by MARTYN BROWN on MAY 3, 2013, Georgia Straight.
The main question is, how large will the NDP’s majority be? The answer may turn on the degree to which voters start thinking about how they want the world to look on the morning after the vote.
Change is surely coming. But the face of that change in the legislature, if not the government, still rides on how people vote in the dozens of ridings that are far from decided.
Voter apathy could cost the B.C. Liberals a whack of seats that are on the margin. Complacency could similarly deprive the NDP of many seats it might otherwise win. When voters see any election as a lost cause or as a foregone conclusion, the losing and winning parties alike stand to forfeit winnable seats when their supporters sit on their hands.
Paradoxically, in a “race” that appears to be over at the provincial level, the race is actually getting tighter at the riding level in former B.C. Liberal strongholds that are now within reach.
The NDP have to be worried that voters who want a change in government may feel they can vote with impunity for other candidates, including for B.C. Liberals, if they believe that the NDP can’t lose and that some other candidate is uniquely preferable.
For the B.C. Liberals, the problem is reversed. Their potential supporters might feel that because the fate of the government doesn’t hinge on their vote, they can take a flyer on whoever they see as the strongest candidate to represent their values, interests, or community in the legislature. Even the NDP stand to benefit from that dynamic, which the independents, Greens, and B.C. Conservatives are also banking on.
The change that most Liberal supporters want from their own party is renewal. Yet that message has been downplayed at every turn. Inexplicably, the Premier did not even mention her team in the leaders’ debates or in her party platform. And her campaign has kept the spotlight squarely on her, with minimal focus on the strength of new talent that she can claim to have attracted.
Instead of focusing on their strongest asset—their new candidates and fresh faces—the B.C. Liberals have almost exclusively focused on their largest liability. Clark’s disapprovals are still off the charts, even if she has done a better job of late of looking like a premier.
While many B.C. Liberal candidates have tried to distance themselves from Clark's leadership and even from their party label, they will need a better argument than their leader has made for them to get elected.
Candidates who know they will lose without a radical shift in strategy might feel emboldened to change their pitch. They may seek to focus public attention on opportunities for change within the pending change that’s bound to deliver an NDP government.
At the root of that appeal is an acknowledgement that their party will not form the government, that their leader will not be around for long, and that neither of those factors should determine people’s votes.
It’s a risky but potentially powerful strategy for those candidates who are on the cusp.
Would it really be healthy for democracy to have another lopsided government? Experience suggests that we are always better off with a strong opposition and a wide diversity of skills, perspectives, and values on both sides of the legislature, even though I certainly never would have admitted that in past partisan capacities.
Would it really be in the public interest for entire regions like Vancouver Island to be without any voice in opposition? When the tables were reversed, and the B.C. Liberals’ swept every seat outside of Vancouver, not many voters agreed that it was an ideal outcome.
Candidates might frame their case less around who will form the government then about why they are needed in the legislature, especially in the event of an NDP government.
Valid arguments abound. They include the need to ensure a strong opposition that can hold the NDP accountable over the next four-and-a-half years. They include the need to have new MLAs and a strong B.C. Liberal presence to help rebuild the party or its successor before the next election. They include representing local issues, community concerns, and societal values that are not likely to be front and center in the NDP’s agenda.
Independents, Greens, and Conservatives are already making a similar pitch, also arguing to elect them and make history by forever changing our flawed two-party political system. More choice means a better voice for those values that the two main parties will never advance.
The NDP candidates also stand to make history by winning seats that will forever change B.C.’s political landscape. Simply electing members in places that have been historically impossible to crack could permanently make those seats more competitive. We saw that in the Cariboo, when Dave Zirnhelt was elected years ago in a byelection, and in Oak Bay-Gordon Head, when Elizabeth Cull swept into office, and in Chilliwack-Hope one year ago.
All of those seats were so-called "free enterprise" bastions that went NDP. The truth is, these days, precious few seats are truly "safe" when ideology is trumped by other considerations, as we see today in B.C.
With an NDP government still looking most likely, “a strong voice in government” is an eternally powerful message that is newly relevant for those candidates who are knocking at the door in swing ridings. And unless the B.C. Liberals get well over 40 percent in the polls, it is a message that only the NDP candidates can credibly claim.
As suddenly viable contenders in previously unthinkable seats, those NDP candidates can also make an appeal to end the polarized, partisan politics that has for too long created barriers instead of bridges to understanding when governments inevitably change.
That would certainly be healthy for democracy and for forging new relationships between government and their traditional ideological opponents. They would do much better for everyone if they started talking and listening to one another, instead of putting each other down or simply ignoring each other, as is usually the case when governments change stripes.
I know. I helped fuel that dynamic in various partisan positions that I held over the decades and it was anything but ideal in advancing economic opportunities or in addressing vexing social problems, with shared insights, ideas, skills, and workable solutions.
The point is, all of the above types of arguments that candidates can make to increase voter interest, support, and turnout are largely liberated because of voters’ expectations of a lopsided NDP victory. That might seem less likely today than it did a week ago, but it is still the odds-on probability.
To the extent that voters believe that the NDP is still the runaway favourite to win on May 14, and if they remain focused on what they want their legislature to look like on May 15, they may find other motivations for voting than simply who will form the government.
The important thing is to get out and vote, because the individual choices that voters make in each riding can still change the face of change that our elected representatives will lead and deliver.
Like the song says, “there's got to be a morning after,” even in a Poseidon Adventure. The B.C. Liberals might download that corny Ringtone.
Martyn Brown is the author of the new e-book Towards a New Government in British Columbia, available on Amazon. He was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, a top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment in British Columbia.