Skip to content

Keith Baldrey: Byelections are wild cards in B.C. political game

June 24 votes are in traditional BC NDP territory, but sometimes even ‘safe’ ridings can fall into Opposition hands
bc-legislature-emilynorton-getty (2)
Two June B.C. byelections are in seemingly safe BC NDP territory, but votes between general elections aren't always a sure thing.

On paper and based on the voting history in general elections, the two provincial byelections set to be held on June 24 should lack drama and excitement.

After all, both the ridings ― Langford-Juan de Fuca and Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant ― are longtime BC NDP strongholds.

Only the NDP has won the Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant riding since it was created in 1991, and the NDP has lost the Island riding (it has gone through various name and boundary changes) just once, and that was in the historic near wipeout of the party in the 2001 election.

And yet byelections are different political animals than general elections.

Since 1987, for example, the sitting government of the day (Social Credit, NDP and BC Liberal) won just four of 25 byelections. That’s a failure rate of more than 80 per cent.

Byelections are often seen as mini referendums on a sitting government’s performance. A government’s unpopularity can undo its hold on even some of its traditionally strongest ridings if the voters want to send a message.

In the 1980s, for example, the Social Credit government (led by then-Premier Bill Vander Zalm, a lightning rod for controversy) lost six consecutive byelections, including the usually safe ridings of the Cariboo, Boundary-Similkameen and Oak Bay-Gordon Head.

The NDP government of the 1990s also lost six straight byelections, but none of them were in ridings where the party had enjoyed any previous political success.

The BC Liberal governments under Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark lost five byelections and won two (both wins by Ms. Clark).

One of the more interesting and historical contests took place in April 2012 in the usually strong BC Liberal riding of Chilliwack-Hope.

Perhaps as a sign of voter fatigue with the ruling BC Liberals, the NDP was able to score an upset victory where it had not even come close to winning before (its win was helped considerably by the strong showing of a BC Conservative Party candidate, who undoubtedly stole votes from the BC Liberal side).

If the BC United, BC Green and BC Conservative candidates in the upcoming byelections want to see any reason for hope on victory on June 24, they should remember what happened in Chilliwack (and Oak Bay and Cariboo more than 30 years ago) as evidence that even the safest party stronghold can be toppled.

Of course, the NDP government under Premier David Eby remains popular, according to recent polls. And Eby’s approval numbers continue to shine.

Throw in the fact that the newly named BC United Party is an unknown brand and that it will be fighting against the BC Conservatives over largely the same pool of voters, and the NDP must be heavily favoured to win both contests.

And yet history shows some strange and unforeseen byelection outcomes can occasionally occur.

Voter turnout in byelections is often low, which gives an advantage to any candidate who can put together a well-organized campaign and ground game on election day.

The byelections themselves also pose no threat to the sitting government, as its majority is so large that losing one or two seats would not really weaken its grip on the provincial legislature. Look for the Opposition parties to seize on that point, and to plead to the voters in both ridings to “send a message to the government.”

They face a steep uphill battle, but every now and then a government can get bitten by the electorate, providing it is angry or frustrated enough.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

[email protected]