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In BC, déjà vu all over again

Don’t overthink this: the reason we’re having an early federal election is because the Liberals think a majority is within their grasp. That’s it.
New buses added to help improve public transit in BC
Watching, learning. (BC Government Flickr)

The next few days will see a lot of rhetorical questions (and rhetoric, but we’ll tackle that another day) about the reason we’re all here: why are we having this federal election, anyway?

Pundits and political analysts sometimes make the mistake of overthinking or wanting to seem like they’ve got juicy insider intel or amazing insight. And sometimes, they do. Just not this time.

The reason we’re having an early federal election in a pandemic is very simple: the Liberals think they can win.

That’s it. Publish column.

In British Columbia, you’ll be forgiven if this feels familiar.

The Prime Minister and his braintrust paid close attention to last year’s snap BC election, called under astonishingly similar circumstances. Consider:

  • A stable minority government facing opposition parties with still-unproven leaders;
  • A cautious public wary of rocking the boat in a crisis;
  • A government that has spent wildly (or generously, if you prefer) on pandemic aid and supports, eager to be seen as the party doing it, despite cross-partisan support in parliament/the legislature;
  • A hazy public rationale for forcing an election, because the leader cannot under any circumstances admit what everyone knows is the real reason: they can win.

On the last point, watching how this played out in BC no doubt helped reinforce the decision to pull the trigger.

It’s easy to forget, but after John Horgan made a similar decision and triggered a snap pandemic election, the NDP actually had a very rough first week, mostly because there was a chasm between the given reasons for an election, and what most observers understood – correctly – as the real reason.

But that fizzled out. New announcements, official campaign platform launches, media tired of asking the same question, an embarrassing candidate moment or two, and the reason for the election became last week’s issue. Yesterday’s news.

In the end, a rough first week wasn’t insurmountable.

In fact, the federal Liberals will probably note that the BC NDP made the first week rougher on themselves than necessary. Every time Horgan was asked why he called the election, he gave a different answer. If he’d had a single, standard answer, it would’ve been a smoother ride. It didn't have to be a satisfying answer; what counts is consistency.

Here’s what the federal Liberals likely took from this: We’re ahead in the polls, and our vote is remarkably electorally efficient. We’ll take a hit in the first few days. But we can ride it out, and either bounce back as the issue recedes from view, or not lose enough of the lead to matter. A majority government is worth the risk.

But what about the Delta variant, or BC wildfires, you ask?

In the end, an uptick in COVID-19 cases during last year’s provincial election campaign didn’t really harm the NDP – and that was before mass vaccination.

As for the wildfires, the sad, cynical fact is that Ottawa will view them as a dire but ultimately regional issue, that might conceivably cost the Liberals a shot at one or two otherwise winnable seats like Kelowna-Lake Country, but won’t affect votes elsewhere.

There’s sad precedent for this. In 2011, a federal election was called despite a state of emergency in Manitoba, where widespread flooding displaced some 7,000 people. The election call generated a lot of anger; but ultimately the Winnipeg Free Press noted the floods were “barely a ripple” in the election.

Like it or not, the election is happening. And the reason why is very, very simple.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca