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Baldrey: 2024 meets 1991? How B.C. election history could repeat itself

Political columnist Keith Baldrey examines the eerily similar parallels that have transpired in the B.C. Legislature.
bc-legislature (1)
The B.C. Legislature in Victoria. | Province of B.C./Flickr

A veteran NDP cabinet minister stopped me in the legislature hallway last week and revealed what he thinks is the biggest vulnerability facing his government in the fall provincial election.

It’s not housing, health care, affordability or any of the other hot button issues identified by pollsters.

“I think we are way too complacent,” he told me. “Too many people on our side think winning elections are easy.”

He referenced the 1991 election campaign as something that could repeat itself. What was supposed to be an easy NDP victory then almost turned into an upset win for the fledgling B.C. Liberal Party.

Indeed, the parallels between that campaign and the coming fall contest are striking.

Back then, a political party (Social Credit) that had ruled B.C. for almost 40 years had fallen apart. In its stead came the B.C. Liberals, who enjoyed a meteoric rise in the polls before coming back to earth after NDP MLA (and future premier) Glen Clark called a news conference and forced B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Wilson to dismantle his party’s platform.

Today, the political dynasty once called the B.C. Liberal party (it won the popular vote in six consecutive elections) is the one apparently in disarray. Now called the B.C. United Party, it has yet to connect with voters and poll after poll brings only misery its way (last week’s Leger poll had it in third place, 25 percentage points behind the NDP).

But just like in 1991, a fledgling political party appears to have taken root and may be emerging as the main alternative to the ruling NDP.

The B.C. Conservative Party, which has not had any political presence for decades, has either been ahead or tied with B.C. United among decided voters in a series of recent polls by various polling firms.

There are various theories about the party’s emergence: it’s riding on the coattails of a surging federal Conservative Party, or it is the default right-wing vote parking lot because B.C. United has an identity crisis.

Whatever the reason, the question is will the party’s standing in the polls continue to climb or will it plateau, as the B.C. Liberals did in 1991?

The B.C. United Party has various advantages over the B.C. Conservatives (significantly more money, a seasoned party infrastructure to name two) but they are not translating to any boost in support.

The B.C. United Party recently engaged in a $1-million saturation advertising campaign with no evidence it moved the needle among voters. The ads featured party leader Kevin Falcon, whose negatives among voters in a recent Angus Reid poll were astonishingly high for an Opposition leader.

The official election campaign begins almost five months from now. A lot can happen between now and then, and perhaps B.C. United can see its significant advantages over the B.C. Conservatives finally pay off.

But if the polls remain the same and continue to show the NDP with a big lead over the various opposition parties for the next few months, the ruling party could sleepwalk into the election campaign, just as it did in 1991 before Clark rode to the rescue.

An election campaign can sometimes get voters refocused on political parties in ways that don’t occur between elections. That cabinet minister’s concerns about his party being complacent should sound a warning to his side.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

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