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Opinion

Could Premier Clark Go from Safe to Sorry in Kelowna's Byelection?

It's a long shot, but recent events suggest she could botch it.

By Bill Tieleman 25 Jun 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist and regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. Email him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

"History is not on the government's side when it comes to byelections. The only byelection that government has won in 30 years was the one that I won in Vancouver-Point Grey." -- Premier Christy Clark, April 12, 2012

Could Christy Clark possibly lose the July 10 byelection in the very safe BC Liberal seat of Westside-Kelowna?

The odds are overwhelmingly in favour of the premier, but pushing incumbent MLA Ben Stewart out certainly didn't help.

Stewart hasn't publicly complained about his treatment, but his wife Ruth certainly did on Facebook, saying she was "angry and hurt" about the "unfair" decision affecting her husband, Black Press columnist Tom Fletcher reported.

She removed the post later, but said she didn't "need to apologize" and that there was "no use hanging onto the negative..."

Stewart himself admitted that Clark accepting his offer to resign for her was "disappointing at the start" but he is "excited about the next 28 days."

An examination of both local circumstances and B.C. byelection political history -- as Clark herself pointed out -- is enough to give the battered BC NDP at least a faint hope clause of a chance.

First the numbers: Stewart was re-elected May 14 with 58.4 per cent of the vote to NDP challenger Carole Gordon's 30.5 per cent and BC Conservative candidate Brian Guillou's 11 per cent.

Stewart's 12,987 votes almost doubled Gordon's 6,790 and even if all Guillou's 2,172 voters had gone NDP instead, the BC Liberals would still have easily won.

Game over already? Not quite.

Bygone byelections

Byelections aren't general elections. They almost always mean lower voter turnout, focus more on local issues and are often seen as a safe opportunity to send the government a negative message without tossing them out of power.

The turnout in Westside-Kelowna was 49.6 per cent of the 44,830 registered voters. That means if the turnout dropped to 30 per cent in the byelection -- or 13,449 total votes -- and the NDP held its 6,790 votes, it would win.

And what was the turnout in the upset NDP win in April 2012 the Chilliwack-Hope byelection? Thirty-two per cent.

There's also a scary precedent of a provincial representative quitting to let their leader have the seat and then seeing them lose.

Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory did just that in 2009, albeit as opposition leader, but Member of the Provincial Parliament Laurie Scott's 10,000 vote majority in 2007 disappeared for Tory and turned into a 900 vote loss.

So is a stunning loss likely? No. Possible? Enough to worry Clark.

After all, voters in Vancouver-Point Grey obviously were not that impressed with Clark's local representation, turfing her out after two years as MLA in favour of the NDP's David Eby, who won by 1,063 votes.

Eby has outlined the major factors for his victory -- Clark's position on pipelines, a focus on riding issues and his strong on the ground campaign.

Clark refused to debate Eby during the election and apparently won't debate Gordon either, leaving her open to allegations of arrogance or indifference.

Then there's the fact that Clark never lived in Vancouver-Point Grey, something she will repeat in Westside-Kelowna, though she has promised to establish a "second residence" there.

Meanwhile Clark's main opponent Gordon is a 40-year Kelowna resident, local teacher and director of the United Way, and new BC Conservative candidate Sean Upshaw is a Kelowna realtor. There are five other contenders.

Are you the betting kind?

BC Liberal strategists are concerned enough about Clark's potential for electoral disaster that the premier painfully reversed course on her plan to give political staffers a big pay raise as the new government's first order of business.

Those salary hikes flew out the Westside-Kelowna window, but Clark's deputy chief of staff Michele Cadario will still keep her $20,000 increase.

BC Liberal advisors will be exceedingly anxious about all political issues -- like the $300-a-year wheelchair "maintenance" fee being imposed on seniors in residential care detailed previously in this column -- and the potential for backlash against Clark.

Gordon has already challenged Clark to cancel the fee, which is scheduled to come into effect Sept. 1.

There's also the popularity standard set by Stewart, whose 58.4 per cent win last month was an increased majority over his 2009 win, when he received 53 per cent.

Clark only needs to win by a single vote to return to the B.C. Legislature, but a significantly diminished margin of victory after losing Vancouver-Point Grey would be embarrassing at least.

And even a loss wouldn't force Clark out of the premiership, though it would cause a panic in BC Liberal ranks and force the resignation of another BC Liberal MLA in an even safer seat to give way.

Any betting person would put big money on Clark to win handily and the Westside-Kelowna byelection to be soon forgotten.

But anyone who's been to a horse-racing track know that sometimes a long shot wins against all odds. And B.C. politics has a history of surprising upsets.

On a different note, over 200 people have joined my new Facebook group Wheelchairs for BC Seniors, calling on the government to not impose $300 a year "maintenance" fees on seniors in residential care. Thanks!  [Tyee]

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