Two traditionally safe Liberal seats are about to provide barometer readings of British Columbia's stormy political atmosphere with less than 13 months to go before the May 2013 election, say pundits and party officials.
This week's byelection results for suburban Vancouver's Port Moody–Coquitlam riding and the Fraser Valley's Chilliwack–Hope riding are being viewed as measures of the intense political fronts buffeting the province.
Up for measurement in the Thursday votes are: where the two Liberal candidates finish, the strength of the upstart B.C. Conservatives and the performance of the New Democrats, which are expected to win the Port Moody–Coquitlam riding and seriously challenge in the traditionally anti-NDP Fraser Valley.
In Port Moody-Coquitlam, former Liberal cabinet minister Iain Black's seat is being contested by B.C. Conservative Christine Clarke, B.C. Liberal Dennis Marsden and New Democrat Joe Trasolini.
In Chilliwack–Hope, former four-term Liberal Barry Penner's seat, the candidates include B.C. Conservative John Martin, New Democrat Gwen O'Mahony, Liberal Laurie Throness and a Libertarian, Lewis Clarke Dahlby.
But with the governing Liberals in freefall in the polls, the winning candidates are of less interest than what the election results say about the fortunes of Liberal Premier Christy Clark's government.
'Nothing is safe'
Retired University of Victoria political scientist Norman Ruff said the Liberals and the provincial Conservatives, led by former Reform MP John Cummins, have the most to gain or lose from the two byelections.
If the Liberals win at least one — likely Chilliwack–Hope — the victory can be viewed as a sign the government still has strength, despite plummeting showings in recent public opinion polls, he said.
"By any ordinary definition of a safe Liberal seat, they fit safe Liberal seats, but we know from the context from the polls that nothing is safe for the Liberals these days," said Ruff.
The Conservatives are looking for a win or at least strong second-place finishes to point to what they will call their growing momentum as the province's free-enterprise choice, he said.
Ruff said Clark's recent attempts to court the right wing vote by getting cozy with the federal Conservatives won't give her traction in the byelections because voters are currently more concerned with her leadership abilities and not the political leanings of her allies.
"If the Liberals were to trail badly, theoretically, there would be pressure on her to step aside," he said.
But former Liberal attorney general Geoff Plant, who writes a political blog and was a cabinet colleague of Clark's, noted governing parties in British Columbia rarely win mid-term votes.
"The government should lose both these byelections because governments usually lose byelections," Plant said.
One notable exception was Clark's byelection win last year that gave her a seat in the legislature after she became Liberal leader.
Plant said it would be a huge surprise if the Liberals won in Port Moody–Coquitlam and even though Chilliwack–Hope is staunch Liberal territory, the Conservatives are running a well-known local candidate who has the potential to win.
Plant said the Liberals should brace for two losses, but return to the legislature next Monday prepared to prove to voters they are the best party to govern the province.
"The basic message for the premier and for the B.C. Liberal caucus is to hang tough and stay together," he said.
Plant said the Liberals need to stick to their jobs agenda and continue telling British Columbians about the profound importance of fiscal responsibility, which includes balancing the budget and maintaining top credit ratings.
NDP, Conservatives tackle voter issues
Opposition New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix said the two byelections have given his party opportunities to make inroads in traditional Liberal territory.
Dix said he's personally visited the Chilliwack–Hope riding more than a dozen times and most voters are raising concerns about rising costs for health care and seniors care under the Liberals.
"I've given real focus to Liberal ridings in my travels in the last year and I think people who have traditionally been in ridings that the Liberals have held have seen their views and their interests taken for granted," he said.
Chilliwack–Hope Conservative candidate John Martin is well-known in the Fraser Valley for his blunt opinions in his newspaper column and his tough anti-crime theories espoused in his criminology classes.
Martin said he wants to make life more affordable for British Columbians and one of the first things he'd like to do is scrap the government's pollution-fighting carbon tax.
Martin said he supports safe communities and accused the Liberals of taking a catch-and-release approach to justice, although sentencing provisions fall under federal jurisdiction.
Former Port Moody mayor vies for seat
Liberal candidate Laurie Throness comes with what many would call an impeccable Conservative pedigree, but he's running for the party he believes is the best option for free-enterprise supporters.
He was a paid political guru to right-wing political leaders Preston Manning and Stockwell Day and also worked for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
He worked in former federal aboriginal affairs minister Chuck Strahl's office and now Strahl is helping run Throness's campaign.
Throness, who has been door-knocking since last February, said he's still getting used to being on the political frontline after spending years in the back rooms.
"I'm not a person who naturally seeks the spotlight," he said. "I'm a person who sort of moves away from the spotlight. I'm a shy person. But if I want to do what I want to do, then I've got to get out there."
Throness said he wants to see more long-term treatment for people addicted to drugs.
In Port Moody–Coquitlam, the NDP's Trasolini is considered the favourite.
Trasolini, a former Port Moody mayor, was courted to run for the Liberals and the New Democrats, but chose the NDP.
Prior to Clark becoming premier, Trasolini worked on her campaigns when she held a seat in Port Moody for the Liberals.