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Opinion

How Christy Got to Front of Line

Between bites of crow, our pundit maps Clark's win, and some challenges she faces.

By Will McMartin 28 Feb 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Tyee contributing editor Will McMartin is a veteran political advisor and analyst. Read his previous columns here.

Waiter, what would you recommend as a side dish for my crow?

Yes, it's time for a mea culpa, a confession of failure. Forgive me, Tyee readers, for I messed up.

Last Friday, I wrote that either George Abbott or Kevin Falcon was more likely to win the BC Liberal leadership than media-darling Christy Clark. On Saturday afternoon, of course, I was proved wrong as BC Liberal members selected Clark as their new leader.

Abbott, after Mike de Jong had been removed following the first round of ballot counting, was eliminated once the second round was completed. Falcon then lost the head-to-head third round count to Clark, finishing with 4,080 votes to the victor's 4,420.

Misery loves company, so I'll quickly add that I was not alone. For one of the rare times in the last decade, I found myself in agreement with the overwhelming majority of BC Liberal MLAs -- all of whom, but one (Harry Bloy), backed a candidate other than Christy.

And it wasn't only the BC Liberal caucus that failed to see Clark as the putative victor. Also incorrect were the handful of number-crunching pundits who dared to put pen to paper and disseminated their pre-election analyses for all to see on the web. (See here, here and here.)

So, what happened? How is it that BC Liberal members elected as their new leader someone:

- Who abandoned the party caucus six years ago;

- Whose record in government was untarnished either by success or notable achievement;

- Who is manifestly unfamiliar with the more substantive details of public policy;

- Who alienated the province's business community during the leadership contest by promising an employer-paid statutory holiday (Family Day) and being generally unenthusiastic about the HST;

- Who seems likely to foment a Liberal-Conservative split on the political right?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but how could the BC Liberals choose as their new leader a bubble-brain quitter who threatens their party's very survival?

The simplest explanation is that while both Abbott and Falcon had pockets of strength across the province, Clark was strong everywhere, in every region.

She finished on top in an eye-popping 50 electoral districts, was runner-up in another 31, and a solid third in the remaining four. By comparison, Falcon gained a plurality in a mere 18 ridings; Abbott led in a disappointing 16; and Mike de Jong prevailed in just one.

Here's a look at how the individual candidates performed on Saturday.

De Jong took a single riding -- not his own

With just 789 out of 8,500 weighted ballots, Mike de Jong was last after the first round of ballot-counting. His candidacy had garnered support from not a single member of the BC Liberal caucus.

The Fraser Valley Liberal managed to eke out a victory in a single riding, Abbotsford South, which, interestingly, is not his own. Next door, in Abbotsford West, de Jong's electoral home for the last 17 years, he ended up four-tenths of a percentage point behind Clark.

De Jong obtained just 9.3 per cent of all first round ballots across the province, but did slightly better than that (13 per cent plus) in two regions -- the Fraser Valley and North-Central Surrey/Delta -- where his campaign had recruited large numbers of South Asian voters.

He also did surprisingly well in Vancouver, taking more than 12 per cent of all first-round ballots, but elsewhere his support was mired in the single digits.

The biggest surprise of de Jong's campaign might be his supporters' second round choices. Given that his strength lay in the Fraser Valley and Surrey, it was expected that first round de Jong voters would favour Falcon as their second choice, but such was not the case.

Instead, Clark got nearly one of every two de Jong second votes (366 out of 789), while Abbott took one of three (270), and Falcon trailed badly with fewer than one in five (153).

It's fair to say that de Jong's second ballot choices were essential to putting Clark within hailing distance of victory on the final count.

Abbott dominated Interior, not much else

The only leadership candidate from the Interior, George Abbott garnered more than 900 first round ballots from the North, Thompson, Okanagan and Kootenay regions -- or about two of every five votes cast north and east of the Lower Mainland.

That performance ought to have provided the long-serving Health minister with a solid foundation on which to grow in future rounds of ballot-counting, but it was not to be. The rest of the province added fewer than 1,200 first-round votes to his Interior base.

Abbott's hopes of becoming the first non-Lower Mainland premier since Bill Bennett (1975-1986) were dashed when he finished third on both the first and second counts -- with 2,091 votes on the former, and 2,361 on the latter.

Interestingly, Abbott did relatively well on the North Shore and Vancouver Island, where he took one in every four first round ballots, but elsewhere the results were dismal. He captured between 10 and 20 per cent of the vote in Richmond, Fraser North, Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, and fared even worse in North-Central Surrey, with less than five per cent.

The inescapable conclusion is that part of the reason for Abbott's third place finish was that he was unsuccessful in signing up significant numbers of new BC Liberal members from the Indo-Canadian community -- or from any other community, for that matter.

In the course of the contest, Abbott obtained 20 endorsements from fellow BC Liberal caucus members, and half were able to deliver a plurality in their constituency -- Barnett, Coell, Foster, Hogg, Krueger, Lake, Letnick, McRae, Rustad and Thomson.

The other half did not -- Hawes, Heed, Lee, McNeil, Slater, Stilwell, Sultan, Thornthwaite, van Dongen, and Yamamoto.

Falcon: little to show for big budget

Kevin Falcon went into Saturday's leadership contest with numerous advantages over his rivals. One was his support from B.C.'s business community, which contributed a whopping $709,000 to his campaign war chest. Another was a coterie of close friends from his days at Simon Fraser University, many playing key roles on his leadership team.

Plus, Falcon has solid federal Conservative ties (in a province that tilts noticeably to the Tories), and is generally considered (on the ideological scale) to be quite a distance to the political right.

But perhaps Falcon's biggest asset was his five-year tenure as minister of Transportation. For in a province as large and far-flung as British Columbia, a cabinet minister with the power to dispense road building funds gets to know all of the politicos and supplicants from Cranbrook to Fort Nelson, and from Victoria to Atlin.

On paper, Falcon had a solid geographic base in his hometown of Surrey; ideological empathy with Fraser Valley residents; connections to business interests in Vancouver and the North Shore; and transportation contacts in all four corners of the province. What could go wrong?

Not much went right. In the province's 24 Interior ridings, Falcon gained a first ballot plurality in just three, and was runner-up in a mere four more. In his Fraser Valley-Surrey home base, he captured only six of 17 ridings on the first count.

In the remaining 29 ridings across the Lower Mainland -- stretching from Vancouver, Richmond and the North Shore, through Burnaby, New Westminster, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody, to Maple Ridge and Mission -- he had a first ballot plurality in a mere seven. And of 15 electoral districts in the Vancouver Island-Coast region, Falcon led in two.

Shockingly, on the second ballot count, he picked up just 153 second round votes from Mike de Jong's 789 first count supporters. That meant he entered the third and final ballot count needing nearly three of every four of Abbott's second picks to prevail over Clark.

After taking 2,411 votes on the first count, Falcon rose almost imperceptibly to 2,564 on the second, and finished with 4,080 -- 171 short of victory -- on the third.

The cabinet veteran had 19 endorsements going into Saturday's contest, and 13 were able to deliver their riding -- Black, Bell, Bond, Coleman, Hansen, Hayer, Howard, Les, Pimm, Polak, McIntyre, Stewart and Yap. The six unsuccessful backers were Chong, Cadieux, Cantelon, Dalton, Horne and MacDiarmid.

Christy has widespread support, with pockets of worry

As expected, Christy Clark enjoyed considerable support in Vancouver (39.5 per cent of first-round ballots), North-Central Surrey (43.5 per cent) and her old-stomping grounds in Fraser North (44.1 per cent).

What was not expected was her impressive showing in the Interior, Fraser Valley, Richmond and the North Shore (between 30 and 35 per cent in each), plus a stunning 46.5 per cent on Vancouver Island.

In just two B.C. regions did Clark fail to surpass the 30 per cent threshold -- the Kootenays (28.5 per cent) and Abbott's home base of Thompson-Coquihalla (27.9 per cent) -- but in both her performance was considerably better than that of Falcon and de Jong.

Put another way, Clark can boast of manifest strength across the province. And that will do much to solidify her position as newly-elected leader of the BC Liberals, even though her candidacy was supported by just a solitary caucus backbencher.

That said, two concerns might be gleaned from the leadership election entrails. First, while Clark prevailed in 50 electoral districts in all regions across the province, the vast majority of her wins were in ridings held by the New Democratic Party -- 32 of 35 NDP seats -- with another one in Independently-held Delta South.

In the 49 seats won by the BC Liberals in 2009, Clark was dominant in a mere 17.

The weighted vote results reflect that disparity, as the new party leader took 43 per cent of the first round ballots in NDP-held ridings, but only 33.9 per cent in BC Liberal constituencies.

In other words, Clark appears to have to do some fence-mending with BC Liberal supporters who remain skeptical of her leadership.

Second, it may take a while for business interests to warm to the new BC Liberal leader. In three electoral districts where prominent business leaders reside -- West Vancouver-Capilano, Vancouver-Quilchena and Vancouver-Point Grey -- Falcon, the pick of B.C.'s business representatives, led Clark by a healthy margin.

All will be roses in the early days, however, as the new leader is sworn in as premier, selects a new Executive Council, seeks a legislative seat in a byelection, decides whether to introduce a new budget, and mulls the possibilities of a snap election.

Which means there will be lots of work for pundits in the coming weeks -- even those who make the occasional (and blatant) error.

Now, let's try to make this crow a little more palatable. Fricassee, anyone?  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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