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Trudeau's Ghost Haunts BC

Liberals still fighting the backlash he caused.

Will McMartin 15 Dec 2005TheTyee.ca
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Liberal party strategists claim - and at least a few members of the news media seem to believe - that British Columbia voters will play a decisive role in Paul Martin's re-election as prime minister on January 23.

The Grits argue that many of BC's 36 federal electoral districts will see closely-fought battles between Liberal, Conservative and NDP candidates. If the popular vote in these three-cornered tilts "splits" in their favour, Martin's Liberals - who took eight BC seats in 2004 - might reach double digits this time.

These hoped-for west-coast gains would offset anticipated losses in Quebec (attributable to the Gomery scandal), and enable Martin to retain his minority in the Commons.

That optimistic scenario, however, ignores British Columbia's electoral history, and the enduring legacy of former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The Liberal party became extremely unpopular with B.C. voters during Trudeau's 15-year tenure in office (1968-1979, 1980-1984), and a deep-rooted antipathy for the party has smoldered ever since.

A scenario whereby B.C. provides the necessary seats for Martin to save his job seems, at best, unlikely.

Before Trudeaumania

In the 10 federal general elections preceding 1968 - over a period from 1935, (which marked the first appearance of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, forerunner of the New Democratic Party) to 1965 - B.C. seats and votes were equally distributed between the Liberals, Progressive Conservatives and CCF-NDP.

The three major parties won a near-identical number of B.C. seats during that stretch: the Grits captured 60, the Tories took 58, and the CCF-NDP snared 57.

Twice, the Grits won a majority of B.C. ridings (in 1940 and 1949) and twice more captured a plurality (1935 and 1953). The party's sole shutout in British Columbia occurred in 1958, when John Diefenbaker led the Progressive Conservatives to a massive majority in the House of Commons.

The Tories usually won between three and seven BC seats in elections before Diefenbaker led them to a giddy 18 in 1958. That lofty level was short-lived, however, as the party returned to single digits in 1962 when Diefenbaker was reduced to a minority administration, and again in 1963 and 1965 when he ended up on the opposition benches.

The CCF took between one and four B.C. seats in general elections from 1935 to 1949, and then climbed to seven in 1953 and 1957 before falling back to four in the Diefenbaker sweep.

Change was in order, and in 1961 a political marriage with the Canadian Labour Congress led to the formation of the New Democratic Party. That move proved especially popular in British Columbia, as the NDP soared to 10 B.C. seats in 1962 and nine in both 1963 and 1965.

The three major parties also were relatively equal in terms of popular vote over the 1935-1965 period: the Liberals and CCF-NDP both averaged slightly more than 29 percent, followed closely by the Tories at 28 percent.

1968 and Trudeaumania

Pierre Trudeau became Liberal leader in 1968 and quickly took his party to its first majority victory since 1953.

'Trudeaumania', however, was something less than a nationwide phenomenon. In Atlantic Canada, home to Diefenbaker's successor Robert Stanfield, the Liberals actually dropped eight seats, and in Quebec, Trudeau's domicile, they lost another.

It was amongst anglophones in central and western Canada that Trudeau enjoyed his warmest reception. The Grits picked up 13 seats in Ontario, 10 on the prairies, and nine in British Columbia.

But close examination shows that BC support for Trudeau was less than overwhelming. Although the Liberals won 16 of the province's 23 seats, it was with support from just two of every five voters (41.8 percent).

The New Democrats dropped three BC seats to hold seven; the Tories were blanked.

The Trudeau legacy in the 1980s

Four years later, disillusioned Canadian voters reduced Trudeau and the Liberals to a minority with 109 Commons seats, while Stanfield and the Tories were close behind at 107.

The Grits lost three-quarters of their BC seats and held just four, as their vote-share tumbled to 28 percent. The New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives took advantage of Grit weakness, winning 11 and eight seats, respectively.

When Trudeau returned to the polls about 20 months later, he emerged with a slim eight-seat majority.

The Liberals recovered slightly in BC, lifting their vote-share to 33 percent and doubling their seat-count to eight. The Progressive Conservatives did even better, however, climbing to 42 percent of the vote and taking 13 seats.

Both parties gained at the expense of the New Democrats, who lost a third of their popular vote and were reduced to a bare two seats - down nine.

The reason for NDP unpopularity in BC could be found in Victoria, where Dave Barrett led the province's first-ever New Democratic Party government. British Columbians used the 1974 federal election as a handy opportunity to clobber the nearest NDP representative, and a year later, sent Barrett packing after a single term in government.

In 1979, Canadian voters gave Joe Clark's Progressive Conservatives a minority administration. But a few months later, after the Tories fell in the House of Commons, Trudeau 'unretired' and led the Grits to a slim majority.

'Dismal' could best describe the Liberal performance in BC over the back-to-back 1979 and 1980 general elections. The party elected a single MP in the first contest (Art Phillips in Vancouver-Centre), but was wiped out in the second, and garnered a paltry 23 percent of the popular vote in both tilts.

Trudeau finally retired in 1984, succeeded as party leader by John Turner. But the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney won a massive majority and the Grits were sent to the opposition benches. In BC, the party fell to an embarrassing 16.4 percent of the vote, and Turner, in Vancouver-Quadra, was the sole west coast Grit to win a seat.

In 1988, Mulroney's Tories won a second, albeit reduced, majority. In B.C., the Liberals recovered slightly to a 21.3 percent vote-share, but Turner remained the party's lone west coast MP.

British Columbians' antipathy for the Grits proved a boon for both the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democrats in the general elections held in 1979, 1980, 1984 and 1988. The Tories captured 19, 16, 19 and 12 BC seats, while the NDP (free from provincial entanglements) snared eight, 12, eight and 19.

The Trudeau legacy in the 1990s

Jean Chretien led the Liberals to successive majority governments in 1993, 1997 and 2000, but British Columbians remained hostile to all three major parties.

Mulroney's eight-plus years as prime minister were sufficient to turn vast numbers of B.C. voters against the Progressive Conservatives and the party failed to win a single seat in B.C. during the following decade. The Tories' share of the popular vote crashed to pitiable levels: 13 percent, 6 percent and 7 percent.

The 1990s marked the return of provincial NDP governments in Victoria, (first under Mike Harcourt, and later Glen Clark) with predictable consequences for the federal New Democrats. The party elected just two, three and two British Columbia MPs over the decade, with its vote-share hovering at all-time lows in the mid-teens.

The Liberals should have profited from their rivals' unpopularity, but British Columbians remained cool toward that party, too. Indeed, the Grits flat-lined at about a quarter of the popular vote - 28.1 percent, 28.8 percent and 27.7 percent - and captured just six, six and five seats.

West coast voters, it was clear, viewed all three traditional parties with disdain and opted for an upstart entity. The fledgling Reform party won 24 seats in 1993, and 25 in 1997, before re-making itself as the Canadian Alliance and taking 27 in 2000. In the latter tilt, the Alliance garnered an eye-popping 49.4 percent of the popular vote - more than the Liberals, Tories and NDP combined.

This century

By 2004, Chretien had been forced into retirement by Paul Martin; the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives merged into the Conservative party with Alliance chief Stephen Harper as leader; and the BC New Democrats - following the near-annihilation of the provincial NDP in 2001 - were no longer burdened by an unpopular administration in Victoria.

In the general election that followed, the refashioned Conservatives fell about 20 percentage points from the combined Alliance-PC total in the preceding tilt, but at 36 percent, remained higher than their competitors.

Martin's Liberals garnered 28.6 percent of the popular vote, nearly identical to that taken in the three previous elections under Chretien's leadership. And the NDP climbed to nearly 27 percent, the party's best result in 16 years.

The lion's share of BC seats went to the Tories with 22, and another was held by former Reform-Alliance MP Chuck Cadman, re-elected as an independent. The Liberals had eight, trailed by the NDP with five.

Why Grits shouldn't be optimistic

In the ten federal general elections before Trudeaumania in 1968, the Liberals were a viable, competitive factor in British Columbia. That has not been the case in the ten tilts since that fateful year.

After winning 60 BC seats during the 10 elections from 1935 to 1965 - 30 percent of the 198 seats contested - the party has won just 38 over the 10 contests between 1972 and 2004 - a bare 12.8 percent of the 298 available.

(The number of BC seats in the House of Commons has grown from 16 in 1935, to 23 in 1968 and currently stands at 36.) Moreover, 29 of their 38 victories have occurred in Vancouver, the province's largest city, or the nearby ridings of Richmond, North Vancouver and West Vancouver. Five more wins were in the capital city of Victoria and next-door Esquimalt.

More than three decades have passed since the Grits last won a seat in rural or interior BC; and not since 1968 have they taken a riding in the fast-growing and populous Fraser Valley.

BC's urban seats have larger populations than do the rural ridings. So, while the Liberals occasionally appear competitive in province-wide popular opinion polls, their support is concentrated in urban cores - where they must battle the NDP - and a handful of suburbs - where the Reform-Alliance-Tories have been predominant. The province's rural, interior and north Vancouver Island ridings, meanwhile, are left for the Conservatives and New Democrats to battle over, with little to fear from the Grits.

Yet, even in terms of popular support, there is almost no reason for Grit optimism. Whereas the Liberals garnered more than 30 percent of the popular vote in six of the ten general elections preceding the 1968 general election, they've accomplished that feat just once in the 10 elections since then. And the sole breakout was in 1974, when the federal New Democrats were plagued by the Barrett government in Victoria.

Restricted to urban redoubts, and unable to break through the 30 percent level in popular support, the Liberals have struggled since 1968 to be competitive in British Columbia.

A breakout in 2006 to save Paul Martin's prime ministership? Possible, but not likely.

Liberal share of the popular vote in British Columbia, 1935-2004

1935 - 31.8%

1940 - 37.4

1945 - 27.5

1949 - 36.7

1953 - 30.9

1957 - 20.5

1958 - 16.1

1962 - 27.3

1963 - 32.3

1965 - 30.0

1968 - 41.8

1972 - 28.9

1974 - 33.3

1979 - 23.0

1980 - 22.2

1984 - 16.4

1988 - 21.3

1993 - 28.1

1997 - 28.8

2000 - 27.7

2004 - 28.6  [Tyee]

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