The newly reconfigured Courtenay-Comox riding dispensed a few surprises for the political experts this year. The biggest one: it’s still a swing riding.
With control of the B.C. Legislature hanging on the outcome of a recount and some 2,000 absentee ballots, the riding unexpectedly became this election’s center of attention. It wasn’t supposed to be so close.
When the B.C. Electoral Boundaries Commission split Cumberland from the Comox Valley, and moved this traditionally strong NDP community into a new mid-Island constituency, the change should have favored the Liberals. Add in growing Comox Valley support for the Green Party, which naturally siphons most of its votes from the NDP, and the stage was set for a third consecutive Liberal victory.
The fact that the NDP won the new riding by a slim 189-vote margin for Ronna-Rae Leonard triggers some interesting observations about Courtenay-Comox voters, as well as the mood of the province.
The vote was clearly a rebuke of Christy Clark. When a province’s economy leads the nation, records Canada’s lowest unemployment rates and balances its budget, the incumbent government should expect to retain a majority.
Instead, voters revolted against Clark’s arrogant attitude, her vendetta against teachers and the ravaging of public school funding, her too-cozy relationship with corporations and her terrible decisions for British Columbia’s environment regarding LNG plants, dams that only benefit Albertans and inviting an armada of oil tankers in the Salish Sea.
All of these issues must have resonated with the 16,000-plus Courtenay-Comox voters who cast ballots for the NDP and Green parties.
On the flip side, the strong military support for the Liberal candidate, Jim Benninger, a former commanding officer of CFB Comox, didn’t materialize.
Political pundits predicted that the absentee ballots would comprise mostly military personnel and that they would lean Liberal. Didn’t happen. The absentee ballots actually broke in favor of the NDP.
Was Benninger just not a good candidate, or do individuals in the armed forces share the majority’s growing concerns for the environment and of inappropriate corporate influence and access to Liberal cabinet ministers? The latter seems more likely.
And let’s not forget that this is still a swing riding. Of the 24 elections since 1933 — including this one — the NDP/CCF have won 11, the Liberal/Social Credit/Conservatives have won 13. (Herbert Welch, running for a Liberal-Conservative coalition, won two elections and served from 1945 to 1952.)
The popular vote in this riding has always been close. Except for the 2001 election when Stan Hagen rode the wave of support for a new Liberal/Social Credit coalition, no candidate has won a majority of the vote. Hagen got 56 percent that year.
And despite Hagen’s and Don McRae’s victories for the Liberals in 2005, 2009 and 2013, they received fewer total votes than combined NDP/Green candidates in each election. In the 2013 election, McRae trailed NDP/Green candidates by 1,768 votes.
In this election, the NDP/Green candidates nearly doubled that margin, out-polling the Liberals by 3,339 votes.
But in both the 2013 and 2017 elections, Conservative party candidates also played a role. They won 1,740 votes in the 2013 election, making that a dead heat. And they won 2,201 votes this year, cutting the NDP/Green lead to 1,138.
So, what does that mean?
It means this riding, with or without Cumberland, is almost evenly split.
So shouldn’t people expect the winning candidate to represent the Comox Valley with a mindful recognition of the progressive policies of the NDP and Green parties as well as the conservative ideology of the Liberals? That hasn’t been the case.
Hagen almost exclusively catered to the big money crowd. McRae less so, perhaps, at least not so obviously. And will Leonard turn her back on nearly half of her constituents?
The problem, of course, is the blind allegiance MLAs must devote to their party leadership. Vote how we tell you. There’s no tolerance for independence in the Legislature.
And until party leaders loosen their tight grip on individual MLAs, British Columbians will be best served by minority governments. When party leaders have to compromise and negotiate, rather than rule with an iron hand, they produce better legislation.