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Taking flight

Rob Shaw: New BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon has his seat in the legislature, plus takeaways for all three parties after Saturday’s Vancouver-Quilchena byelection.

BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon cruised to an early and easy victory on byelection night in Vancouver-Quilchena, after a race that offered a few clues about the strengths and weaknesses of the provincial parties.

Falcon picked up 58.61 per cent of the vote – putting him roughly in line with the BC Liberal results there in the last two provincial elections. He’ll pick up a seat in the legislature and likely be sitting across from Premier John Horgan in the last week or two of the spring session.

“Tonight we got a wonderful message from the voters of Vancouver-Quilchena that said it is time for an end to the empty rhetoric,” Falcon said in his acceptance speech. “It is time for a government that gets results.”

Maybe. But there are other factors also at play than simply that.

First, the BC Liberals are no doubt eyeing the 6.65 per cent of the vote eaten up by the BC Conservative candidate Dallas Brodie. Those are votes syphoned directly away from the BC Liberals. While a small amount in this byelection, they could be the difference between victory and defeat in some closely-fought Metro Vancouver ridings in the next provincial campaign.

Party strategists are going to have to think hard about how to minimize the conservative bleed, while also keeping the BC Liberals in the centre of the political spectrum needed to court mainstream urban voters – most of whom don’t hold far-right conservative beliefs.

For the BC NDP, the 24.48 per cent of the vote captured by candidate Jeanette Ashe is disappointing, but not surprising.

There were several factors at play.

Vancouver-Quilchena has long been one of the safety seats for the BC Liberals and a tough nut for New Democrats to crack.

Governing parties generally do not do well in by-elections, as voters consider it a free shot to vote their frustrations without the consequence of bringing down the government.

And low voter turnout – likely hovering around 27 per cent in the byelection – tends to favour the incumbent party, in this case the BC Liberals.

Still, Ashe did not appear to be the breakout superstar candidate that New Democrat strategists billed her to be. Her delivery was dry and wooden. She most often sounded like she was reading BC NDP caucus attack lines directly off a piece of paper, with little personality added. She didn’t appear to make much of a connection with voters – even small things went unfixed, like routinely butchering the name of the riding when saying it out loud.

Then there was the BC NDP strategy in the byelection, which appeared threefold: Toss every issue on every topic at Falcon to see what sticks, attempt to goad him into unnecessary all-candidates debates where he might misspeak, and try to entrap him in a moment where he was offensively dismissive of a strong female candidate.

None of it appeared particularly successful.

The attack lines were ancient – including highlighting decisions the government Falcon was part of, which were made three premiers and more than 20 years ago, in some cases. He failed to take the bait on debates, recognizing he was going to win anyway. And in the one public debate Falcon did do, on CKNW radio, Ashe abruptly and bizarrely blurted out near the end that Falcon was “mansplaining” to her while he was answering a question – a clumsy execution of a clumsy strategy.

The BC Liberals countered with a campaign focused on affordability issues like housing, the family doctor shortage and inflation.

“I get they are going to try and criticize my record, but I’m here to talk about their record,” Falcon said in his victory speech. “They’ve been in government now five years. This is a second term, and we’ve got the worst access to family physicians that we’ve ever seen… and I think at the end of the day people are getting concerned about getting rhetoric, and not results.”

It was a perfectly serviceable narrative for a byelection, but the BC Liberals will one day also have to offer up some actual solutions on those files. The reason the BC NDP hasn’t solved them already is not for lack of trying, but because they are enormously complex and expensive. Voters will want to one day know if the BC Liberals have a plan, or are just crying wolf.

Finally, there were the BC Greens.

Candidate Wendy Hayko picked up almost 10 per cent of the vote – a loss of almost one-third of the BC Greens’ share of the popular vote in the last two elections in that riding.

Both BC Green MLAs, Sonia Furstenau and Adam Olsen, campaigned with Hayko in the riding. Let's hope they did as much listening to what voters told them, as they did trying to sell them a message that doesn’t appear to be resonating.

The Green brand has taken a shellacking recently, with the disastrous performance of the federal Greens in last fall’s federal election. It’s not clear if provincial Greens just sat on their hands in the byelection, or went elsewhere. But the result should worry the party.

In the end, the Vancouver-Quilchena byelection only served to offer clues about the political parties at a moment in time in a riding the BC Liberals were always destined to win.

A more interesting byelection will be coming up within the next six months in Surrey South, after the resignation of BC Liberal MLA Stephanie Cadieux. This used to be a strong BC Liberal riding, but the party barely won it in 2020 during the orange BC NDP wave in Metro Vancouver.

Changing demographics and younger voters moving there for more affordable housing, will make it a perfect test battleground for the urban platforms of the BC NDP and BC Liberals, a race to watch with keen interest.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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