By-Elections Show the Centre Cannot Hold

From the Tyee, April 20, 2012.

NDP victories in Port-Moody Coquitlam and Chilliwack-Hope expose the vulnerability of the Liberal Party and Premier Christy Clark. The rise of the BC Conservative Party has divided the centre-right vote.

The landslide for former mayor Joe Trasolini in Port-Moody was no surprise. He “could have won as a Marxist-Leninist candidate” tweeted Mario Canseco, of Angus Reid.

But the disappointing third-place showing by BC Conservative candidate John Martin in Chilliwack-Hope is good news for the premier, who can still make the case that the Liberals remain the party of free enterprise. “If you care about free enterprise in British Columbia,” Clark warned before the by-elections, “remember this, in 1991 and in 1996, Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark were elected because there was a split in the free enterprise vote.”

Add Gwen O’Mahony, the new NDP MLA for Chilliwack-Hope, to that list.

Contrarian Conservatives

Conservative leader John Cummins is not buying Clark’s line. It is not just that the Liberals need to articulate why conservatives should vote for them. More importantly, Cummins knows that his main obstacle to power is the Liberals not the NDP. He complains about the “drift to the left” of the BC Liberals, yet admits he voted NDP in 2009. That’s not inconsistent. The Liberals, not the NDP, block his path to Victoria.

The rise of the BC Conservatives makes an NDP victory in 2013 much more likely. Cummins believes that polarizing the party system is worth it in the long run, however, because his goal is to create the conditions for the rise of a more conservative right.

Bit of breathing room for Clark

The fact that the combined Liberal and Conservative vote in Chilliwack-Hope exceeded the vote for the NDP will renew pressure on the two parties to come together. But my sense is that the Conservatives have a longer-term game plan in which an NDP victory in 2013 is worth it as long as the Liberal Party collapses.

Whether that happens depends on the leader. The weak performance of the Conservatives in Chilliwack-Hope gives the Liberals some — but only a little — breathing room. Calls for the removal of Christy Clark may be more muted. But if she wants to win, she has to do something to define herself more clearly. Is she a family-friendly, moderate liberal leader of the ilk of, say, Paul Martin? Or is she a tough-minded pro-business conservative like Stephen Harper?

It is not enough to oppose the NDP bogeyman. That does not cut it with moderates or conservatives. A centre that does not know where it stands will not hold in a polarizing party system.

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