NANAIMO, B.C. — It’s a Tuesday night in early March, and 300 New Democrats, community leaders and curious onlookers have packed a hotel hall in downtown Nanaimo to hear Thomas Mulcair.
After a brief introduction by local Vancouver Island candidates, the NDP leader emerges from the back of the room. Mulcair, with a smile ear to ear, enthusiastically greets his supporters, firmly shaking the hands of those in his path as he walks to the front of the room.
“Wow. You have no idea what energy it is in my line of work to walk into a room like that. Thank you for that incredibly kind welcome,” he says.
The NDP leader is relaxed. Patient. Excited. When he spots someone in the audience with a “Stop Harper” sign — a replica of the one hoisted by former Senate page Brigette DePape during a speech from the throne — he tells the crowd: “I’ll tell you what. There is only one team that can stop Harper, and that’s the NDP.”
In a 30-minute speech, he covers the NDP’s opposition to the anti-terrorism Bill C-51, the party’s plans to adopt a $15-a-day child care program and to enact legislation only if it respects aboriginal rights. Mulcair tries to paint himself as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s greatest adversary.
“Just take a quick peek at how he looks at me during Question Period,” Mulcair says.
He slams Harper for trying to “cheat the system.”
And he sneers at Justin Trudeau for overseeing a corrupt Liberal party.
But the NDP leader says nothing about Elizabeth May, the Green party leader.
Mulcair is back in British Columbia this week. Winning more seats in the province is crucial to every major political party’s electoral strategy this fall. It’s why the NDP leader is spending so much time touring the province. It’s why Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was in Vancouver this month. It’s why the Conservative party is running attack ads against the Liberal leader aimed at ethnic voters in hotly contested ridings. It’s why May and the Greens’ opened a three-storey West Coast headquarters in Victoria.
And May could be Mulcair’s greatest foe in this neck of the woods.
Seated in the second row, Nanaimo resident Bob Bossin and his 15-year-old son, Davy, believe the Green party might surge on the Island and that ridings such as this one – Nanaimo–Ladysmith – could be vulnerable.
“I gather they’ve raised a lot of funds. Everybody loves Elizabeth May. We’ve gone to a couple of meetings when Elizabeth has spoken, and there is a lot of energy around them,” Bossin says.
“It’s certainly a worry for ridings like this where the NDP has held it for a number of years, ‘cause the Greens could come up just enough and get a bad vote split and then all of a sudden there is a Conservative.”
The Greens have a strong candidate in this riding — Paul Manly, the son of former NDP MP Jim Manly, who had initially tried to run for the NDP but was vetoed by party headquarters in Ottawa.
Ken Pearce, the NDP’s Nanaimo–Ladysmith riding association president, thinks his party will win the riding by 3,000 votes. But he believes the “problem” is that residents seem to think they need to vote Liberal to kick Harper out.
“[The NDP] cannot form government without B.C.,” Pearce says.
“We have to take all the seats on Vancouver Island…. There are [seven] seats on Vancouver Island. We need to take [six]. We’ll give Elizabeth May one.”
Mulcair’s trip to Vancouver Island on March 3 and 4 helped increase his visibility in the area and lend encouragement to the local campaign.
“He’s not well-known out here for some reason. Why, I do not know,” Pearce says.
Sheila Malcolmson is the NDP candidate in the upcoming election. She spent 12 years in local politics, and tells The Huffington Post Canada that she’s campaigning on her own track record because she is better-known than Mulcair here.
“I must say I am campaigning for myself,” she says.
She knocks on doors, carrying a pamphlet showing the local results from the 2011 election. The chart clearly shows a two-way race between the NDP and the Conservatives, with the Greens and the Liberals far behind.
The major challenge, Malcolmson says, is complacency.
“New Democrats have held this seat for the last 11 years, so there are some fears that we kind of take it for granted.”
She points out that, before the NDP won the seat in 2004, it was a seat held by the Reform/Canadian Alliance/Conservative party for 11 years.
“Our riding kind of swings New Democrat and conservative populist, and it has done that for the last 30 years.”
The Conservative vote is very strong and stable, she adds. “It doesn’t matter who runs, they have a very strong base.”
Malcolmson believes the Greens could play a factor in the race if people think there is no way a Tory will be elected and they feel “safe to vote Green.”
“So we need progressive voters – anybody that is concerned about keeping Conservatives out – we need them to come out and show up.”
Mulcair’s B.C. campaign director, Glen Sanford, plays down May’s potential role as a spoiler.
“In virtually every riding, with a couple of exceptions in Vancouver, we are the only party that can replace Stephen Harper and the Conservatives,” Sanford repeats over and over during a phone interview.
“There is no magic bullet,” he says. “That’s the strategy … make sure people understand the importance of going out to vote and to vote NDP if they want to get rid of Stephen Harper.”
“If British Columbians scatter their votes around, that will help the Conservatives, that’s for sure.”
In 2011, the NDP won 12 seats in B.C. and finished second in the other 18 races, Sanford notes. “So in most cases, it is a two-way race.”
There are six more seats up for grabs in B.C. this time. With 42 ridings in the balance, it’s no surprise the province is an attractive target for all four national party leaders.
May believes the NDP leader is spending so much time in the province because he fears her Green party.
"That's why Thomas Mulcair was on Vancouver Island,” she says. “There is a visible, palpable momentum for the Green party, particularly in British Columbia, so some of the old-line parties notice it.”
Mulcair is hoping to solidify the NDP gains in B.C. where they won 12 seats — up from nine in 2008 — with 32.5 per cent support in 2011. The Conservatives, with 44 per cent of support, won 21 seats. The Liberals, with 18 per cent of support, held two metro Vancouver seats. May won her Saanich–Gulf Island seat.
But she, like all three other parties with a stake in the province, has her eye on many more.
“Ground Zero for the ‘Green Coast’ is Southern Vancouver Island, and basically as you go up Vancouver Island, the Green strength is growing,” she says.
So does that mean possibly two extra seats for the Greens later this year?
“No, no, no, no, no. Way, way, way more than that,” May says, listing off other seats she thinks are in play such as Burnaby North–Seymour and West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country.
If she’s worried about vote splitting, she doesn’t let on. Though she does say she wants to be “careful” about not helping to elect more Conservative MPs.
“I'm going to keep my eye on that,” she tells HuffPost. That’s why, she says, the Greens “are concentrating where we know we can win.”
“The Green strategy rejects the whole notion that we have to be very frightened and very limited in our thinking and panicked about vote splitting. Canada’s problem is not vote splitting, it is vote abandoning,” she adds.
“Where Greens do well, it is by driving up voter turnout.”
May says, often, that she won her riding by increasing the voter turnout. In 2011, her riding had almost 74 per cent, the second-highest voter turnout in Canada. That’s true. But the voter turnout in Saanich–Gulf Island has been higher than 70 per cent in several past elections, with a strong Green showing. She won in 2011 because the Liberal vote collapsed to six per cent from 39 per cent.
May insists that she isn’t worried at all “about this phantom vote-splitting thing” and says voters are becoming immune to that line.
Power Over Politics
She says the NDP ran a desperation campaign during a 2012 byelection, telling Victoria voters they would end up electing a Conservative if they voted Green. In the end, the Green candidate narrowly lost to the NDP, and the Tory candidate received just 14.5 per cent of the vote.
May says the results showed how the NDP exaggerated the threat of the Tories, and Victoria voters didn’t listen to that message again during the 2013 provincial election — they elected a Green member to the provincial legislature.
“If you cry wolf too often, people don’t believe you anymore,” she says.
Her candidate in Victoria, however, says strategic voting is a real concern.
“I think that people are very afraid of another Stephen Harper majority, so, yes, it is a factor. I think I would be unrealistic if I said it wasn’t a factor,” Jo-Ann Roberts says in a phone interview.
“I think it is terribly ironic that it is the NDP who are using this argument – for years, this was the argument used against them.”
Roberts is a well-known journalist and former host of CBC Radio’s “All Points West.” She told HuffPost she was approached by the Liberals to run in Victoria but chose to join the Greens instead because May was showing how politics could be done differently.
“I think if I was going for power over principles, it might have been a better choice,” she jokes, noting that when she joined the Greens she didn’t know the polls were looking so favourable.
Victoria has been held by the NDP since 2006 but was a Liberal seat from 1993 to 2006 and a Conservative seat from 1972 to 1988. This year, it may be one of the ridings with a real four-way split.
The Greens’ biggest challenge could be people like Alex Gosselin. The 25-year-old engineering student is a Green party member and was among the hundreds who attended a Q&A session with Justin Trudeau at UBC a day after Mulcair’s Nanaimo town hall.
“I wanted to hear what Justin Trudeau has to say,” he says. “I’m most likely going to vote Green again unless Justin Trudeau can convince me that I should strategically vote in favour of the Liberals. I don’t think that’s likely, but I’m willing to give him a chance.”
He believes a lot of Greens across the country are having the same internal debate.
“It’s a question of whether we are more interested in supporting the Green party … so they can be given more respect by the establishment of this country [or in] getting rid of Stephen Harper,” he says. “Those two goals, in some ridings, are in conflict.”
A senior Liberal source close to the B.C. campaign says May could play the role of spoiler.
“It’s almost too early to say how it is going to break out,” he said.
If May recruits high-profile candidates with lots of volunteers who can raise $50,00-$75,000 to run Cadillac campaigns, he says, the Greens can have a big influence on a local races.
“That candidate is still not going to win but [could] get 15, 16 per cent, up from seven or eight per cent, and all of a sudden another candidate that should have won that riding doesn’t because they are pulling disproportionately from one candidate.”
A Good Offence
With only two out of the current 36 seats in B.C., the Liberals have lots of room to grow, but the region has never been too friendly to them. Their best showing recently was in 2006, when they won nine seats with close to 28 per cent of the vote in the province.
This time, the Grits see five almost certain wins, sources say, including the two seats they currently hold in Vancouver Centre and Vancouver Quadra. The party won’t identify the three other ridings they expect to win, but they most likely include Vancouver Granville and Vancouver South.
The Conservatives are worried about Vancouver South. They have held the riding since 2011 and for months have run ads aimed at the Chinese community attacking Trudeau’s stand on legalizing marijuana.
The Liberals’ internal numbers also show strong support in three ridings along the north shore of Vancouver, as well as in the Surrey and Burnaby ridings where Mulcair is travelling this week.
A senior NDP source said New Democrats want to leave the Liberals as little breathing room as possible and want to present a good offence rather than retreat to a defensive position.
The party held a rally on Wednesday in Liberal MP Hedy Fry’s Vancouver Centre riding.
“I’ve been travelling a lot throughout B.C. lately. And whether it is in Campbell River or Port Coquitlam, Surrey or Victoria, Nanaimo or North Vancouver, one thing has emerged loud and clear, that after nine long years of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, British Columbians are ready for change in Ottawa,” Mulcair told the crowd.
Earlier that day, Mulcair visited a bakery in Burnaby, a riding currently held by his MP, Kennedy Stewart. Stewart won’t be running for this seat this fall – he’s moving to the new riding of Burnaby South, a safer seat for the NDP. The Liberals think they could win this riding, now known as Burnaby North–Seymour, which straddles the Burrard Inlet and includes a large part of North Vancouver.
“Our internal polls place us ahead of the Conservatives as of January,” says Terry Beech, the Liberal candidate in that riding, “but we’re not taking anything for granted.”
If the party doesn’t gain on its two current Vancouver seats, Beech acknowledges, that would be a disaster.
“I think that 2011 was a good call to reality for the party. Now that we have gone back to our grassroots, everyone is committed to getting on the ground, door knocking … and actually hearing what our constituents have to say.”
On Thursday, Mulcair will be in B.C. with NDP MP Jinny Sims, who is running in Surrey–Newton, another battleground riding between the New Democrats and the Grits. Sims faces a tough battle against former Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal, whom she defeated in 2011 by 903 votes.
While the Liberals think as many as 15 to 20 seats could be in play in the province, one source acknowledges that they can’t win anything beyond the south on Vancouver Island. “We just can’t.”
Local radio reporter, Hilary Eastmure from 91.7 Coast FM News, says Trudeau’s lack of interest in making any sort of appeal to Nanaimo voters is “disheartening.” He hasn’t been to the area since 2013.
“People feel isolated from that party and ignored,” she says. “Nothing will ever change for [the federal Liberals] if they keep up that attitude and see sort of, the whole Island as a lost cause. It would be nice to see them put some sort of an effort.”
UBC political scientist Allan Tupper says it doesn’t make much sense for party leaders to tour areas they have no hope of winning. And he believes the results of the upcoming federal vote in B.C. will largely mirror the last election.
“You have to switch a lot of votes around to get a different result,” he says.
Is Change Unlikely?
Pollster Dimitri Pantazopoulos, a partner at Maple Leaf Strategies who has worked with the Tories and provincial Liberals, agrees that no party is going to gain a lot of ground in the next election.
“I don’t believe there is going to be a whole lot of movement in B.C. It may be a game of inches depending on what is happening elsewhere.”
Pantazopoulos believes that, with the six new seats, the Liberals can win two more ridings and the Conservatives another four because of the way the boundaries are being redistributed.
“People tend to vote for the major parties and don’t ‘waste’ a vote on a minor party, because they want to elect a government,” he says. He notes that the 2011 federal NDP surge was based mostly on people who left their natural home, either in the Bloc Québécois or in the Liberal party.
In B.C., however, he says the NDP has an added advantage because the federal party can piggy-back on the provincial party’s strength: its trained volunteers, its lists of supporters, its well-developed ground game.
Riding redistribution, the lack of incumbents (at least 12 ridings out of 42 won’t have sitting MPs competing for re-election), money, the strength of the candidates and hard work could make a difference in the few seats that are not solid NDP, or solid Liberal or solid Conservative, he adds.
A Liberal source predicts “more three-way races in B.C. then anywhere else in the country, at least on a per capita basis.”
That’s something Conservative strategist and former cabinet minister Stockwell Day is counting on.
“I think [the Tories] are going to run hard on the economic message and let the two other parties fight,” he tells HuffPost.
Several Conservatives, including Day, believe it’s possible the Tories will lose votes but actually win more seats if the Liberals take support from the NDP, letting Conservative candidates slip past.
“I don’t see any particular area that has radically opened up for the Liberals … [but] I always like to see dreamers.”
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