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Strange bedfellows: Stephen Harper and Carole James

B.C.’s booming suburbs are home to at least nine battleground ridings that Conservatives must win in order for Stephen Harper to form a majority government. Provincial NDP leader Carole James has dramatically boosted her fortunes in those same regions by campaigning against Premier Gordon Campbell’s groundbreaking carbon tax. With Liberal leader Stéphane Dion running on a carbon tax plan of his own, it’s a good bet that Harper’s stump at B.C. pumps will bear an eerie resemblance to James’ “Axe the Tax” campaign.

As any attentive high school kid will remind you, majority governments are achieved by winning 155 of the nation’s 308 ridings. The Tories have to hold on to each of their recent 127 seats and win an additional 28 ridings in order to reach the magic number.

Harper is expected to seek those extra seats in the suburbs that ring Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. This is not simply because Harper is better liked by Canadians who prefer to steer an SUV while sipping their Starbucks (though polls suggest he is); this is because Conservative candidates finished within a few percentage points of winning quite a few of those suburban ridings in 2006.

The Strategic Council has cobbled together a list of 45 battleground ridings it predicts could determine the outcome on Oct. 14.

Ten of those tight ridings are in British Columbia. And with the notable exception of Vancouver North Island, all serve communities of a suburban or exurban nature: Vancouver Quadra, West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast, Fleetwood-Port Kells, Newton-North Delta, Burnaby-Douglas, Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, Richmond, Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge-Mission, and North Vancouver.

The Strategic Counsel’s designated Ontario and Quebec battlegrounds similarly cluster in traffic-choked edge cities. Though they differ widely in language and social sentiment, these ridings are bound together by at least one common value: Residents of these ridings spend a lot of time behind the wheel.

Suburban Canadians drive farther and more often than do rural residents. Suburbanites not only commute farther to work, but also tend to criss-cross their communities more in the course of a typical shuttling-the-kids-around day. (The B.C. stats are here.) Likewise, suburbanites also tend to spend more money on fuel to heat their homes, which are typically larger than those or rural or urban Canadians.

Harper knows this. And it’s a big part of why he called this election. In Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s “Green Shift” plan, Harper sees a wedge issue that he thinks might deliver him the 28 suburban seats he’s had his eye on for more than two years.

In the unlikely event the Prime Minister has any doubt his strategy will work, he need only track the fortunes of the B.C. New Democratic Party. Carole James launched her “Axe the Tax” campaign in late June, and by August the provincial NDP was polling (slightly) ahead of Gordon Campbell’s Liberals for the first time in almost a decade.

And so it is that in the next six seeks we may well witness Stephen Harper criss-crossing the Fraser Valley in his own caravan of SUVs, stumping at the same pumps that recently stood behind Carole James.

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