By Kimball Cariou
The much-anticipated Nanaimo by-election on January 30 resulted in a win for Premier John Horgan’s NDP, in large part due to an expenses scandal which has rocked the B.C. Legislature in recent weeks. The outcome leaves the uneasy coalition of NDP and Green MLAs with their slight majority, and breathing space to govern.
The opposition Liberals, meanwhile, say they intend to focus on renewing their ranks ahead of the next election, which is scheduled in 2021 barring new developments. That strategy might be forced on the Liberals, who bear responsibility for appointing both the Clerk and Sergent-at-Arms of the Legislature, accused of spending enormous amounts of taxpayer dollars without any meaningful oversight.
As in other parts of Canada, a by-election in B.C. is usually an opportunity for the opposition to take advantage of public discontent. There was certainly plenty of that in Nanaimo, the seat that became vacant after long-time NDP MLA Leonard Krog resigned to run for mayor last fall. As the campaign began, it was quickly evident that many Nanaimo voters were frustrated that local health care and housing needs have not been tackled more quickly by the new government.
Nanaimo is a traditional bastion of NDP support, with rare exceptions such as the near-Liberal sweep which brought Gordon Campbell to office in 2001. Largely ignored by the Liberals during their 16 years in power, the Vancouver Island city faces mounting social and economic problems, so when Horgan became premier, many voters expected their issues would be high on the NDP-Green agenda. But while the new government has taken some steps to address chronic Liberal under-funding of health care, public education and social programs, the by-election was widely seen as a test of Horgan’s ability to deliver on his party’s campaign promises.
So the stakes were high when opinion surveys showed a close race. The NDP was clearly nervous about the outcome, especially if some of its supporters voted Green to send a critical message to Victoria. In the end, the Legislature scandal made the race too steep for the Liberals, and the NDP’s Sheila Malcomson won by about 1900 votes over Liberal Tony Harris. The NDP vote share rose from 46.5% in 2017 to 49.2% this time, the Liberals climbed from 32.5% to 40.5%. The Green vote shrunk to 7.4% from 19.9% in 2017. These shifts indicate that the Liberals picked up the majority of voters who abandoned the Greens in the byelection.
That trend could be a long-term concern for the NDP, which holds office today in part because some former Liberal voters went Green in 2017. If enough of these voters return to the Liberal fold, the results next time could be quite different.
For now, the Horgan government’s most pressing concern might be how to hold its own base. The NDP is still in a relatively strong political position, implementing just enough of its progressive 2017 platform to keep most supporters happy, despite lingering anger over the government’s approval of the Site C dam and its generous support for fracking and liquid natural gas exports.
But the by-election campaign showed that working people who vote NDP are anxious for more progressive policies, and sooner rather than later. In Nanaimo itself, the government has announced 150 new affordable rental homes for seniors, more housing support for homeless people and women and children fleeing violence, and a $34 million plan to upgrade the intensive care unit at the local hospital.
However, much more will be needed on a province-wide scale to address the problems of working people still suffering from sixteen years of Liberal austerity cuts. The NDP has boosted some revenues with taxes on housing speculation and other measures, but these amounts are tiny compared to the $3 billion or more in lost annual revenues from the tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations implemented in 2002 by the Campbell Liberals. Rolling back at least a portion of those tax breaks could help the NDP make big investments in social housing, health care and public education, and to help people on social assistance and disability still facing starvation rates.
But the government seems utterly unwilling to face the political storm such a move would bring from the rich and powerful, and of course from the corporate media which whips up anger over even the slightest moves to redistribute wealth on the west coast. Of course, the upper crust of the population in British Columbia will never vote for the NDP anyway, but working class and low-income people could easily decide to stay home in 2021 if this government fails to come through with more radical policies.
That’s the real lesson from this by-election, which saw the NDP lead over the Liberals shrink from a healthy 14% to under 9%. Premier Horgan has just two more years to convince working people to give his party a second term. The upcoming provincial budget will be an important test, but the betting is on more of the same slow pace of progressive reforms he has implemented since 2017.