British Columbia·FROM THE ARCHIVES

How the B.C. election of '96 changed provincial politics

It was a tight election that included a singing candidate, plenty of scandal, and a narrow victory. Such was the B.C. election of 1996, the last time the provincial NDP were elected to power.

Only once has the B.C. NDP won two consecutive elections — but they haven't won since then

Former B.C. premier and NDP leader Glen Clark when he narrowly won the 1996 provincial election. (CBC)

It was a tight election that included a singing candidate, plenty of scandal, and the ultimate demise of one of B.C.'s longest-standing parties.  

Such was the B.C. election of 1996, the last time the provincial NDP was elected to power. 

Although the NDP managed to narrowly win its second consecutive victory, it lost 12 seats and the popular vote to Gordon Campbell's B.C. Liberals. 

"[It was] one of those moments that reminds us of the perils of the first-past-the-post system," said University of Victoria associate professor emeritus Norman Ruff. 

This video, originally broadcast on May 29, 1996, captures the day after the election:

From the Archives '96: The road ahead for Premier Glen Clark

5 years ago
Duration 2:31
The CBC's Terry Milewski looks at the tough road ahead for the NDP and Glen Clark after their slim election win. 2:31

Glen Clark had recently taken over the B.C. NDP leadership from Mike Harcourt, who had defeated the long-standing Social Credit Party during the 1991 election.

But Harcourt stepped down after the so-called "bingogate" scandal in which an NDP staffer used money raised by a charity to fund the party, which set the stage for a potentially difficult win. 

Helping the NDP's cause, however, was the B.C. Reform Party, led by Jack Weisgerber, which many have argued split the vote on the right and contributed towards the NDP's narrow victory. 

​"They were a significant force on the right wing," Ruff said. "I suppose you could say they helped deny Mr. Campbell a victory."

From the Archives '96:Highlights from the campaign trail

5 years ago
Duration 2:08
A look back at 26 days on the B.C. campaign trail. 2:08

Vote splitting on the right

Ruff, like many other political scientists, said a look back at history shows that most of the NDP's electoral wins have been helped along by vote-splitting on the right. 

But Bill Tieleman, the NDP's communications director at the time, said a good portion of the party's win was due to the Liberal Party's own campaign missteps. 

"They made a number of key errors," Tieleman said, pointing to Campbell's promise to privatize B.C. Rail and reduce the number of ridings, which would have decreased seats in the North and the Interior.

"They made their own mistakes."

Tieleman said one of the biggest scandals for the Liberals were accusations that Campbell had been meeting in private with the Socreds as part of a bid to unite the right. 

Campbell and the Liberals denied the allegations, but Socred leader Larry Gillanders insisted the Liberals asked 20 of the party's candidates to step aside.  

Party system in transition

The Socreds — the party that had ruled B.C. for so long and had already lost most of its seats in '91 — ended up losing all of its remaining seven seats during the election. 

The end result was a complete shift in the province's three-party system, according to Tieleman and Ruff.  

"It was a party system still in transition," Ruff said. 

The Liberals had previously been seen as the province's distant second opposition, Ruff said, but Campbell turned the party into a legitimate opponent for the NDP, absorbing votes from the collapsing Socreds.

This video captures the anti-NDP jingle Cambell was often spotted singing on the campaign trail:

From the Archives '96: Gordon Campbell's election anthem

5 years ago
Duration 0:33
B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Campbell tours B.C. with a guitar and a campaign song. 0:33

Parallels to 2017?

But what's a look back in time if not to glean insight into the future? 

For the upcoming election this May, Ruff sees Andrew Weaver and the B.C. Green Party gaining traction and potentially undergoing a shift similar to the Liberals of '96. 

"What Andrew Weaver seems to be doing right now is redefining the Green Party as a party of protest against the Liberals and against the NDP as well," Ruff said.  

As for other similarities, Tieleman points to parallels between the NDP's successful platform of '96 and its platform today, which includes freezing BC Hydro and ICBC rates and raising the minimum wage. 

But politics aside, Tieleman sees a potential win for the NDP in historical numbers: it was 16 years between the last two NDP governments, and it's now been 16 years since they were in power in 2001. 

"Could there be an NDP government?" Tieleman quipped. "It does seems to go in 16-year cycles."

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