VANCOUVER – Once believed to be a contender to displace the B.C. Liberal Party against the front-running New Democrats in next week’s provincial election, the BC Conservatives now face grim returns at the ballot boxes, say a former party member and a political expert.
The rise and fall of the provincial Tories has been rapid — Elections BC numbers state the party had only two per cent of the popular vote during the 2009 election, yet the party sat nearly neck-and-neck in the polls with the Liberals three years later.
But the gains were short-lived, superficial and counterproductive, said John Martin, a former Conservative candidate now running under the Liberal banner.
“They’ve just been having a disaster of a campaign,” he said. “They’re not going to win a seat.”
“When (the BC Conservatives) polled 23 per cent about a year and a half ago, or so, that didn’t equate into membership or donations.”
As a Conservative, Martin ran and lost to the NDP in a Chilliwack-Hope byelection just over a year ago.
Although he secured 25 per cent of the vote, Martin still ranked behind the Liberal candidate — an outcome he said made him realize the so-called free enterprise parties couldn’t usurp Adrian Dix’s NDP while divided.
“It was just a very temporary parking spot for some disgruntled people who wanted to see some things tighten up,” Martin explained.
But Conservative Leader John Cummins, 71, refutes Martin’s comments, saying Conservative doorknockers and candidates tell a different story of the support they’ve received from B.C. voters.
“I understand the polls and the gross numbers,” Cummins said. “But I think this is election is different. There is considerable upset with the Liberals.”
“The response that our people are getting at the doors is simply phenomenal.”
Martin switched party allegiance to Christy Clark’s Liberals about six months after the byelection loss, wanting to unite the counter-NDP vote and improve his own chances of a May 14 election victory, Martin said.
“It wasn’t a matter of leadership,” Martin said of Cummins, despite leaving at a time when the BC Conservatives were plagued with expulsions and resignations.
But Richard Johnston, Canada’s chair of research in public opinion and elections at the University of B.C., said Cummins’ leadership has played a significant roll in the fate of the party.
“In some ways the very thing that made John Cummins more credible than any of his predecessors in living memory was also what made it difficult for him to expand the base more than he has,” Johnston said.
The Conservative leader has largely run a niche “resentment” platform in both federal and provincial politics, Johnston said, and is an “authoritarian figure” within his party.
“He had sort of a ‘my way or the highway’ approach to things and the party bled personnel and credibility along the way. (In) some sense, it was kind of dead-on-arrival,” he said.
When some among his party called for Cummins’ resignation, the leader repeatedly rejected them, instead choosing to can mutinous members.
Cummins’ qualities aren’t those usually associated with the role of premier, Johnston said, adding the Conservatives’ campaign has been flawed from the start.
“What could be improved,” he asked laughing. “Well, if you were willing to run history backwards and start over.”
Several polls showed a drop in public approval for the Conservative leader after last month’s televised leadership debates, a forum Cummins used as a last-ditch attempt to steal votes from the Liberals.
“Everyone knows that the Liberals can’t win this election,” Cummins said at the start of the debates to viewers.
“So you’ve probably tuned in to see what (NDP Leader)Adrian Dix will look like as a premier,” he added.
The Conservative leader pointed out a vote in his direction would send a message — a protest vote.
B.C. Tory success has largely stemmed from voters’ fair-weather disapproval of the Liberals, according to Johnston.
“I think they went up because the Liberals were going down,” he said, largely blaming the harmonized sales tax “fiasco” for the Liberals’ slump. The HST was introduced by the then-Gordon Campbell government and voted down later in a province-wide referendum.
“But then it was over … the Liberals stopped coming apart.”
Johnston said despite a Liberal party that has been “dogged by troubles” in the lead up to the election, the party has nevertheless attracted a number of credible candidates — something the Tory camp has been hard pressed to do.
The Conservatives took a serious hit when four candidates were turfed for various social media blunders, Johnston said, which could have been avoided with a more rigorous screening process.
Two of the candidates — Ian Toothill in Vancouver-False Creek and Mischa Popoff in Boundary-Similkameen — are now running as independents.
An airtight vetting system, however, can be difficult for new parties that don’t have massive funds or ongoing operations, Johnston said.
“As you’re trying to build a candidate group, you kind of take what you can get and they’ve been punished for that,” he said.
Most importantly, Johnston said the Conservatives lack candidates so they’re not even an option in many voters’ minds.
The Conservatives are running 56 candidates in 85 ridings.
Cummins said he believes the Conservatives have a fair shot at winning seats in the Okanagan, the Shuswap, Peace River region, and the eastern Fraser Valley.
“I’m confident we can pick up, you know, a couple of seats out of Richmond,” he added. “We think we can carry the day.”
“I don’t think there’s any such thing as a Liberal stronghold in this province right now and I mean, I know what the polls are saying today … if you take a look at the undecided numbers, and undecideds are still up there.”
Cummins said he’s done the best he can with the limited resources his party has had for the campaign.
“We haven’t been able to get our message out the way that we wanted — obviously — and that’s been a problem, but we fully anticipated that,” he said.
Cummins’ self-dubbed “common-sense” platform includes balanced budgets, fair taxation, fiscal accountability, as well as plans to develop natural resources, the technology sector, and communities rural and northern B.C.
He’s also come out against tolls, foreign workers, and what he calls a punitive carbon tax that hurts consumers, industry, and commuters who lack transit alternatives.
“The support that we’ve been getting demonstrates there is a need for the BC Conservatives,” Cummins said.
But the Conservatives won’t have much of a shot to relive their Social Credit glory days, said the political expert from UBC, even with increased time, resources and a leader with broader appeal than Cummins.
“The province has changed,” Johnston said, adding rural and northern ridings don’t hold as much clout as they did fifty years ago.
“The outlying regions of the province — the Interior and the North — relatively speaking, counted for more demographically than they do now.”
Johnston said the best possible outcome for the BC Conservatives on May 14 would be to elect a few candidates to the legislature in Victoria.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said.