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A Good Day for George

The Liberal leadership race is too close to call, but two changes give Abbott a better shot.

By Andrew MacLeod 14 Feb 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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George Abbott's chances to replace Gordon Campbell just got better.

Two weeks before BC Liberal party members choose a new leader who will become premier of the province, they made two major changes to how that vote will be held.

The frontrunners in the campaign have all welcomed the amendments in their public statements, but if there was a consensus in the room at the Vancouver Conference Centre on Feb. 12, it was that the changes would hurt Christy Clark's chances and give George Abbott a boost.

The first change debated was one several speakers described as "late." It will force voters to pick at least a first and a second choice on their preferential ballot when they rank their favourites among the six candidates. The second weights votes in a way that gives an equal say to every constituency in the province, regardless of how many party members live there.

Forcing members to mark a second preference takes away their ability to "plump" by marking just a top choice. It was proposed by Mike de Jong's campaign, and Abbott and Moira Stilwell also spoke in favour of it ahead of the vote.

The amendment would give the eventual winner legitimacy in the eyes of the press and the public, said de Jong. Without it, he said, it would be possible to win with the support of fewer than 50 per cent of the membership. "It tries to ensure a genuine majority is responsible for electing the leader," he said.

He also acknowledged that the change could be seen as having "a self-serving component."

Falcon supporters opposed change

The vote is unlikely to be decided by the first votes, said Abbott. As candidates are dropped, the second and third votes will become important and the eventual winner needs to be supported by the majority of the party, he said.

"I think it's very important that we honour the spirit of the preferential ballot," said Stilwell. Ending up with a leader only supported by a minority of the party would be a detriment to "not just the candidate but to the party in the future."

While an official with Kevin Falcon's campaign said Falcon voted for the amendment, some of his prominent supporters spoke against it.

"No one should be forced to cast a vote for a contestant they do not support," said Children and Family Development Minister Mary Polak, who has endorsed Falcon.

Senator Richard Neufeld from Peace River North, a former MLA who has also endorsed Falcon, said he was opposed. "I should have the right to say I only want to vote for one person," he said. "Why we have to have number two, I'm not sure."

A third Falcon supporter, Chilliwack MLA John Les, lined up at the microphone for people who opposed the change, but did not get a chance to speak before the debate closed.

Another cabinet minister who supports Falcon, however, said that had the debate continued, he would have spoken in favour of the change.

An official with the Clark campaign said Clark voted for the change.

It required a 50 per cent plus one majority and passed with 751 votes for and 606 against.

Second choices may be key

There were various theories circulating the conference centre about who the change would help and who it might hurt.

The way the voting will work, ignoring for the time being how they will be weighted, is that once all the first choice votes are counted, the person in last place will be dropped from the contest. Then, the second preferences of the people who voted for that person are distributed to the remaining candidates.

The process continues until one of the candidates has the support of at least 50 per cent of the voters.

The conventional wisdom is that Clark will be the first choice of the most voters, but without enough support to win in the first round, followed by Falcon, Abbott, de Jong, Stilwell and Ed Mayne, more or less in that order.

Several think that as Stilwell and Mayne are dropped, the second preferences of their supporters are more likely to go to Abbott and de Jong, rather than more polarizing figures like Falcon and Clark. With many second and third preference votes in the mix, especially as the field is reduced from four to three, it becomes possible for someone who is in third place -- likely Abbott, but possibly de Jong -- to vault into second or even first on that round or in the final one.

Abbott has been targetting Clark in recent weeks, making him perhaps less likely to pick up second preferences from her supporters, but as long as she isn't eliminated before the final round of counting, that won't matter.

It is also worth noting that several observers mentioned that Abbott's campaign appears to have signed up fewer new members than other campaigns did, making being people's second preference that much more important for him.

Weighted votes

The other big change Liberals made was one that appears to benefit Abbott, who comes from Sicamous and lays claim to being the best candidate to reach out to rural B.C., though it should be noted Falcon has made the north a focus of his campaign and has key endorsements from Prince George cabinet ministers Pat Bell and Shirley Bond.

The 1,342 delegates who voted at the Feb. 12 extraordinary convention -- representing the some 90,000 members the party says it now has -- approved a change recommended by the party's executive that gives each of the province's constituencies an equally weighted vote.

Under the system, each constituency will have 100 points, which will be allocated to the candidates in a way that matches the proportion of the votes they got in that region.

Clark, Falcon, Abbott, de Jong and Stilwell all spoke in favour.

"This is a highly important vote for the future of this party and the future of this province," said Abbott.

"This is essential for the unity of the BC Liberal party and the future of British Columbia," said Stilwell.

Whoever wins will be better placed if they can say they have support from throughout the province, said Falcon. "It will strengthen us as a party and contrast us to the NDP."

Another Liberal official observed in a conversation later that it gives the party incentive to build in the areas where it is less strong, which is a very smart decision for the longterm health of the party.

Some more equal than others

Speakers opposed to the motion said all votes should count equally. "Democracy means one vote for one person," said a member from Coquitlam-Maillardville. Another said the system will give more value to some voters than others and paraphrased George Orwell's Animal Farm, saying that while everyone is equal, some will be more equal than others.

Another said, "We're being gerrymandered here." Gerrymandering usually refers to the adjustment of voting area boundaries to advance one party's interests unfairly, but can also mean manipulating the system for one's advantage.

The motion, which is available here (scroll down), needed two-thirds support to pass. The vote was 1,319 in favour with 23 opposed.

Abbott said in an interview that the changes are good for the province, but also allowed they will help him strategically.

"This is certainly not in any way destructive of my chances," he said. "We've been basing our campaign on the premise that this would pass. We had always hoped that it would."

The vote weighting will make more of a difference than forcing people to pick a second preference will, he said.

The second part of the convention was a "debate" that included no opportunities for the contestants to rebut the statements others made. Meanwhile, the person they are vying to replace, Premier Gordon Campbell, was outside the convention centre speaking to a rally celebrating the one-year anniversary of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.  [Tyee]

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