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Battleground BC

The North, a Huge Opportunity for NDP

Economy, BC Rail deal are big factors.

By Will McMartin, 31 Mar 2005, TheTyee.ca

British Columbia’s North is a key electoral battleground in 2005. All 10 northern seats were won by Gordon Campbell’s Liberals in the 2001 general election, but just two are near-certain to remain in the Liberal column on May 17; the remaining eight should see closely-fought contests.

A number of factors make this region politically competitive. Economic wealth and investment in the North has steadily declined over the past two decades, a development accentuated by a declining population. The past year has seen a dramatic rise in lumber prices as residential construction exploded across North America, and mineral exploration has enjoyed a resurgence as commodity prices soared, but how long the current upward trend in the boom-bust cycle will endure remains to be seen.

Then there is Campbell’s promise four years ago, since broken, that his government would not ‘sell or privatize’ the province’s oldest Crown corporation, B.C. Rail. Many northern residents were outraged by the flip-flop, but the Liberals may have mollified voters by ‘re-investing’ about 15% of the sale proceeds in the region.

Finally, although she is a long-time Victoria resident, NDP leader Carole James recently spent a couple of years working in Prince George. New Democrats hope that connection will deliver votes for local candidates.

See-saw history

The North was a Liberal stronghold from 1916 until the end of the Second World War, anchored by Duff Pattullo in Prince Rupert and Harry Perry in Fort George. Both communities were created with the arrival of the Grand Trunk Pacific railroad, a project initiated by Liberal prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and the region remained loyal to the Grits long afterward.

The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), forerunner of the NDP, made a dramatic breakthrough in 1945, winning seats in Peace River, Fort George, Omineca and Prince Rupert, but it proved a short-lived phenomenon. Thereafter, Atlin was the only ‘safe’ CCF seat, held in 11 of 12 elections by the Nisga’a leader, Frank Calder (who, in the twilight of his political career, crossed the floor to join Social Credit). Generally, CCF-NDP strength in the region over the past five decades has been in northwest ridings with sizeable Native populations, such as Atlin (now part of Bulkley Valley-Stikine), Prince Rupert (now North Coast), and Skeena.

Social Credit, as it did elsewhere in the province, made a massive breakthrough in the North in 1952, and dominated the region until the late 1980s when the Vander Zalm government imploded.

By 1991, the NDP held seven of the North’s 10 seats: Lois Boone (in Prince George-Mount Robson), Paul Ramsey (Prince George North), Dave Zirnhelt (Cariboo South), Frank Garden (Cariboo North), Dan Miller (North Coast), Helmut Giesbrecht (Skeena), and Jackie Pement (Bulkley Valley-Stikine). The remaining three - Peace River North, Peace River South, and Prince George-Omineca - were held by Social Credit MLAs.

The New Democrats retained six northern seats in 1996, losing just Cariboo North to a Liberal (John Wilson). Elsewhere, two Social Credit MLAs were re-elected with the Reform Party in Peace River North (Richard Neufeld) and Peace River South (Jack Weisgerber) while Prince George-Omineca was won by a Liberal (Paul Nettleton).

In 2001, of course, the Liberals swept the entire region. Neufeld earlier had joined Campbell’s caucus, Nettleton and Wilson were re-elected, and seven Liberal newcomers arrived at the legislature: Pat Bell (Prince George North), Bill Belsey (North Coast), Shirley Bond (Prince George-Mount Robson), Walt Cobb (Cariboo South), Roger Harris (Skeena), Blair Lekstrom (Peace River South), and Dennis Mackay (Bulkley Valley-Stikine).

Last time around

The Liberals’ won 57.6% of the province-wide popular vote in 2001, and 60.8% in the North. Indeed, the Liberals garnered more than three of every five votes in seven of the region’s 10 districts, with their highest vote-share recorded in Peace River North at 73.2%.

Belsey, who took just 45.3% of the vote in North Coast in 2001, is the incumbent Liberal most vulnerable to defeat.

Nettleton, who subsequently left the Liberal caucus to sit as an Independent, has declared that he will not seek re-election in Prince George-Omineca, but intends to run in Prince George-Mount Robson against Bond.

NDP likely to pick up North Coast

Both Peace River seats are solid for the Liberals. The two Cariboo seats - although Wilson is not seeking re-election in North and it must be remembered that New Democrat Zirnhelt held South from 1989 until 2001 - are likely to stay with the government, but bear watching for new developments.

North Coast is a more-than likely gain for the New Democrats, but given that Belsey is attempting to defend his seat, it will not be declared a solid NDP seat until after the writ is dropped on April 19.

The remaining five seats start in the toss-up column. The New Democrats will target Bulkley Valley-Stikine, followed by Skeena.

Prince George-Mount Robson may be one of the most interesting battles to watch in the province. On one hand, Bond and Nettleton may split the Liberal vote; on the other, Nettleton and the New Democrats may split the anti-Liberal vote. The B.C. Rail sale may be the dominant issue in both this riding and Prince George North.

TABLE -- North ridings, listed in order of Liberals’ 2001 vote-share

  • Peace River North - 73.2%
  • Skeena - 65.2
  • Cariboo North - 65.0
  • Peace River South - 64.2
  • Cariboo South - 62.2
  • Prince George-Omineca - 61.7
  • Prince George North - 61.0
  • Bulkley Valley-Stikine - 55.9
  • Prince George-Mount Robson - 55.7
  • North Coast - 45.3

Check in daily for Battleground BC, Will McMartin’s voting predictions and analysis, exclusive to The Tyee.  [Tyee]