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How Bad for Liberals Was Surrey Loss?

Dismally bad is the answer. The worst defeat in a government-held riding in fifteen years, in fact.

By Will McMartin 2 Nov 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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The October 28 by-election loss in Surrey-Panorama Ridge for Gordon Campbell's B.C. Liberals was one of the worst mid-term performances in recent memory by a governing party in a government-held riding. (Sitting governments have almost no hope of winning by-elections in opposition-held electoral districts, but historically have been competitive, and occasionally successful, in ridings which they captured in the preceding general election.)

The key indicator of the B.C. Liberals' dismal showing was their stunning decline in ballots. They garnered 9,560 votes in Surrey-Panorama Ridge in the 2001 general election, but plummetted to an abysmal 4,160 in the by-election. Nearly six of every 10 former B.C. Liberal backers abandoned the party either by not voting, or voting for a different party.

In holding just 43.4 percent of their general election supporters, the B.C. Liberal's by-election setback compares unfavourably to all but one of the governing-party losses over the past two decades.

Earlier thumpings

Bill Vander Zalm's Social Credit administration lost its Oak Bay-Gordon Head seat in a 1989 by-election, but nonetheless held onto 75.3 percent of their vote from the 1986 general election (10,340 votes compared to 13,735). Three months earlier, the Socreds could not hold a government seat in Cariboo, but managed to save 63.7 percent of their general election tally (9,292 of 14,594).

Bill Bennett's Socreds forfeited a government seat in a 1984 Okanagan North by-election, but held 60.8 percent of their general election voters (8,303 of 13,647). In 1988, Vander Zalm's government lost its seat in Boundary-Similkameen, but nonetheless kept 58.1 percent of its supporters onside (10,585 of 18,204).

The only worse by-election defeat in a government-held riding occurred in March 1989 in Vancouver-Point Grey. There, Vander Zalm's Socreds retained a meagre 32.6 percent of their 1986 vote (6,435 of 19,716).

Less popular than assumed?

Numerous factors might explain the Campbell government's reverse on October 28. It may be that with an abnormally-high popular vote in the 2001 general election -- 57.6 percent province-wide and 58.9 percent in Surrey-Panorama Ridge -- the B.C. Liberals had further to fall than previous governments and merely are returning to a more-reasonable level of mid-term support.

Then again, with just 33.4 percent of the vote in Surrey-Panorama Ridge, it might be that the B.C. Liberals are even less popular than is suggested by province-wide public opinion polls. Over the past year or so, most surveys have placed them in the low 40s.

Also to be considered is the largely-anecdotal accounts suggesting that the riding's sizeable Indo-Canadian community backed B.C. Liberal Gulzar Cheema in 2001, but swung behind New Democrat Jagrup Brar in the by-election.

Whatever the cause, the by-election debacle in Surrey-Panorama Ridge is certain to alarm the B.C. Liberals and their supporters in the business community as the 2005 general election looms on the horizon. A New Democratic Party victory now has gone from being nearly impossible, to just unlikely.

Carr couldn't replicate Wilson

Social Credit's mid-term defeat in Vancouver-Point Grey was noteworthy for the strong showing by Gordon Wilson, then leader of the provincial Liberals. He finished third with 20.4 percent of the popular vote, well short of New Democrat victor Tom Perry's 52.9 percent, but close behind the Socred candidate's 24.1 percent.

There are many similarities between Wilson's 1989 effort in Point Grey and Green leader Adriane Carr's 2004 performance in Surrey-Panorama Ridge. Wilson then, as Carr is now, was the head of a minor political party without representation in the legislature. Both parachuted into a lower mainland riding from the Powell River-Sunshine Coast electoral district. In the preceding general election, each ran in their home riding and each had finished third.

With the benefit of hindsight, the Point Grey result can be seen as a precursor to the phenomenal success in the 1991 general election Wilson and his Liberals had when they won 17 seats and formed the Official Opposition. The breakthrough occurred largely because Wilson's Liberals provided a safe haven for disaffected Socreds seeking an alternative to the increasingly-unpopular Vander Zalm -- a result which was foreshadowed earlier in Point Grey.

Carr must have envisioned a similar scenario when she entered the Surrey-Panorama Ridge contest. But where Wilson in Point Grey enhanced his party's popular-vote share to more than one-in-every-five ballots, Carr barely matched her Green party predecessor's 2001 mark of fewer than one-in-eleven.

Today there are legions of voters unhappy with Gordon Campbell and his government, but the October 28 by-election offers no hint that disillusioned B.C. Liberal supporters will seek refuge with Carr and the Greens. Should the Green party continue to be unable to attract disaffected Campbell Liberals, it will remain a minor player on B.C.'s political stage.

What NDP must do to win

Although Gordon Campbell and his B.C. Liberals received 57.6 percent of the popular vote in the 2001 general election, their vote-share in individual constituencies ranged from a high of 77.6 percent in Peace River North, to a low of 33.2 percent in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant.

It is evident that there is significant variation in government support across the province's 79 electoral districts.

Given that variation, and that public opinion polls currently place the government in the low 40s province-wide, it seems likely that voter support for the Campbell Liberals in various ridings ranges from the 60s down to the 20s. The former should be easy for the government to retain; the latter will be impossible to hold. Many more ridings are in the middle, and will be hotly contested.

Discerning which ridings are which is one of the biggest challenges facing strategists for both major parties heading into the general election. Scarce resources such as experienced campaign managers and tireless volunteers must be allocated to districts which are neither too easy, nor impossible, to win.

In 2001, three seats were captured by the B.C. Liberals with a vote-share of 35-40 percent: Victoria-Beacon Hill (Jeff Bray, 37.2 percent), Victoria-Hillside (Sheila Orr, 37.7 percent), and Nelson-Creston (Blair Suffredine, 39 percent).

They won another 14 with between 40-50 percent of the vote: Surrey-Whalley (Elayne Brenzinger, 41.8 percent), Malahat-Juan de Fuca (Brian Kerr, 42.3 percent), Powell River-Sunshine Coast (Harold Long, 42.4 percent), Nanaimo (Mike Hunter, 44.6 percent), Port Coquitlam-Burke Mountain (Karn Manhas, 45.2 percent), North Coast (Bill Belsey, 45.3 percent), Esquimalt-Metchosin (Arnie Hamilton, 45.8 percent), Vancouver-Kensington (Patrick Wong, 47.6 percent), Vancouver-Burrard (Lorne Mayencourt, 48.1 percent), Surrey-Green Timbers (Brenda Locke, 49 percent), New Westminster (Joyce Murray, 49.2 percent), Surrey-Newton (Tony Bhullar, 49.5 percent), West Kootenay-Boundary (Sandy Santori, 49.7 percent) and Vancouver-Kingsway (Rob Nijjar, 49.9 percent).

Most, if not all, of these 17 ridings should fall to the New Democrats in 2005. But combined with the two seats they already hold (Joy MacPhail's Vancouver-Hastings and Jenny Kwan's Vancouver-Mount Pleasant) these new acquisitions still leave the NDP with fewer than half of the 40 seats needed to form a majority government.

This means that New Democratic Party strategists, if their intent is to win a majority of seats, must target those districts which the B.C. Liberals won with more than half of the vote in 2001. These include nine ridings won with 50-55 percent of the popular vote, 16 with 55-60 percent, another 16 with 60-65 percent, nine more with 65-70 percent, and eight with 70 percent-plus.

For argument's sake, let us concede to the NDP all of the seats which Campbell's Liberals won with less than 55 percent. The total is 28, still a dozen short of the 40 required for a majority in the legislature. If they are to have any hope of defeating the government in 2005, the New Democrats must win at least 12 of the 16 seats the B.C. Liberals won with between 55-60 percent of the vote.

Thus it should be clear why the by-election in Surrey-Panorama Ridge -- won by Gulzar Cheema with 58.9 percent in 2001 -- was so vital to the New Democrats' 2005 electoral prospects. If they had fallen short, the NDP would have been hard-pressed to plausibly claim that they could compete in the minimum 40 ridings needed to win. Now, with a dominating by-election victory under their belts, that claim is undeniable.

Will McMartin a former Socred advisor and political consultant, is a member of CBC Radio's "Early Edition" political panel and writes a regular column for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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