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The Globe and Mail

B.C. Liberals mull centre-right union as NDP cements lead

B.C. Conservative leader John Cummins in Vancouver March 29, 2011.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

With Premier Christy Clark's government facing an important by-election test just days from now, members of her caucus are calling for action to unite the centre-right vote in B.C.

Bill Bennett, B.C. Liberal MLA for Kootenay East, was out campaigning in Chilliwack-Hope on Thursday, where he said he found many voters are "on the tipping point" between supporting the B.C. Liberals and their rival B.C. Conservatives, setting up what he expects will be a tight race next week.

"We need to do something about the vote split," he said. He added that there is the potential for compromise and consensus leading to a coalition but he believes the B.C. Conservative Leader, John Cummins, won't be part of the solution. "If you listen to John what's-his-name, there doesn't seem to be any room for compromise."

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John Rustad, B.C. Liberal MLA for Nechako Lakes, said the two parties need to start talking and suggested one outcome might be a third-party alternative.

"It's a valid question to ask, is there something to be done to reunite the free-enterprise coalition," he said. "Whenever you have some entrenched positions it is always a challenge. Maybe we can't get there, maybe it will have to be a different format."

Mr. Rustad said reunification will have to come from the rank-and-file of the parties, not the leaders.

"It would be helpful to have discussions between the parties but ultimately it is the voters, the grassroots, that have to decide how we want to see this province governed."

A poll from Forum Research Inc. released Thursday provided fresh evidence that the B.C. Liberal brand is in trouble.

Mr. Cummins, for the first time, is as popular as Ms. Clark while significantly fewer people disapprove of the job he is doing, according to the poll.

NDP Leader Adrian Dix remains with the highest approval rating among B.C. political leaders, with 38 per cent of respondents approving of the job he is doing as Leader of the Opposition.

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Twenty-eight per cent of the respondents approved of how Mr. Cummins was doing his job, while Ms. Clark's approval rating was 26 per cent.

The telephone poll of 1,069 B.C. residents was conducted Wednesday. With a margin of error of three percentage points, 19 times out of 20, the two political leaders were considered to be statistically tied in second place.

However, 60 per cent of the respondents – including 23 per cent who identified themselves as B.C. Liberals – disapproved of Ms. Clark's performance.

By comparison, both Mr. Cummins and Mr. Dix had a disapproval rating of 35 per cent.

Lorne Bozinoff, president of Forum Research, said Thursday Ms. Clark and the B.C. Liberals have been "totally unsuccessful" in their attempts to define their political opponents. "Whatever the Liberals have been doing is not working," he said in an interview.

On party preference, the poll results were similar to an Angus Reid poll last week that showed the NDP far ahead of other parties. The Forum Research poll had NDP support at 46 per cent and Liberal and Conservative support tied at 23 per cent. The Angus Reid poll found NDP support among 43 per cent of the respondents and the Liberal and Conservatives tied at 23 per cent.

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Mr. Bennett said the poll results don't reflect what he hears on the doorstep – he believes his party is still ahead of the B.C. Conservatives. But he said the B.C. Liberals need to do more to welcome back conservative-leaning voters who have gone over to Mr. Cummins's party.

Mr. Bennett said the party's name has been an encumbrance to holding the coalition together, but he added it is too close to the next general election to try to change it now. "We are going to have to try to convince people over the next year that we are a big enough party to hold all manner of free enterprise views," he said in an interview during a break between door-knocking in a riding that has long been a B.C. Liberal stronghold.

"If we can pull off a win in 2013, I will be the first person standing there saying the only way we can sustain the free enterprise coalition is to change the name and make it easy for conservatives and liberals and everybody in between to belong to that party."

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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