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Gary Mason: B.C. Liberals look strong as Tories slide in polls

You have to wonder what B.C. Conservative leader John Cummins is thinking these days.

His dream of reviving his once moribund political party appears to be dead – killed by the dubious ambitions of those who thought the dramatic inroads it was making under his guidance could only be extended by someone else. This began a destructive insurgency and ultimately the resignation of the party's only MLA, John van Dongen, a Liberal defector many accused of being one of the principal architects of the ultimately disastrous attempts to get Mr. Cummins to leave.

A new Ipsos Reid poll this week confirmed just how dramatic the Tory slide has been. Where a poll by the same firm in June showed support for the party at 16 per cent, the most recent survey indicated it had plunged into single digits. Not surprisingly, the beneficiaries have been the B.C. Liberals, who desperately needed the implosion of the Conservatives to have any hope in next spring's election. The poll showed the NDP still well out in front – at 48 per cent among decided voters – with the Liberals at 35, the Tories at nine and the Greens at seven, (with a margin of error of 3.1 per cent).

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Perhaps not surprisingly, Mr. Cummins had his brave face on when we spoke on Friday. He played down the poll results, saying Ipsos Reid has never been as kind to the Conservatives as other polling firms have. Then in the next breath, he admitted the party's internal turmoil likely did some damage with the public.

Mr. Cummins has been travelling the province in the past few weeks, spending time particularly in the north, where the Conservatives' message, such as it is, still resonates with some people. He said the party has been concentrating on building a real organization – not the one that existed in name only when he took over. Fundraising took a hit in the fall as a result of all the horrendous publicity the party received, but it has bounced back recently. With no numbers forthcoming, however, we are reduced to taking Mr. Cummins's word for it.

"Look," he said, "When the election comes around, we expect it to be a really tight three-way race. We're going to kick off our campaign in January and build our support from then to Election Day. I don't think the Liberals have any traction. I don't see any good news coming out of government. I feel good about where we are right now."

As I said, it would be wonderful to know what Mr. Cummins is really thinking, because he surely cannot be feeling good or really believe there is going to be a close, three-way race next spring.

The political dynamic in B.C. has been altered dramatically in the past few months, and the B.C. Liberals are the richer for it. The fall of the Tories has allowed B.C.'s governing party to cast the election in more traditional terms, with the Liberals as the free-enterprise choice to the NDP's "socialist" alternative.

The Conservatives' fall helped Premier Christy Clark and her party on a couple of levels.

It created the impression that the free-enterprise coalition, which seemed so tenuous not that long ago, is going to hold. According to Liberal Party sources, this has been a boon for fundraising. It also elevated the opinion that some have of Ms. Clark. Instead of wilting in the face of the challenge that the surging Conservative Party represented this year, she persevered and overcame the adversity. Resiliency is not such a bad characteristic for a leader to be associated with.

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One of the byproducts of Ms. Clark's victory on this front (even though she had little to do with it) is the energy it has provided the Liberal base. As long as the Conservatives were considered a serious alternative, the Liberals' hopes for re-election were faint. While they are still considered weak, at least the Liberals can make the case that the election is not the foregone conclusion it appeared to be when they and the Conservatives were neck-and-neck in the polls.

According to Kyle Braid of Ipsos Reid, the Conservatives had benefited from people unhappy with the two main political parties in the province. Consequently, he said, many of the discontented parked their vote with the Tories, in much the same way people did with the Greens for much of the past decade.

"They [the Greens] rose to 16 to 20 per cent in our polls between elections," Mr. Braid said. "When the B.C. Cons began to look like fools, even people who wanted to park their vote didn't want to be associated with them."

Harsh but likely true criticism, despite what Mr. Cummins might say. The next election looks to be a classic two-way race once again, which is the first bit of good news the B.C. Liberals have received in a long time.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More


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