Vancouver Sun

NDP spending big to tilt odds in Nanaimo byelection

Stakes high for NDP as party works to improve odds of winning in Nanaimo


The official call for the Nanaimo byelection had just gone out Wednesday morning, when NDP candidate Sheila Malcolmson weighed in with a reminder of the stakes for the Jan. 30 vote.

“Today is the start of the most significan­t byelection campaign we’ve ever had in B.C.,” said the statement from her campaign.

“The stakes are high and the choice is clear — we can continue to build a strong future with John Horgan and the B.C. NDP, or we can risk going back to the B.C. Liberals.”

No arguing on that score with the presumed frontrunne­r to fill the vacancy created when longtime NDP MLA Leonard Krog sought and won the mayor’s chair in Nanaimo.

Governing parties lose byelection­s more often than not. When defeat happens in a safe seat like Nanaimo, the outcome can embarrass the government and force a change of direction.

But there’s no modern-day precedent for the situation that would present itself were the NDP to lose Nanaimo to the Liberals — a 43-43 seat tie in the legislatur­e between the Opposition and the governing partnershi­p of New Democrats and Greens.

Recognizin­g how that outcome would put the government on a much shorter leash, New Democrats have been working to improve the odds in their favour.

Government-funded good news for Nanaimo includes a $34-million intensive care unit at the regional hospital, a 35-bed emergency housing shelter for the homeless, a 10-bed transition house for women and children, and $1.6 million in additional operating funds for six care homes for seniors.

Lest Nanaimo residents forget, a December press release from the government reminded the community of earlier commitment­s to $44 million in capital and constructi­on financing for 150 rental homes for seniors and 170 modular housing units to phase out a local tent city. Nor has Liberal challenger Tony Harris been idle on the promise-making front. He one-upped the ICU announceme­nt, promising enhanced resources for cancer treatment at the regional hospital so residents no longer need to travel to the capital for radiation therapy.

The Harris platform also includes a new passengers­only ferry link to Metro Vancouver. He’s tried to make political hay with the NDP decision to include Nanaimo in the area captured by the new speculatio­n and vacancy tax.

Harris brings some profile to the race.

His late father, killed in a boating accident two years ago, was a prominent car dealer and mobile phone franchisee.

The son is a realtor and developer as well as a member of the local hospital foundation, where he helped line up $5 million in charitable funding for the ICU upgrade now approved by the New Democrats.

Malcolmson served three years as a federal NDP MP before stepping down to seek the provincial seat. But she did not generate many headlines during her brief time in Ottawa.

One call she is not likely to repeat is her opposition to B.C. Hydro’s constructi­on of the hydroelect­ric dam at Site C on the Peace River, now strongly supported by the government she seeks to join.

Still, Harris enters the race as an underdog in a seat where New Democrats usually win by comfortabl­e margins. One exception was in 2001, when the Liberals swept the New Democrats from power, winning all but two seats in the process.

The other was in 1969 when the then-mayor of Nanaimo, the incomparab­ly flamboyant Frank Ney, running for Social Credit, wrested the seat from New Democrat Dave Stupich for a single term.

As it happens, Ney’s daughter Michele, a retired school teacher, is the byelection candidate for the Greens. Her presence is a reminder that the party’s partnershi­p with the NDP does not extend to forgoing the risk of vote splitting at election time.

Also in the running is Robin Richardson, leader of the Vancouver Island Party, a political novelty act that seeks to establish the Island as the country’s 11th province. Richardson was briefly a federal MP from Toronto during the brief term of the Joe Clark Progressiv­e Conservati­ve government.

The B.C. Conservati­ve party is also promising to announce a candidate before nomination­s close Jan. 9. While easily dismissed as a fringe party, one should recall that in 2017, one of the few Conservati­ves running took 2,200 votes in Courtenay-Comox, where the Liberals lost the seat (and in the process their legislativ­e majority) by less than 200 votes.

After the 28-day campaign wraps Jan. 30, Elections B.C. expects to complete the final count on or before Feb. 12, which is also the date for the scheduled opening of the spring session of the legislatur­e.

Premier John Horgan scheduled the byelection in anticipati­on that the new MLA can take the oath of office in time for the throne speech.

If the winner were Malcolmson or Ney, the NDPGreen partnershi­p would still command a two-seat edge in the house. If Harris pulls an upset, the government could survive for a time with the tiebreakin­g services of Speaker Darryl Plecas.

But the hold on power would be precarious. Not likely would the NDP be able to hang on until the next scheduled election in October 2021.

The common practice in byelection­s is for voters to send government­s a message: Either “smarten up” or “stay the course.”

But if Nanaimo byelection voters choose the Liberals later this month, they’ll be sending the whole province a message to prepare for another election sooner rather than later.

There’s no modern-day precedent for the situation that would present itself were the NDP to lose Nanaimo to the Liberals.

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