Opinion

Retirement Season for BC Liberals

Clark's MLAs line up for gold watches before time runs out. Who's likely next?

By Bill Tieleman 17 Jul 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him here or visit his blog.

"Retirement may be looked upon either as a prolonged holiday or as a rejection, a being thrown on to the scrap heap." -- Simone de Beauvoir, 1908-1986

BC Liberal MLAs are quickly lining up for a retirement gold watch before time runs out on their party.

And as polls show Premier Christy Clark's government has just half the support ex-premier Gordon Campbell achieved in the 2009 election, it's no wonder many would rather step down than be stomped on by voters.

Last week Murray Coell became the eighth BC Liberal MLA to announce they won't run again in next May's provincial election and it's no wonder -- the ex-cabinet minister discarded to the back bench by Clark only won his Saanich North and the Islands seat with 258 votes more than the New Democratic Party.

So with the BC Liberals at just 23 per cent in last week's Angus Reid Public Opinion poll, which other seats are most likely turnovers to the NDP at 45 per cent or even the BC Conservatives, who are threatening at 22 per cent?

Or will any join Abbotsford South MLA John van Dongen and quit the BC Liberals to join the BC Conservatives?

BC Liberal campaign director Mike McDonald told media last week he expects about a third of the 46 BC Liberal MLAs will pack it in.

While some MLAs may just be tired after years in office and others tired of Clark, an analysis of BC Liberal ridings shows many will go NDP, barring a dramatic reversal of fortune.

Earthquake coming

The BC Liberals took 46 per cent of the vote in 2009 versus the BC New Democrats' 42 per cent, the Green Party's eight per cent and the BC Conservatives' two per cent.

Even a substantial improvement boosting the BC Liberals by 12 points to 35 per cent in the election would still mean a stunning loss of seats, with any MLA who won by 10 per cent or less over their opponent likely to be defeated.

Take the 1991 election, when the NDP under Mike Harcourt took 41 per cent of the vote and 51 of 75 seats in the B.C. legislature, the fledgling BC Liberals had 33 per cent and 17 seats and the governing Social Credit held just 24 per cent and only seven seats.

A political earthquake of similar or greater magnitude approaches, unless voters dramatically change their opinion of Clark and her party.

In the Lower Mainland, BC Liberal MLA Marc Dalton in Maple Ridge-Mission has to be the most nervous of all.

Dalton won by 68 votes, or a razor-thin 45.7 per cent to 45.4 per cent of the popular vote.*

Burnaby North MLA Richard T. Lee's 548 vote margin -- or less than three per cent -- won't hold up, nor will Vancouver-Fairview MLA and Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid's 1,153 ballot advantage -- or under five per cent.

Tellingly, Burnaby-Lougheed MLA Harry Bloy already announced his retirement in a riding where the politically accident-prone ex-cabinet minister only won by 696 votes, or less than four per cent.

In Vancouver-Fraserview, controversial MLA Kash Heed is cashing out, seeing his 748 vote margin, under four per cent, unlikely to allow re-election -- not to mention his 2009 campaign being fined thousands for overspending Elections BC limits.

Surrey-Tynehead MLA Dave Hayer also called it quits this month, in a riding he held in 2009 by less than 10 per cent, with a 1,557 vote margin.

Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett had the slimmest victory margins of any B.C. Liberal in 2009 -- just 88 votes over the NDP. Her chances of surviving the next election look equally slim.

Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA Ida Chong won narrowly in 2009 by 561 votes or just over two per cent and then survived a recall campaign as well in 2011, but with the BC Liberal tide going out, is unlikely to be returned.

Kamloops-North Thompson is a classic weathervane riding for B.C. elections, with the party that wins there triumphing in the province for decades.

And the BC Liberals' Terry Lake did just that in 2009 by 510 votes or less than three per cent.

But Lake took 47 per cent of the ballots then while the B.C. Liberals had 46 per cent support provincially -- if they are at 35 per cent or less, Lake's chances will run dry.

Comox-Valley MLA Don McRae won his rookie campaign in another frequent swing riding with a 1,378 vote margin over the NDP, a less than five per cent gap with 47.3 per cent of the vote. Cut BC Liberal support provincially and the swing goes against McRae.

Greens, Cons and vote splits

And which BC Liberal MLA has the most at stake in a close race?

Premier Christy Clark herself, who narrowly eked out a 594 vote win in the Vancouver-Point Grey by-election last May -- under four per cent of the ballots cast.

Just one BC Liberal has gone in the other direction, committing to run again in 2013 -- Vancouver-Langara MLA Moira Stilwell, who enjoyed a 24 per cent margin of 4,275 votes.

But even Stilwell's strong position isn't enough to deter former Vancouver city councillor George Chow from expressing interest in running against her for the NDP.

The other big factor for BC Liberal MLAs undecided about running again is what impact two other parties will have on the election -- the BC Conservatives and the Green Party.

Most political observers tag the Green Party as taking away more votes from the NDP than any other party -- and some New Democrats blame their vote for twice re-electing the BC Liberals.

But while the Greens have been nearly invisible under leader Jane Sterk, they still poll eight per cent in the Angus Reid survey -- the same tally they got in the 2009 election.

The BC Conservatives, on the other hand, are clearly taking away many former BC Liberal votes and unlike 2009, they will likely be running far more than the 24 candidates who contested the election out of 85 possible ridings.

BC Conservative Leader John Cummins is hoping his party will actually leapfrog past Clark's team into second place just as unelected former BC Liberal leader Gordon Wilson did in 1991 over another fading woman premier -- Social Credit's Rita Johnson, who replaced Bill Vander Zalm.

(In an ironic footnote, Johnson is now a big supporter of the BC Conservatives and attended their annual general meeting in 2010.)

Cummins should not be underestimated, having re-energized a nearly dormant party into one consistently polling in the 20 per cent range, and within spitting distance of the flagging BC Liberals.

Should Clark make yet more fumbles along the way to the election, a decent campaign from the BC Conservatives could indeed let them vault past the governing party and might also take seats the BC NDP now hopes to win.

Regardless of Cummins' chances, his party has rejected all overtures from the BC Liberals and their big business funders like Canaccord Capital's Peter Brown to fold their tent into one big happy "free enterprise" family.

The political mood of the province seems increasingly clearly set against the BC Liberals having any hope of a fourth term of office.

And that means Premier Christy Clark will be attending a lot of MLA retirement parties soon -- including possibly her own.

*Note: An earlier version of this article stated 532 votes instead of 68. The Tyee regrets the error.  [Tyee]

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