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Where Is BC's Game Changing New Party?

Voters are mad as hell, but that's a long way from building a serious 'third party.'

By Rafe Mair 10 May 2010 |

Rafe Mair's column runs every second Monday on The Tyee. Find his previous Tyee columns here and more of his writings on The Common Sense Canadian.

There is a lot of chatter about a significant new party coming to B.C. politics. Given the appalling state of governance and opposition, such a discussion is not surprising.

Gordon Campbell and his so-called Liberals are in high odor indeed and have created a number of issues that will still be around to haunt them in 2013, the time of the next election.

The NDP are high in the polls but that is much more reflective of Campbell's unpopularity than the popularity of Carole James & Co. In fact the NDP have got to hope that in 2013 that the Liberals will be so unpopular that, like 1991, a fencepost with hair could beat them. But, as reflected in this space before, the NDP can't run their affairs on the assumption that Campbell will be around but on the worst case scenario, namely that the Liberals will be led by Carole Taylor or Diane Watts. There is absolutely no indication that the NDP will change leaders. If they do, it will probably be too late. The NDP have always had the habit of eating themselves into a bad stew when they select leaders.

So doesn't this all point to a new party that might make a serious difference in the next election or even win?

Unhappily for the province the answer is no.

Bring back Socreds?

Let's start off by acknowledging that the BC Greens would lay claim to "third party" status today. But their base has proven to be too limited to surge to prominence in the next election. Who else then might?

The first possibility some mention is the comeback of the Socred or Reform parties. I'm told that the old Social Credit party is under the control of two or three people and is in no position to present itself, as it did in Bill Bennett's day, as a middle of the road populist party. That's sad and brings back the past where in 1991 Rita Johnston bested Grace McCarthy for leader with an election coming up. I think most "pols" would agree that if Grace had been around in the 1991 election she probably wouldn't have won but would have held the party together sufficiently to have a sizeable opposition such that in the election following they would be competitive. But that's not what happened.

The Reform Party is for -- and I avoid a lawsuit -- the optimistic misfits who always dominate the early going with any new or revived party.

What about the Progressive Democratic Alliance, the dream child of Gordon Wilson who, alas, has not been in the legislature during Campbell's reign. The PDA is not going to be the answer nor will Gordon Wilson try very hard to revive it.

The most talked about alternative is the Conservative party under former federal minister, Randy White. It won't work for a number of reasons not the least of which is that they would always have to deal with the federal Conservative wing for whose peccadilloes they will be obliged to explain away.

Gordon Wilson's war

It's instructive to look back to 1987 when Gordon Wilson became leader of the BC Liberal Party. Immediately upon taking the chair, Wilson began to remove any and all connection between what until then was a national party with a provincial wing and create a new independent party. He also knew that his party always had to look independent to be independent and he got lucky when the Meech Lake Accord came down which would have, amongst other things, have given Quebec a special constitutional place in our national affairs. I got to know Gordon very well during this period and can tell you that he it may have looked like political opportunist but he genuinely opposed it. He got behind Newfoundland premier, Clyde Wells, the leading anti Meech politician and a very popular symbol of opposition, especially in B.C., to the deal. Sincere though Wilson was, the presence of the Meech Lake Accord was serendipitous and got Wilson known and respected and helped the BC Liberal party to look to voters like a B.C. party.

Wilson got lucky again during the leaders' debate in the 1991 campaign which he worked very hard to be part of and succeeded.

Working from a physical position between Mike Harcourt for the NDP and premier Rita Johnston and was able to get off this zinger as Harcourt and Johnston quarreled -- "this is a perfect example of why nothing ever gets done in Victoria." He of all people knew that under our system all decisions are made by the premier's office and that the function of the Legislature is to rubber stamp government legislation and policy. In fact, however, it would become the campaign's most successful slogan which Wilson converted into 17 seats, up from zero. At that, though Wilson's new party went from zero seats to 17, he was a long way from winning.

NDP's vote ceiling?

It's instructive to look at past election results were you'll see that the NDP garner about 40 per cent of the vote -- the exception being the trouncing they took in 2001 when they got 29 per cent and two lonely MLAs. When there are no viable other options and it's a two horse race, they lose. When there are viable alternatives, such as 1972 and 1991, they win, with the exception of 1996 when with 42 per cent they managed to win against the Liberals who had 46 per cent. The conclusion, in my view, is that in a straight fight between Carole James against a Carole Taylor or Dianne Watts, without a viable third party in the race, the NDP will lose. With a viable third party -- and the key word is viable, the Liberals have a good chance of winning in spite of their brutal record.

Let's go back to Randy White and the Conservatives. The first question is how do they position themselves to the left of the Liberals which is where they must be to have any hope of achieving any electoral success?

How does Randy White build a team, especially when history tells us that any new party attracts the eccentric, to put it mildly? I see no evidence that White himself has any personal charisma and there's no evidence that any such people are lining up to support his party.

How does he raise any serious money? The business community will look for the best prospect of a friendly government and will support the Liberals, especially if they have a leader who can dissociate themselves from the mess Campbell leaves. The unpalatable truth is that you need money, and lots of it, to fight in all constituencies.

Perhaps White's most serious problem will be to cut loose from the national party while looking to members of that party for funds. Funding problems also exist, big time, for a new party.

Too soon to place wagers

Most of the forgoing has Gordon Campbell leaving before 2013 and that's not certain, for many reasons the major one being that leaders who don't want to go are very hard to dislodge. By 1988, Bill Vander Zalm had become a very unpopular leader of the Social Credit Party and the dissidents wanted to turf him out at the annual conference that year held in Penticton. The knives were out and there was provision in the constitution to remove a leader in a secret ballot. The backroom weasels moved a motion that whether or not there had to be an open vote to do so before any secret leadership vote could be taken! Vander Zalm stayed. Likewise, if Campbell wants to stay, he'll probably stay creating the same sort of divisions in the party that faced the Socreds after Vander Zalm left.

The NDP face a similar problem although they are so fractured at the best of times that they're more used to it. As long as James'es numbers stay high, her supporters, especially party president Moe Sihota, will probably fight her fight successfully.

It's all so like a horse race; who has the best post position? What shape will the track be in, fast, muddy or maybe sloppy? How good is the manager, namely the jockey? And what about the campaign committee, the trainer, the veterinarian, the grooms?

As we ponder our betting options, my wager is that we'll know a lot more about the race by this time next year.  [Tyee]

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