Handicapping B.C. provincial party prospects out of the gate

So, where are we in British Columbia as the campaign starts? There are certainly pockets of concern for the ruling party

In the past two years, two long-standing governing dynasties in western Canadian provinces came to an end. The election of the New Democratic Party (NDP) in Alberta in 2015 concluded four decades of Progressive Conservative rule. In Manitoba, the New Democrats were defeated by the Tories in 2016, after more than 16 years in government.

There are certain elements of these two elections that can outline whether British Columbia will be next on the list of provinces that have decided to change course.

In Alberta, timing was everything. In the days that followed the introduction of the budget by then-premier Jim Prentice, Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley was already the most popular political leader in the province at 41%, 12 points higher than the incumbent premier. As the campaign was about to end, Notley’s approval rating skyrocketed to 62%, while Prentice’s dropped to 25%. When asked who would make the best premier of the province, Albertans selected Notley over Prentice by a 2-1 margin (37% to 18%). Four in five Albertans (82%) thought it was time for change. The final Insights West survey pegged support for the NDP among decided voters in Alberta at 42%. When all the ballots were tallied, the NDP secured 41% of the vote.

In Manitoba, 67% of residents thought it was time to change the government in the final stages of the campaign. While the approval rating for PC leader Brian Pallister (45%) was not as impressive as Notley’s, he still had a commanding lead over incumbent premier Greg Selinger (25%).

Pallister was also ahead of Selinger in the head-to-head best-premier question (36% to 16%) and was seen as the best leader to handle issues, including the economy and health care. The final Insights West survey pointed at the Progressive Conservatives getting 53% of the vote, exactly what they finished with.

In these two elections, there were four elements that clearly pointed to a defeat of incumbents: an extremely high sentiment for change (82% in Alberta and 67% in Manitoba), a premier who was failing to connect with the electorate (25% approval for both Prentice and Selinger on the final poll), an opposition leader who was regarded as more capable than the incumbent on the key issues (Notley and Pallister held leads over their rivals as the campaigns were drawing to a close) and the incumbent premier trailing the opposition leader on the best-premier question (2-1 leads for both Notley and Pallister).

So, where are we in British Columbia as the campaign starts? There are certainly pockets of concern for the ruling party.

Almost two-thirds of residents (64%) believe it is time for a change of government, and more than half (53%) claim they will be “very upset” if the BC Liberals remain in power after May 9.

Premier Christy Clark’s approval rating stands at 30% – roughly the same level that Prentice had when he chose to call his last election. BC NDP Leader John Horgan’s approval rating is 37%, four points lower than what Notley entered her winning campaign with.

On issues, Clark continues to be regarded as the best person to handle the economy and jobs, energy and pipelines, transportation projects and the province’s finances. Horgan, as was the case with his predecessors, is better on housing, health care, education and accountability.

On the best-premier question, however, “not sure” is the winner. Clark is slightly ahead of Horgan (25% to 22%), but 41% of British Columbians cannot choose either of them, or BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, as the best person to head the government.

Campaigns, as witnessed in Alberta and Manitoba, can solidify the chances of opposition leaders and crush incumbents who fail to establish a positive emotional connection with the electorate. The evolution of the best-premier question will help define whether the province stays with its current government.

The 2017 British Columbia provincial election is close at this early stage, with the BC NDP and the BC Liberals separated by just two points. The current state of affairs brings back memories of the 1996 contest, in which the party that had more votes failed to wrestle the government away from incumbents who managed to hold on to more constituencies. 

Mario Canseco is vice-president of public affairs at Insights West.