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Opinion

Cummins' Conservatives Could Destroy BC Libs

Why the Tory factor gives Clark's party reason to fear for its life.

By Rafe Mair 26 Dec 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Rafe Mair writes a column for The Tyee every second Monday. Read his previous columns here. He is also a founding contributor to The Common Sense Canadian.

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Super spoiler? John Cummins, leader of the BC Conservatives.

It's no longer beginning to look like Christmas but it sure as hell looks like 1991 on the political front. It's not the same, of course, for that's the year Gordon Wilson, leader of a fledgling BC Liberal party, became a factor in the election by making an idiotic crack during the debate. Pointing to a skirmish between NDP Mike Harcourt and Premier Rita Johnston, Wilson said "that's why nothing gets done around here," and voters responded.

That election, which saw the ruling Socreds reduced to seven MLAs, later to morph into four Reformers, killed the Socreds and began the split of right and left that has continued to this day. The election of 1996 should have done in all but the two major parties, the Liberals and the NDP, but Campbell managed to screw it up so that the Reform vote lingered, split the vote, and the NDP under Glen Clark pulled off a minor miracle.

Redemption for the BC Liberals came in 2001 when Campbell and Co. won all but two seats. B.C. has seen pretty much two party action to this date. But is 1991 rearing its interesting head for 2013?

It has all the ingredients. In 1991, British Columbia had an unpopular government, Social Credit, led by an unpopular premier, Bill Vander Zalm. While Vander Zalm had resigned on April 2, 1991, Johnston his replacement took the hit. The new political force in 1991 that changed the game was Gordon Wilson and his brand new party. The Gordon Wilson of today is John Cummins, leader of the BC Conservatives.

Some will note that Cummins represents the "right" wing while Wilson represented the middle. Remember, however, that in each case the new kid was or is talking like Socreds, trying to capture a segment of voters that are hesitant to vote NDP. That broad coalition of social conservative populists, free-market faithfuls and business elites held together as Socreds under Bennett I and Bennett II. The real difference between Wilson and Cummins is that Wilson was really Social Credit seeking a workable alias and Cummins is in fact right wing, socially and in the pro-corporate sense. About that, no arguments -- especially now that Cummins is supporting the Enbridge pipeline.

And this is what faces Cummins. The Socreds disappeared 25 years ago, but the sort of people that liked rule by Bennetts are still around and are joined by a new large bloc of voters who may not even have heard of Social Credit, yet still want something like that in office.

It's this that really brings out the Liberal worry beads. In a straight fight in 2013, they would have trouble enough but with a third party in the picture, the Liberals are not looking for an even fight but to salvage their political lives. The Campbell/Clark bunch looks less like the federal Liberals we have come to know, but Stephen Harper clones.

Who's in the middle?

While that comparison to Harper's Tories comes from my political tummy, here is why I don't believe the BC Liberals have much claim to the middle anymore. Consider the "we hate public corporations" philosophy of the Campbell/Clark crowd. In addition to being lousy shepherds of our money, they have given away BC Ferries (although we still subsidize them), BC Rail and have bankrupted BC Hydro. This moves them dramatically away from the Socred middle of the road, populist philosophy and directly into Fraser Institute right-wing territory. Thus the BC Liberals have positioned themselves into a direct fight with the Conservatives for the right-wing vote.

If the NDP had stayed tenaciously on the left, that would be of some value, but they haven't. Starting with Carole James and now with Adrian Dix, they have moved dramatically into the centre. Many will not trust the NDP, remembering the 1990s when they held government. But lots of British Columbians will understand that whatever sins the NDP committed during their reign, those were nothing compared to what the Liberals have done. Cummins and the Tories will force the Liberals to the right and create a vacuum in the centre that the NDP will attempt to fill.

The Campbell/Clark government does, however, have an important ally -- the mainstream media and the Black Press community papers. The op-ed pages and letters to the editor will continue to be slanted clearly in favour of the Liberals. Consider that the Vancouver Sun's editorial page editor, Fazil Mihlar, worked for the Fraser Institute, relentless booster of business interests, where, says the Fraser Institute website Mihlar "directed the regulatory studies program." That was after Mihlar was a public relations manager for one of Canada's biggest banks, according to the same website.

The slaughter scenario

The question now is how much impact John Cummins and his BC Tories will have on the BC Liberal vote. Even though some of his votes -- like in Delta where he'll likely run against Independent Vicki Huntington -- will be wasted in the overall vote, I suspect that they won't win many, or any, seats. But they can have a huge impact on what the Brits call the "marginals."

Although it's long ago, a trip back to the 1970s reminds that no political situation lasts -- but if you wait long enough it will recur.

In 1972, the BC Conservatives took nearly 30 per cent of the vote and the Dave Barrett NDP with 39 per cent had a near landslide.

In 1975, the Liberals and Tories garnered a shade over 10 per cent, the NDP again got 39 per cent and the Socreds who got the rest, at 49 per cent won the landslide.

You needn't be a master of mathematics to see what happens in B.C. when third parties do well.

Is it still the same way today?

I think it is. There are three schools of thought among voters -- Left, Right and a "pox on both your houses."

Things are different, of course. There is a bigger "ethnic vote" but it seems to break out in the usual division, especially if it's ethnic versus ethnic.

There is the Green vote, which may have an impact now that they've won a seat in Parliament and a seat on Vancouver City Council. I admit to being probably a closet Green. Alas, environmentalists, even if they distrust the NDP, will see them as the only way to stop the corporative takeover of our land and resources.

Eighteen months is a long time and a lot can happen. No point in asking the "If an election was held tomorrow" question. That is quickly answered, "It isn't going to happen tomorrow."

There comes a time when a government's debits so outnumber its credits that nothing will save it. That was the case with the NDP in 2001. And I believe that will determine the fate of the BC Liberals in 2013.

And if the Conservatives do well in the "marginals," the Liberals will be slaughtered.  [Tyee]

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