Will B.C. edge to the precipice once more?

A nose-to-nose election race has clear similarities to the campaign of 1996. Then, an NDP victory meant disaster for the province. It could again in 2017

Twenty-one years ago, we B.C. Liberals were gathered at the Hotel Vancouver, peering at big TV screens, shocked by what we were seeing.

It was election day in British Columbia and the returns didn’t make any sense. At all.

We were ahead but we were behind, too.

The Gord Campbell-led Liberals had substantially more votes than our principal opponent, the New Democrats – some 40,000 votes, when they were all counted. We owned the popular vote, right from the moment the polls closed. We ended up with three percentage points more than the NDP, in fact.

But we were still losing.

There was noise behind us: Christy Clark, Mark Marissen and some of their campaign team were swinging down the Hotel Vancouver stairs, cheering. Clark had won a seat in the legislature and would soon become a star. In a time, she’d become premier, too.

But not tonight. Tonight, the NDP – much like Donald Trump would do, two decades later – won with less votes. Way less votes. Just as the 2016 Electoral College had perverted the clear will of the American people, a gerrymandered B.C. electoral system had denied victory to the clear winner of the 1996 race.

And now, 21 years later, B.C. returns to the polls today. And the race is just as tight as it was in 1996.

Clark, having been B.C. Liberal leader since 2011, is a well-known quantity. She is upbeat, unflappable and one of the best political performers I’ve ever seen. But in B.C., those who won’t vote for her were never going to vote for her. The fact that she has overseen the strongest economy in Canada – that she has the lowest unemployment rate in the country – is irrelevant to her hardcore opposition. They dislike her.

The embodiment of their dislike is their (latest) champion, NDP Leader John Horgan. Horgan is a big, burly kind of guy – the kind of guy who shoots his mouth off at family gatherings, offering strong opinions when none is wanted. He’s kind of like the uncle who won’t ever shut up.

Evidence of this came early in the campaign. At the first leaders debate, Horgan – after talking over Clark repeatedly – leered at the premier and said: “If you want to keep doing your thing, I’ll watch you for a while. I know you like that.”

That creepy, condescending remark was a disaster. Horgan – sounding rather like Trump — would hear about that one for days. The next morning, the National Post had his words in a front-page headline.

“That regrettable moment in the B.C. leaders debate,” noted the Post. Horgan was “angry,” lacked “respect” and had the debate’s most “regrettable” moment, the newspaper reported.

The entire campaign has been kind of like that. Clark was upbeat and unflappable all over the hustings. Horgan was boorish and had more policy positions than the Kama Sutra. And B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver generally impressed soft-NDP voters with his demeanour and candour.

If the NDP loses – as some now predict they might, despite having been ahead by double digits just a few weeks ago – it will be partly because Weaver’s Greens stole voters who were unimpressed by the NDP leader’s apparent inability to control himself.

I very much want my Liberal friends to win. They’ve run the better campaign. Sure, they’re a coalition, made up of Liberals, Conservatives and former Socreds. Sure, they’ve been in power for a long time – since 2001, when Campbell reduced the NDP to just two seats. Sure, Clark never seems to stop smiling – that has to be irritating to NDP members who want to discredit her.

In 1996, members of the Glen Clark-led New Democrats threatened young Liberals with violence at our events. They sent in big union guys to disassemble our events minutes before announcements, citing non-existent bylaws. They dropped leaflets containing attacks on our people. I asked our campaign boss Greg Lyle about these tactics. Said he: “These are the best jobs they’ve ever had. They will say and do anything to keep them.”

A few of us predicted to the media on election night 1996 that Glen Clark’s NDP would reveal itself to be dishonest. In fact, Clark’s government was synonymous with scandal.

Can the NDP win on Tuesday? Sure. It’s a tight race. The media has been gunning for Christy Clark. Some British Columbians have forgotten – inexplicably, incredibly – that they live in the province that most other Canadians want to live in.

But, as they peer up at those big TV screens durng the Liberal 2017 election night party, here’s hoping there isn’t a repeat of 1996.

You know: win more votes but still lose.

Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator. 

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