B.C. Liberal leadership candidates George Abbott, Mike de Jong, and Christy Clark have all come to Prince Rupert in the past few weeks to meet with meet with local residents in their quest to shore up support for their individual campaigns. On February 26, we’ll find out which candidate’s message reached most Liberal party members.
So far, though, most issues raised in media coverage of the leadership campaign have little relevance to the dominant needs and concerns of most average British Columbians, and especially those who live on the North Coast.
Which “issues” raised in the B.C. Liberal Leadership race most resonate with you? Family Day, or the B.C. Rail scandal? Merit pay?
No? Anyone? . . . Bueller?
The North Coast riding has been a stronghold for the New Democrat Party for the past three decades, with one exception. B.C. Liberal Bill Belsey narrowly defeated New Democrat Colleen Fitzpatrick by 831 votes in 2001, when the BC Liberals swept 77 out of 79 provincial seats. At the next election, New Democrat Gary Coons beat Bill Belsey by 1600 votes in 2005. British Columbia has a reputation for extreme mood swings of polarization for a reason, and we in the Northwest have to do our part.
Even though the B.C. Liberals face certain challenges in this riding, both parties will be led by new leaders by the next provincial election. This guarantees an unpredictable race in 2012, and the what-really-should-be-liberal-with-a-small “l” party’s history is built on surprises. Before Gordon Campbell became premier in 2001, the provincial party had not won a single election in B.C. since 1949.
There are several main factors that account for consistent support for the NDP on the North Coast. Unions and aboriginal people are both traditional bastions of support for the party – and this riding has both a prominent union presence, as well as, at 44.5 per cent, the highest aboriginal population in the province. In 2009, BC Liberal candidate Herb Pond made a concerted effort to connect with aboriginal voters, spending a lot of time travelling from village to village. Though Pond was a strong candidate, he earned 35 per cent of the final vote, while incumbent Gary Coons won with 58 per cent.
The resistance of local voters to the Liberal party’s message, along with increasingly high rates of voter apathy – only 50 per cent of eligible voters bothered to show up on election day in 2009 – have made past Liberal campaigns continually falter. Hondo Arendt, political science instructor at the Prince Rupert campus at Northwest Community College, predicted there will likely be more interest in the next election among voters because of the novelty of both parties’ new leaders. Despite the potential of more voters showing up on election day, people in this region are “unlikely to flip-flop in their support,” says Arendt. “The NDP could run a rock and it would win this riding.”
While candidates float voter-friendly generic ideas like more transparent government and “tough on crime” policy, local voters are focused on visions for the economic future of the North Coast. “There are so many that do not and cannot because they do not have an opportunity to provide for themselves or their families,” wrote Gloria Rendell, president of the NDP’s North Coast Constituency Association, in an email to Muskeg News. “And it is not only the poor that are without employment.”
Liberal Constituency Association President Herb Pond acknowledges the Northwest needs special attention. “You don’t do investment attraction for the sake of investment attraction,” says Pond. Investment is needed “because it creates jobs, and jobs are good for families.” Christy Clark, in an interview with Muskeg News, says there is a need for a “strong economic agenda,” and adds there needs to be progress made on big economic projects like the port and opening up markets to Asia. In the 1990s, argues Clark, “people were so fed up with being punished economically by the NDP’s policies.” She argued that it would be good for local community to have a B.C. Liberal MLA inside the caucus or even inside the cabinet.
“Typically, during a leadership race, usually what wins the race is new members,” said Arendt. If this is true, cementing support among present members is incredibly important as well. Most issues raised in the campaign so far won’t change voters’ minds, but will create support among already loyal party members. Kevin Falcon upset the B.C. Federation of Teachers with his “merit pay” proposal, but it got a lot of media attention for being a distinct, unusual idea. Perhaps partly because of reforms instituted when she was Education Minister in the early-2000s, Arendt said that Clark is probably the candidate “most hated by the NDP crowd.” This will probably work in her favour among B.C. Liberal supporters.
The B.C. Liberal party acknowledges the alienation that many feel in the North from their government representatives. “There is a disconnect from government,” says Clark. “People feel this way all over the province.” Pond says he understands that people in this region “want to be represented in Victoria, not have Victoria represented back to us.”
Other ideas proposed so far by the leading B.C. Liberal candidates don’t seem to resonate with local voters.
Kevin Falcon’s promise earlier this week to get “tough on crime” rings unnecessarily false, in a decade that continues to see overall crime statistics decline. Clark’s idea for another holiday in February echoes the disconnect many in this riding feel between their daily lives and the inner workings of government. With an unemployment rates of 13.1 per cent, this region doesn’t need another holiday: it is jobs that are needed.
Rendell, in her email, wrote “the people of British Columbia will not forget what has happened with the Liberals just by electing a new leader.” When asked about the challenges of campaigning in such a historically strong NDP stronghold, Clark says it’s the small changes government makes have a huge ripple effect. “The community wants to feel hopeful,” said Clark. B.C. Liberals likewise hope their message is heard by local residents in the next election.
~Written by Nicole Rimmer