the party two seats in the legislature, not to mention fresh and important momentum.

But it is the prospect of a New Democratic Party victory that is most intriguing – and ironically the outcome that may offer the Liberals the best chance of sparking a comeback.

An NDP triumph would provide the evidence the Liberals need to bolster their contention that the rise of the B.C. Conservatives is only going to ensure that the NDP gets into power come next spring's general election. They argue that the Conservative-Liberal vote split needed for an NDP win in Chilliwack would be played out across the province, helping ensure that the "socialists hordes" take over the levers of power in 2013.

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It is a compelling argument. And the only card the Liberals seem to have to play at the moment. Nothing they are doing on the policy side is moving the dial – except in the wrong direction.

An NDP victory in Chilliwack will almost certainly fuel talk of some kind of Liberal-Conservative merger in advance of next year's province-wide vote. Members of Ms. Clark's caucus are already openly discussing the possibility of some type of centre-right union. But it is wishful thinking.

There isn't a chance in the world a B.C. Conservative Party under John Cummins will amalgamate, in any fashion, with a Liberal Party led by Ms. Clark. Ideologically, the two leaders are worlds apart – despite the Premier's best efforts in recent months to fashion herself as a late-to-the-party neo-con.

Additionally, why would the Conservatives fold up their tent, after working so hard to gain a healthy measure of respect in B.C.? I think the Liberals should quickly dismiss any notion that they are going to be able to persuade the upstart Conservatives to suddenly play nice and join forces to fight socialist evil.

As things stand now, the Liberals' best hope of maintaining power in a year's time is as part of some kind of minority government. Those are likely the only circumstances under which the Conservatives would join forces with them. It is also a scenario that is difficult to imagine, given the odds that vote-splitting between the two parties is likely only to increase the size of the NDP's seat total.

Still, if there was ever any kind of co-operation on a joint strategy come election time it's not impossible – only exceedingly complex and fraught with danger.

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Right now, the Liberals are campaigning in these two by-elections like they are fighting for their political lives. In some ways they are. A victory for the party in either riding would be outsized given the mostly insignificant stakes one generally associates with these types of votes.

Two losses, meantime, would only add to the massive snowball of troubles that is gathering force behind the Liberals and threatening to crush them.

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