B.C. politics is gearing up for its YouTube moment
No one has ever accused B.C. politics of being boring.
From premier Amor De Cosmos in the 1870s (later declared publicly insane) to "Wacky" Bennett, tulip-growing, gift-accepting Bill Vander Zalm and Glen Clark's "deck-gate," provincial politics here has always seemed to be in its own peculiar orbit.
The most recent you-can't-make-this-stuff-up chapter began with the seemingly impromptu resignation of Liberal premier Gordon Campbell in November.
Having flip-flopped on an election promise not to implement the dreaded HST, Campbell found himself facing a successful petition calling for a referendum on the tax, a Survivor-inspired pledge to recall every MLA who had ever voted for it, and a caucus mutiny.
Little wonder he fell on his sword.
That was two months ago. At the time, the popular wisdom was that, even with the demise of the hugely unpopular Campbell, no party rebounds from nine per cent in the polls.
Well, enter the opposition NDP.
Up 30-plus points in the polls, with what appeared to be a lock to win the next election, a third of the NDP caucus then decided this would be the perfect time to dump its boss too.
Carole James was never a popular leader — her personal approval ratings consistently trailed that of the party.
The races so far
For the Liberals, Feb. 26:
- George Abbott
- Christy Clark
- Kevin Falcon
- Mike de Jong
- Ed Mayne
- Moira Stilwell
For the NDP, April 23
- Dana Larsen
- Nicholas Simons
- Harry Lali
- John Horgan
- Mike Farnworth
But one would think that if the party was unhappy with James at the helm they would have ousted her after she failed to win two provincial elections in a row, not days after its chief rival self-implodes.
Yet the NDP, on the heels of one messy stand-off after another, forced James to quit and, in the doing, made the party seem unelectable — a remarkable feat, given the shape of the governing Liberals.
Almost overnight, the NDP's lead in the polls evaporated and the race became the Liberals' to lose.
Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of opportunity. Only in B.C.
No smooth sailing
The next election isn't supposed to be until 2013. But that is no guarantee that whoever wins the Liberal leadership on Feb. 26 won't call a snap election to "seek a mandate" (as one leading candidate has suggested) and perhaps take advantage of the leaderless NDP, who won't select their new leader until April 23.
Even if no quickie election, though, the political landscape here is unlikely to stop pitching about.
That is because, for starters, the current leadership contest is almost certain to foment the awkward coalition that makes up the B.C. Liberal party.
This is a party in which federal Liberals and federal Conservatives, normally hated enemies, unite with the singular goal of beating the NDP.
But that marriage is tenuous at best and, with Campbell's departure, the leadership race is shaping up as a showdown between the Tory and Grit wings of the provincial entity.
Six candidates have so far declared for the leadership but only two are considered heavyweights: former deputy premier turned talk-show host Christy Clark and former minister of health Kevin Falcon.
Clark is the main choice of federal Liberals, Falcon of federal Conservatives.
Clark is running as an outsider (which is a bit of a stretch even if she wasn't in government during the HST debacle) with the best chance of winning a provincial election. That would be the best chance versus Falcon who is popular within the party but not so much with the general public (thanks to the HST and an occasionally polarizing personality).
All of this has given rise to the possibility of a middleweight candidate coming up the middle, a la Stéphane Dion. For what it's worth, George Abbott, the former minister of education, has the lead among caucus supporters.
All these scenarios, mind you, raise the spectre of a split, which is probably why Falcon is doing everything in his power to underscore the fact that if Christy Clark, his main rival, wins, conservative voters will likely leave the Liberals to join an alternative like the B.C. Conservative party.
The B.C. Conservatives have no relation to their federal cousins and have been non-players for nearly half a century. But the party exists on paper, has a certain amount of brand appeal and could fill a vacuum on the right.
Indeed, this is why the right-leaning, former Liberal minister Bill Bennett is threatening to run for the B.C. Conservative leadership, which is also having a leadership contest. (Sorry, non-British Columbians, I know this can be confusing.)
If you don't know of Bill Bennett — he's not the Bill Bennett who was Social Credit premier but the ousted former minister who claimed that premier Campbell once spit on him in anger — grab some popcorn and YouTube him.
Of course, not all conservatives agree on what is the best vehicle to unite the provincial right. In fact, the provincial Conservatives are competing with the emerging B.C. First party for that mantle.
B.C. First is the new political home of Vander Zalm and his anti-HST sidekick Chris Delaney. (If the name rings a bell it is because he once led B.C. Unity, another failed right-wing alternative to the B.C. Liberals.)
On the flip side of the spectrum, there is also the potential for a new centre-left party, should the Liberals implode.
It has long been rumoured that Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, a former NDP MLA, and his Vision Vancouver group have provincial aspirations, perhaps even those that would incorporate some disgruntled New Democrats.
Vision Vancouver did just that at the municipal level and, provincially, anything is possible given the current state of the NDP.
Almost all the NDP party heavyweights who are expected to throw their hats into the ring in the coming weeks carry the baggage of having backed the mercurial Carole James.
It raises the question of why create all that internal strife in the first place if you are essentially continuing with the status quo.
And it probably also opens up the possibility of more hardline NDP supporters voting Green in the next election, which should keep things interesting as well.
As you can see, the one true certainty in B.C. politics at the moment is that there is no certainty. A week in politics here is indeed a lifetime — and one that is never dull.