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BC Conservatives’ swift ascent stands in stark contrast to United’s 2023 stumbles, says polling

The BC Conservatives should be seen as the clear winners among the opposition parties this year
The rebranding from BC Liberals to BC United has not enthralled the public, writes columnist Mario Canseco. | Kristen Holliday, Castanet

In the early 1990s, a clearly exasperated Brian Mulroney spoke to Peter C. Newman – on the record – about the conundrum that his Progressive Conservative Party faced in Canada’s federal political scene.

The prime minister’s discourse can be summed up in two sentences: “Anything I promise to Alberta, Preston Manning will promise more. Anything I promise to Quebec, Lucien Bouchard will promise more.”

BC United Leader Kevin Falcon faces a similar dilemma in British Columbia as the year draws to a close. Three decades ago, Mulroney was preoccupied with the rise of “reform populism” in the West and separatism in Quebec.

Falcon is currently caught between a high level of confidence in the BC New Democratic Party government, with a business community that no longer thinks about “the dreaded 1990s”, and a Conservative Party of BC that has taken more radical positions on various topics. 

Having partially surrendered his stewardship of the environment, Falcon has had a difficult time connecting as the BC Conservatives have turned to “chicken on every pot” politics. One of the most formidable performers of the BC United caucus has been Skeena MLA Ellis Ross, whose passionate defence of the LNG industry may have made BC United members wonder if, just as in 2018, they made the wrong choice on their ranked leadership ballot.

The rebranding from BC Liberals to BC United has not enthralled the public.

In February, the party counted on the support of 36 per cent of decided voters under its old name and Falcon’s approval stood at 44 per cent. By September, BC United was virtually tied with the BC Conservatives (20 per cent to 19 per cent) and Falcon’s rating dropped to 29 per cent.

In the meantime, the BC NDP has maintained a high level of support, and the approval rating for Premier David Eby remains far superior to what is posted by his challengers. Eby’s first year in office was marked by proposals to deal with housing, long identified as the most important issue facing the province, and good relations with federal and municipal administrations.

For the BC Green Party, 2023 was not particularly memorable. A key component of their strategy was to run Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi against Health Minister Adrian Dix in the recently created Vancouver-Renfrew riding: not because it was winnable, but because it provided an opportunity to scold a cabinet member for his portfolio management.

In the end, Gandhi was removed from the party over his use of social media, but the rationale shows the BC Greens getting closer to the place they occupied in provincial politics in the early years of this century: a protest party looking for supposed “moral victories” that do little for constituents and have no influence on policy development.

In September, 12 per cent of decided voters in British Columbia were ready to back the Greens – three points below their 2020 election total.

The BC Conservatives should be seen as the clear winners among the opposition parties.

Poorly conducted public opinion polls probably led voters to believe that the party had a stature in 2020 that it simply did not possess. Running candidates in 19 constituencies yielded two per cent of the vote in the pandemic election.

According to a running tally kept by political observer Hugh Chan, BC United has already secured the nomination of 24 candidates for the next provincial election. The BC Conservatives are next with 21 candidates, already in a better position than in 2020.

Province-wide campaigns require more than finding contenders. The Libertarian Party ran in 25 constituencies in 2020, but had no presence in debates or media stories. Representation in the Legislative Assembly ensures that BC Conservative leader John Rustad will be featured on the televised debates that take place in 2024.

One area where the party could also grow is fundraising. From July to September 2023, the BC Conservatives raised just over $52,000 – well short of the BC Greens (almost $162,000), BC United (just over $399,000) and the BC NDP (just over $868,000).

The results of fundraising in the last quarter of 2023 will be known in February. If the BC Conservatives climb into six-digit territory, and BC United falls closer to the $300k mark, we could see Rustad emerging as the de-facto “premier-in-waiting” for opposition voters.

When we asked about the prospect of a true merger between BC United and the BC Conservatives in September, the idea was attractive for 54 per cent of 2020 BC Liberal voters. There may still be time to “unite the right”, but the window could be shorter than expected.

The next provincial election is scheduled for October, a month in which British Columbians do not usually connect with provincial politics. We have voted in May in every election this century with the exception of the pandemic ballot of 2020.

There may still be a justification for a spring campaign, with doorknockers probably thankful to be able to proceed with little or no rain. However, as was the case in 2020, the decision will have to be taken by the government.

Mario Canseco is the President of Research Co. From 2003 to 2005, he worked as an editorial researcher for Peter C. Newman’s books The Secret Mulroney Tapes and Here Be Dragons.