Ben there, done that

Ben Stewart made way for Premier Christy Clark in 2013 and, last night, the voters of Kelowna West returned him to the BC Legislature to continue his career as MLA.

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Kelowna West MLA-elect Ben Stewart.

Someone had to open up a seat for Premier Christy Clark in 2013 when she was unseated in Vancouver-Pt. Grey despite winning a majority government.  Ben stepped up and, now, he has returned to where he has always truly wanted to be – serving his constituents in the BC Legislature.

Making way for defeated leaders has happened from time to time throughout Canadian history.  Canada’s longest serving prime minister, Rt. Hon. William Lyon Mackenzie King, lost his seat in York North in 1925.  A seat was made available in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in 1926 which he won.  He stayed put in Prince Albert until 1945 when he lost his seat again and returned to run in a by-election in Glengarry, Ontario for his final term.  During that 19 year stretch in Prince Albert, he even managed to defeat a young, upstart named John Diefenbaker (the only time two people who served as prime ministers faced each other in an election?).

Ben Stewart’s resignation and return is not the first time this has happened in modern BC political times.  In 1975, NDP Premier Dave Barrett rushed to an election, in part to head off the revival of the Social Credit Party under Bill Bennett.  It didn’t work.  Bennett rallied the forces opposed to the NDP and vanquished the Barrett government, including Barrett himself who lost his seat in Coquitlam to Socred George Kerster by 18 votes.  Vancouver East MLA Bob Williams made way for Barrett, triggering a 1976 by-election that Barrett easily won.  After Barrett’s third successive defeat to Bennett in 1983, he retired and returned the seat to Bob Williams who was elected in a 1984 by-election. Williams had the additional task of fending off newly elected BC Liberal leader Art Lee, the first and only Chinese Canadian political leader of a major party in BC history.  Williams easily won and served until 1991.

As for the significance of the Kelowna-West by-election, here are the results for the last four times those voters went to the polls:

Table 1: Westside-Kelowna (2013) and Kelowna West (2017-8) results

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The 2017 by-election was the first time in four elections since 2013 (two by-elections and two general elections) that four parties had contested the seat.  (The name of the riding changed but the boundaries are identical).

No one party can claim any type of breakthrough.   The BC Liberals held their support, and given that there were two minor parties this time, losing a couple of points compared to previous efforts was bound to happen. (The final by-election results will not be available for a couple of weeks as Section 98-106 votes have not yet been counted.  It likely won’t change much.)

The NDP have slid in the riding since the 2013 general election, which reflects the move away from the NDP in the Interior in the 2017 election, but moreso, it’s the impact of the Greens showing up on the ballot in 2017 and 2018, splitting their vote a bit.  I wouldn’t be too fussed by this result if I was John Horgan.  They didn’t expect to win this and, in the 1990s, when they were deeply unpopular, they would be obliterated in such by-elections.   That wasn’t the case here.

The BC Conservatives returned to the ballot in the 2018 by-election but had a very similar result to the 2013 by-election and much less than 2013 general election.  In 1973, the BC Conservatives had stress tested the then Coalition party (the Socreds) in a by-election in South Okanagan to replace the retiring WAC Bennett.  BC Conservative leader Derrill Warren challenged WAC’s son, Bill Bennett.  The younger Bennett (39%) defeated Warren (24%), settling the issue.  This was significant as, arguably, Warren’s performance in the 1972 general election was a key factor in defeating the Socred government and electing the NDP.  After the ’73 by-election, Warren left BC politics, senior Conservatives joined the Socreds, and Bennett went on to be premier.  The Kelowna West by-election yesterday was decidedly uneventful by comparison.

It’s the Greens that should be down in the mouth.  Despite the controversy over the PipeWine dispute, the NDP held its second place standing comfortably over the bronze Greens.  If anything, it may show that as long as the NDP and Greens are in cahoots, it will be difficult for the Greens to make a relative gain against their Coalition partners.  Maybe they’re happy playing second fiddle.

For new BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, he gets a win under his belt, even if it was gift-wrapped.  His team is back to 42 seats in the Legislature with no nasty surprises.

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