Why choice of Kelowna, B.C., as site of Liberal caucus retreat is all politics (and maybe wine)

Liberals are holding their national caucus meeting in Kelowna, B.C., this week, the site of an unexpected electoral breakthrough in 2015 — and where they might need another one in 2019.

Liberals might need more caucus colleagues from the B.C. Interior in 2019

Prime Minster Justin Trudeau is meeting with his caucus in Kelowna, B.C., on Wednesday and Thursday. (Liam Richards/Canadian Press)

The Okanagan is known for its scenic vistas and prize-winning vineyards. Not so much for electing Liberal MPs.

That changed in 2015. Aside from the valley's more apolitical pleasures, that might be why Liberals are holding their national caucus meeting in Kelowna, B.C., this week.

One of the biggest surprises on election night two years ago occurred in the riding of Kelowna–Lake Country, where the retreat is being held on Wednesday and Thursday.

The Liberal candidate, Stephen Fuhr, captured the seat away from the Conservatives' Ron Cannan with 46.2 per cent of the vote to 39.8 per cent. This represented a gain of 35 percentage points for the Liberals compared to their performance in the riding in 2011, their biggest increase anywhere in British Columbia.

It was a stunning result in a region of the B.C. Interior the Liberals have not held since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's father first stormed the country in the 1968 federal election. Fuhr's share of the vote was the highest any Liberal candidate has achieved in the area since the 1920s, before a three-party electoral system took root.

The riding is doubly significant for the Liberals considering it is their only seat outside of a major metropolitan area between B.C.'s Lower Mainland and Northern Ontario.

The Liberals' hold on Kelowna–Lake Country is accordingly vulnerable. The Okanagan Valley has traditionally been a Conservative stronghold. It has voted for the provincial B.C. Liberals (which, despite their name, are largely conservative) since the 1990s and Social Credit before that.

So buttressing the federal Liberals' chances in the riding with a visit from caucus makes strategic sense.

Small shifts in the Interior

Polls suggest that Liberal and Conservative support in the province has shifted only slightly since the last election, indicating closely fought ridings — which, considering its Conservative history, would include Kelowna–Lake Country despite the Liberals' six-point edge in 2015 — would probably still be battlegrounds if an election were held today.

According to the CBC's Poll Tracker, an aggregation of publicly available polling data, the Liberals have 38 per cent support in B.C., up three points from 2015. The Conservatives are down one point to 29 per cent, while the New Democrats have slipped about five points to 21 per cent support.

The latest Forum Research poll suggests Trudeau is still popular in the province with an approval rating of 53 per cent in B.C. — slightly above his standing nationwide

Mission Hill Winery in Kelowna, B.C. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer, who visited Kelowna last week, remains unknown to half of British Columbians. Just 15 per cent of them would prefer Scheer as prime minister over Trudeau, who garnered 47 per cent support in the Forum poll.

A recent Nanos Research survey put the margin closer on this question, at 41 per cent for Trudeau to 25 per cent for Scheer.

But the Liberal leader's advantage in B.C., and the small swing towards the Liberals since 2015, suggests that the party has hopes of holding a seat like Kelowna–Lake Country — and potentially winning more in the Okanagan and further afield in the B.C. Interior.

Potential wins in B.C.

The B.C. Interior would not have been a region seen as worth cultivating for the Liberals prior to the 2015 election. But it could now be one looking towards the next vote in 2019.

A number of ridings in the Interior were won by the Conservatives by narrow margins. First among them is Central Okanagan–Similkameen–Nicola, just across the water from Kelowna–Lake Country and which includes a small beachhead in Kelowna itself.

The Liberals came up just short in Central Okanagan–Similkameen–Nicola, losing to the Conservatives by 2.4 points. The party won most of the polls in the Kelowna part of the riding and was also competitive in West Kelowna.

The Conservatives' margin of victory was about five points in Kamloops–Thompson–Cariboo and Cariboo–Prince George, two Interior ridings to the north of the Okanagan, while the Liberals were nine points behind in North Okanagan–Shuswap and South Okanagan–West Kootenay (won by the NDP).

This gives the Liberals decent prospects in one to three ridings in the Interior, and perhaps as many as five — seats the Liberals might need in 2019 to make up for potential losses elsewhere in British Columbia.

And potential losses

The government's decision to approve the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline extension last year, which polls suggest is more popular in the Interior than in the rest of the province, could put some seats at the terminus of the pipeline in Greater Vancouver at risk.

Additionally, Jagmeet Singh, arguably the front-runner in the NDP leadership race, has had success in reaching out to the Sikh community, of which he is a member. This could put other B.C. seats at play if he becomes the next NDP leader.

In seven ridings in the province, at least 10 per cent of the population reports Punjabi being its mother tongue, according to the 2011 census. All of those ridings are in the Lower Mainland and six are currently held by Liberal MPs.

So the Liberals may be playing a longer game in selecting Kelowna as the site of this week's caucus retreat. The party only has one seat to defend in the region but, depending on what happens elsewhere in the province, the Liberals might need more than that to avoid defeat in 2019.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.