Adam Pankratz is a lecturer at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. He is on the board of directors at Rokmaster Resources and ran for the federal Liberal Party in the riding of Burnaby South in 2015.
Voters in British Columbia enjoyed a rare treat in 2015: an election not firmly decided by the time their votes were counted. The Liberals’ red wave crashed hard upon the Pacific Coast and when all was said and done, B.C. voters had delivered 17 Liberal MPs to the House of Commons – a record number. These were the seats that Justin Trudeau needed to capture, and secure, a majority government.
But as Election Day 2019 approaches, a repeat of this performance looks unlikely, if not impossible. Seats which only six months ago would have been deemed safe are now in serious danger. That’s going to be a problem, given that the Liberals need the province to swing their way – and because the strongest national headwinds the Liberal brand faces threaten to do their most grievous damage in B.C.
First, in late 2016, came the decision to approve Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. While a majority of British Columbians support the project, this damaged the Liberals’ credibility with environmentalists and the left, which had flocked to Mr. Trudeau’s party in 2015. This was followed swiftly in early 2017 by a reversal of the promise to end the first-past-the-post electoral system. Electoral reform is a particular passion for certain circles in B.C., with the province having had two referendums on the issue in the past 18 years.
Blow three landed in May, 2018, when the government announced its intent to purchase Trans Mountain from Kinder Morgan. The decision was necessary given the importance of the project to the Canadian economy; the voting implications were small, but it further cemented in the minds of those still angry about the Liberals’ original approval of Trans Mountain that the party could not be their choice in the next election.
The fourth blow landed hard in early 2019. The SNC-Lavalin scandal led to the resignation of Jody Wilson-Raybould as Canada’s first Indigenous attorney-general, as well as the Vancouver-Granville MP’s eventual ejection from Liberal caucus.
The Ethics Commissioner’s recently released report about l’affaire SNC is scathing. By concluding that Mr. Trudeau violated Canada’s Conflict of Interest Act through his exertion of influence on Ms. Wilson-Raybould, he only bolstered the existing belief of B.C. voters in the narrative that the Liberals are always up to no good in Quebec.
Combined with the entrenched narrative that B.C. has never, and would never, receive anything approaching the largesse the Liberals have showered on la belle province over the course of their past few governments, and the fact that the easiest thing to believe about someone is something that aligns with what you’re already inclined to believe, the still-infuriating ghosts of Gomery show how Western alienation isn’t just for Albertans.
To repeat their success in B.C., the Liberals need to appeal to voters typically inclined to vote Conservative, Green and NDP. But Conservative-minded voters are fed up with delays to pipelines; traditional Green supporters have been outraged by the TMX purchase; and the NDP is crying foul over electoral reform. They are all united in their scorn and opprobrium for ethics violations. None of this bodes well for a big-tent party, which is what the Liberals must be if they hope to win a majority.
So where does this leave the Liberals in the eyes of British Columbia voters?
The Fraser Valley and Surrey will likely tell the tale of Liberal fortunes, with the North Shore now in play. The seats of Cloverdale-Langley City, Steveston-Richmond East, North Vancouver and West Vancouver Sunshine Coast, all previously held by the Conservatives, saw massive, likely unsustainable swings for the Liberals in 2015, as did the newly allocated seats in the traditionally Conservative Fraser Valley.
Even seats which seem like a Liberal cinch, such as Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson’s riding in North Vancouver, are now vulnerable. It is neither difficult nor inconceivable to see the Liberal seat count reduced by half.
Despite the threat of historic trends that favour the Conservatives, the real danger may not come exclusively from Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives, but also from the Green Party, which has the ability to pull voters yet to be impressed by the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh or regretful about their 2015 Liberal vote. The Greens are hoping to win big on Vancouver Island and if they are able to draw the votes of those disillusioned by the Liberals, that would be a body blow to Mr. Trudeau’s re-election hopes.
It is a most terrible bargain centre-left voters may be faced with come Oct. 21: swallow hard and vote for the Liberals despite the recent cascade of hypocrisy, disappointments and failures, or vote NDP or Green and, in so doing, bolster the odds for the Conservatives, who have had their own problems with questionable candidates and controversial views on third-rail issues. Indeed, as the blows mount for the Trudeau Liberals, a sad outcome may prove just as decisive: Repulsed Canadians just won’t vote. That plays to the Conservatives’ advantage too.
This campaign is still far from over, and it’s probably wise to hedge bets a little in B.C.'s quickly changing political winds. The negativity and mudslinging that has dragged down this campaign need not define its ending: The Liberals have much to run on, from a strong economy to climate change to positive action on women’s issues.
All of these positive messages play well in the province and can remind B.C. voters why they plumped for Mr. Trudeau to begin with. But the way winds have blown over this writ period, it certainly seems that Oct. 21 will be far stormier for Mr. Trudeau than the bright-red Pacific sunset he saw four years ago.