BC Politics

Critical Nanaimo Byelection Is Too Close to Call

Candidates battle over crime, speculation tax and legislature scandal in final debate.

By Andrew MacLeod 28 Jan 2019 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him at

Candidates in Nanaimo’s byelection sparred on other issues for more than an hour before tackling the legislature spending scandal in the final debate before Wednesday’s critical vote.

BC Green Party candidate Michele Ney called the situation “appalling.” BC Liberal candidate Tony Harris said the matter is a concern for all taxpayers and needed to be addressed with the support of all parties.

And the NDP’s Sheila Malcolmson said the scandal reflected the culture of entitlement that the Liberals had overseen. They appointed Craig James as clerk — one of two top legislature officials suspended while the police investigate — over objections from the NDP, she said, and had failed to do enough following reports from the auditor general about financial mismanagement at the legislature.

“We can’t go back,” said Malcolmson, currently the MP for Nanaimo-Ladysmith.

The exchange gave the candidates the chance to stress themes each repeated throughout the evening. The debate, the second of two, was the only one with all six candidates in the race.

Malcolmson said voters had to decide between going forward with the NDP or back to the Liberals and their record of cutting services while allowing social problems to grow and housing prices to rise.

“The stakes are high and the choice is clear,” she said in her opening statement.

Ney, a teacher and daughter of former Nanaimo mayor Frank Ney, said “Nanaimo has been neglected for decades,” and the byelection is an opportunity for the city to have its voice heard. “I can provide a strong voice.”

Harris made little attempt to defend the Liberal record, but presented himself as someone with deep local roots who cares about the city and wants to make it better.

“There’s been an awful lot of talk about politics and what [the byelection] means at the provincial level,” he said. The discussion should be about local needs, he added.

“At the end of the day we’re on the same team: Team Nanaimo,” said Harris, who runs a real estate development and investment firm and is the son of Tom Harris, a high-profile Nanaimo businessman who died in 2017.

Big provincial implications

But the provincial implications are difficult to ignore. The byelection became necessary when New Democrat MLA Leonard Krog resigned in the fall to become Nanaimo’s mayor. The NDP has captured the riding in all but two elections over the last 50 years, but byelections tend to be difficult for the party in power, even in what are considered safe seats.

If the Liberals win, they will hold 43 seats, matching the number that the NDP (40) and Green Party (three) together hold. Since the Speaker supports the government in tie votes, the New Democrats would have the ability to govern, but with little margin for error. And that would change if a planned recall campaign against Speaker Darryl Plecas goes ahead.

Premier John Horgan and the leaders of the other two main parties have made visits to Nanaimo in recent weeks.

Also running in the byelection are Justin Greenwood for the BC Conservative Party, Robin Mark Richardson for the Vancouver Island Party and Libertarian Bill Walker.

Greenwood said BC Conservative priorities included reforming ICBC and scrapping the speculation, carbon and employer health taxes.

Richardson said Vancouver Island would be 100 times better off as its own province. “We are shortchanged by the parties in British Columbia,” he said, arguing that a disproportionately small amount of public money is spent on the Island.

Walker said he’s against government control and that Libertarians would take everyday decision-making away from governments and return it to citizens.

Few willing to make predictions

In conversations around Nanaimo, people offered support for the NDP, Liberals and Greens. A Green supporter said it had been a hard choice between voting strategically for the NDP to keep the Liberal out and voting her conscience.

Nobody said they felt confident about who would win and people working on the campaigns said it’s a very close race.

Some suggested that despite the vote’s significance, few people are paying attention. There are some signs up around town, but not many.

But Elections BC announced that in the first two days of advance voting, 3,188 people cast ballots, about 230 more than in the comparable period in the general election in 2017.

At least 10 Liberal MLAs were at the debate, including former cabinet ministers Michelle Stilwell, Shirley Bond, Ben Stewart, Coralee Oakes and Todd Stone. NDP education minister Rob Fleming was also there.

Wide-ranging questions

Early questions focused on homelessness, housing, crime and the need to consult with residents on solutions.

While most of the candidates agreed there was a need for housing and other supports for people living in tents, the Conservatives’ Greenwood said that except for people who were disabled, “A lot of those other people can be taught to be self-reliant.”

On crime, both Ney and Richardson said a guaranteed annual income is needed. Harris said the problem is complex. There needs to be a strong police response, he said, but also empathy for people and efforts to help them with the social issues and desperation that are connected to crime.

Malcolmson said the NDP government has been trying to get at the roots of the problem, including by creating a ministry dedicated to addressing mental health and addictions. “We’re trying to make up for a lot of lost time from bad decisions from the previous government,” she said.

Over 90 minutes, the candidates covered the elimination of MSP premiums, the speculation tax, Site C, the LNG industry, fracking, the doctor shortage, transportation for people with disabilities, logging and the need for a harbour-to-harbour ferry to Vancouver.

Harris, who had earlier said he was committed to staying positive and avoiding personal attacks, pointed out that Greenwood lives in the Lower Mainland. Any support the Conservative gains — and some may find his slogan “I’m a Justin you can trust in” kind of infectious — is likely to come at the Liberal’s expense.

“Mr. Greenwood’s actually from Vancouver,” Harris said. “He lives in Vancouver and people want a representative for Nanaimo, from Nanaimo, to work on Nanaimo’s needs.”

Greenwood’s response — “I guess Mr. Harris’s stance about not getting personal is out the window” — got some laughter from the crowd. He was born in Victoria, his family lives in Nanaimo and he is staying at his brother’s house five minutes from the hall in Beban Park where the debate was being held, he said.

He would move to Nanaimo if elected, he added. “If you have a problem with that then obviously that’s an elitist issue you have, and that’s what we have going on in Victoria right now, this whole elitism and entitlement.”  [Tyee]

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