Efforts to rebuild the B.C. Liberal Party coalition were spared a serious setback Tuesday when cabinet minister Rich Coleman promised to stick around for the next election campaign.
Last week, Premier Christy Clark promised a cabinet shuffle – to be unveiled as early as Wednesday – after her finance minister, Kevin Falcon, announced he wouldn't be seeking re-election in 2013.
Mr. Coleman, who along with Mr. Falcon represents the party's conservative faction, said Tuesday he took the summer to decide if he still had the fight for what is shaping up to be a tough election campaign.
Mr. Falcon is the most prominent member of Ms. Clark's government opting out of the next campaign, but she has also lost her education minister, George Abbott, and a handful of others.
On Tuesday, the popular Blair Lekstrom announced he too will not run in the next election, after a dozen years as the MLA for Peace River South. The lone Liberal MLA to quit cabinet over the government's imposition of the unpopular harmonized sales tax, Mr. Lekstrom was returned to cabinet by Ms. Clark after she won the party leadership. "I leave to pursue new opportunities in life and want to again thank Premier Clark for her support," he said in a statement. "I know that she will continue to lead this province in a positive direction."
Mr. Coleman said in an interview that his decision to stay "wasn't a slam-dunk." He has already served 16 years in the legislature and would have no difficultly sliding back into the private sector. Meanwhile, his party is limping along, its support bleeding to both the left and right of the political spectrum. A recent poll from Forum Research suggests that the B.C. Liberals and the B.C. Conservatives united still would not have enough support to defeat the New Democratic Party in a provincial election.
Mr. Coleman, who would have been a strong contender for the party leadership last spring had he chosen to run, said he is ready for the election battle.
"The fire is still there in the belly. I love it when people tell me I can't get the job done," he said in an interview. He knows his role in coming months will be to bring back disaffected supporters who have not rallied around Ms. Clark's leadership. "People don't look deep enough," he said. "She's really good at what she does, I think people are going to start to see that."
Phillip Hochstein, a prominent spokesman of the B.C. business community who has been leading efforts to repair the province's centre-right coalition, said Mr. Coleman's decision was critical for the B.C. Liberals.
"It signals that the [Liberals aren't] abandoning the conservative side of the party," he said. That would have been the message if Mr. Coleman had followed Mr. Falcon's lead: "If both of them had left, it would leave a big hole."
If the current opinion polls hold and the B.C. Liberals loses the next election, Mr. Coleman would likely still hang on to his Fort Langley-Aldergrove seat, leaving him in a solid position to rebuild the party. Naturally, Mr. Coleman wasn't biting on that speculation: "I think the guys who are going to be picking up the pieces after the election are the NDP," he said.
He predicted his decision to stay will help bring back disaffected conservative voters to the fold. "A lot of the conservatives, they are back," he said. "They are with me."
Pollster Lorne Bozinoff of Forum Research, however, said there is little evidence yet that the Liberals have been able to move the dial. "They are really stuck in a rut and they have been unable to get out of it for months," he said in an interview Tuesday. "The NDP have a huge commanding lead, nothing the Liberals have done has been able to change that game for them. Which is why so many MLAs are getting out."
A Forum poll conducted Aug. 30 put the opposition NDP at 45-per-cent support, the governing Liberals at 23 per cent and the Conservatives – represented by a single MLA – at 20 per cent. The poll, with a sample size of 902, is considered accurate within 3.2 percentage points. It also concluded that NDP support would rise if the Liberals and Conservatives merged. A possible union between the two parties is one of the topics that will be discussed when the B.C. Liberals meet for a convention in Whistler next month.
Mr. Bozinoff said the opportunity for a merger might have to wait until after the next election, but Mr. Coleman might be the one to lead it. "They have to patch things up with the conservatives at some point, he might be a good person to do that."