VANCOUVER — British Columbia’s Green Party has turned the province’s election campaign into an unpredictable three-way race as polls show a phenomenal rise in support.
The centre-right Liberal Party, led by Premier Christy Clark, is seeking to hang on to power after 16 years. Clark has repeatedly attacked the temperament of her main opponent, NDP Leader John Horgan, and his party’s economic policies. But Clark failed to deliver a knockout blow at last week’s leaders debate, and media outlets gave good marks to both Horgan and Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver.
Mainstreet Research president Quito Maggi, who has been polling the election for Postmedia News, said recent polls are showing stronger support for the Greens than ever seen, setting the party up for an historic breakthrough.
Although it’s early and B.C. is “notoriously difficult to call,” Maggi said the most recent polls suggest the Greens are poised to hold the balance of power in a minority government.
“That’s what’s making this election both interesting and unpredictable,” he said.
The Greens received less than 10 per cent of the popular vote in the last election, and only landed a single seat, Weaver’s. But Maggi said in this campaign, the party started off significantly stronger than before with 12 per cent of support from decided voters.
Support for the Greens and Weaver has only continued to grow as the campaign inches closer to the May 9 vote, threatening the frontrunners.
“It’s going to be a very tricky balancing act for the B.C. Liberals to hold on to government,” Maggi said. “It’s not impossible but the path is narrow.”
Maggi said most recent polling shows the Greens have swayed 25 per cent of voters, and among those supporters, 67 per cent are firm in their decision to support the party.
Even if the 33 per cent of Green supporters change their vote on election day in favour of the NDP, which is overwhelmingly the second choice, Maggi said the Greens are positioned to win at least four seats.
“It still means a historic result for the Green Party, the highest they’ve ever gotten in Canada, highest seat count, highest popular vote count, all of the above,” he said.
The Liberals started the campaign under a cloud, after the RCMP announced an investigation into political donations to parties. Elections BC referred its review of indirect political contributions and other contraventions of the Election Act to the Mounties so it wouldn’t interfere with its administration of the upcoming election.
The millions raised by the two leading parties — which earned B.C. the title of the “wild west” in international news reports — has been hotly debated.
NDP Leader John Horgan brought forward several unsuccessful bills in the legislature to ban corporate and union donations to parties and has vowed to ban such fund-raising if elected. But the New Democrats continue to accept corporate and union donations, and the party reported raising over $3 million in 2015.
Weaver, contrast, has pointed out the Greens don’t accept corporate or union donation and in 2015 the party raised only $400,000.
Both figures pale in comparison to the over $10 million raised by the Liberals in 2015, and over $12 million raised in 2016, including big donations from resource companies and lobbyists.
Amid criticism over pay-for-access events hosted by the Liberals, Clark announced in January that she would no longer receive a $50,000 annual stipend from her party.
The announcement came after the New York Times reported that on top of her government salary she was collecting the party stipend financed by political contributions earned at expensive private fund-raisers.
At the time, Clark said she made the decision to cancel the stipend because the issue had become a “distraction.”
Clark also came under fire at the beginning of the campaign when she accused the NDP for hacking the Liberal party’s website.
Her claims were unfounded and Clark eventually apologized to Horgan, but the incident gave the NDP leader ammunition to brand Clark as someone who “makes stuff up.”
In the past week, the United States’ move to slap tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber became the centre of the election campaign.
B.C. timber accounts for more than half of Canada’s softwood exports to the U.S. and the forestry sector accounts for 40 per cent of rural jobs in the province.
At a campaign event Thursday, Horgan pointed fingers at Clark for being “asleep at the switch” in negotiating a new agreement.
Although a new deal is ultimately determined by the federal government, provincial party leaders have been promoting their strategies to resolve the matter.
Clark announced Wednesday her party is calling on the federal government to ban the export of U.S. thermal coal through B.C.’s ports in retaliation to the timber tariffs.
Weaver issued a statement in response, calling the move overdue and cautioning the premier against playing politics at a time when the U.S. is threatening to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“B.C. needs to be carefully co-ordinating all of its moves on trade with Ottawa to ensure that B.C.’s interests are always front and centre,” he said.
Maggi said most voters make their decision based on economic factors, which remain strong in B.C. and favourable to the Liberals.
But if people are weighing other factors more heavily, he said, the Greens’ centrist economic policies balanced by left-leaning environmental and social policies are attractive to those looking for change.
“(Voters) have negative memories of an NDP government, they have negative experiences of current Liberal government and the current leader. Maybe people are thinking let’s give someone else a shot,” he said.