When British Columbians voted to extinguish the HST brought in under former premier Gordon Campbell, they also sent a strong message to his successor, Christy Clark. With the Premier reversing herself and deciding not to hold an election this fall, the message appears to have been understood.
When the results were announced late last month, the "Yes" (or anti-HST) side won with 54.7 per cent of the vote, compared to 45.3 per cent for the "No" (or pro-HST) side.
Introduced by the B.C. Liberals, the HST was primarily opposed by the B.C. New Democrats, the main opposition party in the province. That the referendum vote split largely along partisan lines is clear: no riding that voted NDP in the 2009 election voted in favour of maintaining the HST. Of the 60 ridings that voted to abolish the HST, 35 were won by the NDP in the last election. All but one of the 25 ridings that voted No were won by the B.C. Liberals (the other is held by an independent).
The 45.3 per cent that voted No might seem to correspond with the 45.8 per cent of British Columbians who voted for Liberal in 2009, but this is not entirely the case. Though the No result was within five points of 2009 Liberal support in 43 out of 85 ridings, there was a disparity of 10 or more points in another 20 ridings.
The referendum cannot act as a proxy for how a fall election would have turned out. After all, the New Democrats have the B.C. Greens to their left and the Liberals have the B.C. Conservatives to their right. But the referendum does show how Liberal support would have been at risk.
In 42 ridings, or roughly half of all of those in the province, the vote share of the No side was less than what the Liberals received in those ridings in the 2009 election. Worse still, 32 of these 42 seats are occupied by Liberal MLAs.
The biggest shifts came in Richmond Centre, Richmond East, and Vancouver-Langara, all adjacent Liberal ridings. Voters in Richmond Centre sent Rob Howard to Victoria with 61.5 per cent of the vote in the last election, while Linda Reid took 58.7 per cent in Richmond East and former leadership candidate Moira Stilwell took 58.9 per cent of the vote in Vancouver-Langara.
In the HST referendum, however, only 36.2 per cent of voters in Richmond Centre and 34.4 per cent in Richmond East voted No, while 38.4 per cent of voters in Vancouver-Langara did the same, a difference of more than 20 points in each riding. The northern riding of Peace River South also swung hard against the HST, with 41.2 per cent of voters casting their ballots in favour of keeping the tax, compared to the 63.1 per cent who elected B.C. Liberal Blair Lekstrom to office in 2009.
That Christy Clark's electoral chances were not looking good is demonstrated by that fact that in the 25 Liberal ridings that voted to abolish the HST, nine of them were decided by 5 per cent or less in the 2009 election and several of them have voted NDP in the past. Considering that the Liberals won a slim majority in a close election in 2009, ridings like these would have likely decided a premature contest.
An Ipsos-Reid poll conducted shortly after the referendum results were made public showed that the outcome made 36 per cent of respondents less likely to vote for the B.C. Liberals, and only 14 per cent more likely to vote for the governing party. The New Democrats had better results, with 21 per cent saying the referendum results would make them less likely to vote NDP, compared to 26 per cent who said it made them more likely to vote for the NDP.
There was little to worry the New Democrats in these referendum results. The 25 ridings that voted to keep the HST are mostly outside of the NDP's scope – the party topped 35 per cent of the vote in 2009 in only six of them. In only four ridings was the Yes vote less than the NDP's support in the last election, and in every one of those the NDP had won them by 57 per cent of the vote or more.
The potential for NDP growth is obvious, with the Yes vote at least 10 points more than the NDP's 2009 vote in 52 ridings. In 15 ridings the vote to abolish the HST was 20 points or more than the share the NDP took in the last election.
The same Ipsos-Reid poll indicated that only 34 per cent of respondents approved of holding an election this fall. The B.C. Premier might have heard these voices most clearly of all. Combined with the HST defeat and the signs of fragility in Liberal support, the lack of urgency in British Columbia for another campaign gave Christy Clark little incentive to go to the polls. With less than two years to go before the next fixed election date, the new leaders of the Liberals and NDP can now concentrate on consolidating support and preparing for 2013.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com