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Globe and Mail | JUSTINE HUNTER | NANAIMO | JANUARY 31, 2019
British Columbia’s governing New Democrats held a crucial seat in the Nanaimo by-election on Wednesday.
The odds don’t favour the governing party in B.C. by-elections, but Nanaimo has traditionally been an NDP stronghold. The opposition Liberals were unable to make a breakthrough that would have given them exactly half of the voters in the Legislature, opening up a path to an early provincial election.
Former NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson will now sit in the provincial legislature. She takes over the seat from long-time NDP MLA Leonard Krog, who resigned last fall to run for mayor of Nanaimo.
It means Premier John Horgan’s minority government and its Green Party allies continue to hold 44 seats, to the Liberals’ 42. Independent MLA Darryl Plecas serves as Speaker.
“We have returned a New Democrat in Nanaimo,” Mr. Horgan told a boisterous crowd. “Apparently, governments don’t often win by-elections,” he said, his voice hoarse.
“Nanaimo was not election fatigued, it turns out,” Ms. Malcolmson said. She touched on the key issues that the NDP played up in the campaign – affordable housing, a new acute care facility, and continued opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline. “This is the right government for these hard issues,” she added later.
With 98 of 111 polls in, the NDP had almost 49 per cent of the popular vote, while the Liberals’ Tony Harris had just under 41 per cent. The Greens had seven per cent.
A tie in the legislature would not result in an immediate collapse of the current government, but the neutrality of the Speaker of the House would have been tested as Mr. Plecas would have been called upon to vote to uphold the government on matters of confidence.
During the campaign, Mr. Horgan visited the riding four times in the past month as his government found money for a new $34-million intensive-care unit at the hospital, in addition to new funding for classrooms.
Ms. Malcolmson resigned her seat as the MP for Nanaimo-Ladysmith to take a chance on entering provincial politics. Although the Greens took 20 per cent of the vote in the 2017 provincial election, she maintained it was always a race between herself and Mr. Harris – a return to the traditional two-party system that typically divides B.C. voters.
Mr. Harris, a local businessman and philanthropist, maintained voters should focus on what’s best for Nanaimo, rather than the dynamics in Victoria. He presented himself as a fresh face with no real connections to the party that ruled B.C. for 16 years before the 2017 upset.
At the NDP’s campaign party, as the results trickled in and Ms. Malcolmson’s lead solidified, canvasser Paul Faoro, president of CUPE BC, noted that the NDP-labour ground game was fully activated in the by-election. He saw little evidence, he said, of Liberal campaign workers out knocking on doors. The biggest issue he heard on the doorstep was that voters didn’t want B.C. to head into another general election.
The Liberals hoped to capitalize on the implementation of the government’s so-called “speculation tax,” urging Nanaimo voters to register their displeasure about the tax with the NDP government.
The tax, announced last February in the provincial budget, was initially described as targeting non-residents who pay no income tax in B.C. but own a home there. It was rolled out with other measures the government designed to “stabilize” a red-hot housing market.
However, the tax is expected to capture many British Columbians who have vacation homes, and details of the tax forms were landing in homeowners’ mailboxes in Nanaimo – one of the urban regions where it applies – just as the by-election campaign was in mid-swing.
But a scandal over alleged spending abuses in the B.C. Legislature then overtook the tax debate. The Liberals found themselves facing questions about how the alleged pattern of lavish spending and personal enrichment by unelected officials took root while they were in government.
The Green candidate, Michele Ney, said her party had the momentum in the campaign, saying voters were frustrated with both of the major parties.
Ms. Ney also banked on her family name – she is the daughter of Frank Ney, who served as was mayor of Nanaimo for 21 years, and was one of the few Social Credit candidates to break the NDP hold on the riding.