With the B.C. New Democratic Party sweeping Thursday's by-elections, the 2013 provincial election campaign effectively begins. And for the governing Liberals the picture, while not pretty, is at least clear.
They need to find a way of reuniting their fractured coalition. Unless they do, the NDP is almost certain to romp to the largest electoral victory in its history.
Now back-channel talks aimed at merging the Liberals and the upstart B.C. Conservative Party under some type of new, free-enterprise banner will begin in earnest. Those discussions will be exceedingly difficult and at this point would seem destined to fail.
While placing third in both by-elections, the Conservatives mounted credible campaigns. The party sees its stock rising under the leadership of John Cummins. It has no interest in being sublimated by the Liberals under a different, generic name.
More importantly, the Conservatives have no interest in joining forces in any party that is led by Premier Christy Clark – someone they see as a big-L Liberal. And that could end up being the deal breaker in any talks that take place.
If, under some set of unforeseen circumstances, Ms. Clark stepped down to allow someone else to lead a newly constituted coalition, then the Conservatives might be interested. And the name I hear on that front is Kevin Falcon – grassroots conservatives could live with him as the head of a new coalition.
But that is extremely unlikely to happen. Ms. Clark has stated her intention of being the leader of any newly named, newly constituted centre-right alliance. And who could blame her? There are any number of things that could happen between now and next year's election call that could upset the current political dynamics in the province.
While polls generally show her Liberals with a slight lead over the Conservatives, they also show the NDP plateauing at around 42 per cent. That has to give Ms. Clark some hope. If centrists in her party were upset with her flirtations with conservative politics, they would have started migrating to the NDP. But that appears not to have happened – yet.
If the Liberals could find a way of cutting into the Conservatives support by even half, then suddenly you have the elements of a competitive election. And while Ms. Clark has at times seemed unsure in the premier's chair, she still knows how to wow a crowd. In fact, in many ways this is what she does best.
She is the province's premier campaign politician.
The Liberals are also amassing a healthy campaign war chest that will give them options the New Democrats and certainly a woefully underfunded Conservative party won't have. The Liberals have held power since 2001 in B.C. and every sign indicates others will have to pry it out of their cold, dead hands.
They are not afraid to use every campaign trick in the book to defeat their opponent and if that means going a little (or a lot) negative that's fine with them. The Liberals are fighting for their political lives. There is a whole ecosystem of party supporters whose careers depend on them remaining in power. The party will not lack for people to help out with the campaign and do whatever it takes to win.
NDP Leader Adrian Dix, meanwhile, has a far different job between now and next spring's election. He needs to continue to show that he's up for the job and that he has no plans to radically reshape the province in the image of some raving socialist. He needs to appear premier-like and assure voters – middle-class ones in particular – that their lives will not only not get worse under an NDP government but will get considerably better.
The NDP's by-election wins in Port Moody-Coquitlam and Chilliwack-Hope – two ridings that have never been friendly to the party historically – should not be dismissed simply as victories due to extraordinary circumstances. Sure, the victory in Chilliwack-Hope would not have happened if not for the presence of a strong B.C. Conservative candidate. Still, the NDP collected a lot of votes.
In Port Moody-Coquitlam, the party's triumph is a whole other story. And new NDP MLA Joe Trasolini (once he's sworn in) demonstrated he has every right to expect to duplicate his feat in a general election.
The B.C. political landscape is shifting. And it may well undergo a few more seismic modifications before it finally settles down.