Martyn Brown: Changing the face of change: the morning after the NDP’s win

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      Part one

      It’s May 15—the morning after.

      Premier elect Adrian Dix has already had his post-election news conference to announce his transition team and to show that his “all-business” government-in-waiting has its priorities straight, with an action plan to match.

      For Christy Clark, the party’s over. For her followers, the hangover is just beginning. It didn’t take long for those drunk on delusion to sober up the night before, as the election was called within minutes of the polls closing and as the Premier lost her own seat.

      Effervescent as ever, and gracious in defeat, a newly humbled leader faced the media as her party must now face the music.

      The pollsters were right. The people’s verdict was decisive. A new New Era is about to begin that will rapidly leave the Campbell dynasty behind and the B.C. Liberals mired in an existential crisis.

      Back to election night, as Christy Clark takes to the podium.

      “Well, look at the bright side,” she cheerfully says to the deflated party faithful. “At least Hamish will get his mom all to himself for the next little while!”

      “I sincerely want to congratulate my opponents for their victory tonight, and I want them to know, my government will do everything in it’s power to help them with their transition. ”

      (Document shredding? Done. Severance packages arranged? Done. Long-term contractual arrangements signed? Done.)

      “No, no. Let’s be nice, now. The people have made their choice and now we’re all going to have to live with it. Even if we do that from Alberta!”

      So clever. What spunk!

      “British Columbia’s too important to give up on. But rest assured, we are going to be there to hold the NDP accountable, every step of the way over the next four-and-a-half years. And then, we’ll be back, baby!”

      The crowd’s not so sure.

      Snap. It’s not over yet. The future’s still in voters’ hands.

      Yes, the polls are tightening somewhat, as was expected. But with the B.C. Liberals still in the low 30s, with 11 days to go, it would still take a minor miracle for Dix to lose this one.

      The Liberals’ supposed “surge” amounts to a few points at the NDP’s expense, that still leaves them miles away from where they need to be to have a serious shot at forming the government.

      While the “new horserace” narrative helps pollsters stay relevant, gives the media something interesting to report, and allows the two main parties’ supporters to become more motivated, it’s way overblown, in my view.

      The NDP are still way ahead by any measure, especially in the Lower Mainland, where most of the seats are. If the Green and Conservative votes both collapse to some extent, as I expect they will on election day, the NDP will gain more than the B.C. Liberals will.

      If the NDP regain even a couple of points from the Green Party, and if the B.C. Liberals gain even half of all current B.C. Conservative voters, it would still be a wipeout. The NDP would be in the mid-40s and the B.C. Liberals would be in the high 30s.

      The NDP voters are more motivated to punish and change the government, and the NDP vote is more “efficient”—meaning that it is more evenly distributed across regions than that of the B.C. Liberals vote, which tends to be more regionally concentrated.

      Both of those factors give the NDP a premium of perhaps 3-5 percent. We saw that in 1996, when the NDP lost the popular vote, but still won the most seats. In an election that is tied, for example, with both parties at about 42 percent, the NDP would form a massive majority government.

      The only real hope for the B.C. Liberals, at this point, is for voters to abandon the NDP in droves, for the Conservative vote to completely collapse, and for the Green Party to retain virtually all of its current support. Fat chance. It would take a colossal screw-up by Dix and a sea change in Clark’s approval numbers to make that happen.

      So chill out, New Democrats. The sky is not falling yet again, as it has in so many past elections.

      At 34 percent in the polls with a little over a week until voting day, the B.C. Liberals may be giddy with delight, given where they’ve been. But they are still staring into the abyss, with no real route to salvation in sight, especially if Dix becomes more passionate and aggressive.

      To date, he has been out-campaigned by a more telegenic, media savvy, tightly messaged, and spirited political foe. As a campaigner, Clark is clearly in her element, while Dix is a fish out of water. But he is still way ahead, running a smart and positive campaign that I expect will easily prevail on May 14.

      Part two

      The main question is, how large will the NDP’s majority be? The answer may turn on the degree to which voters start thinking about how they want the world to look on the morning after the vote.

      Change is surely coming. But the face of that change in the legislature, if not the government, still rides on how people vote in the dozens of ridings that are far from decided.

      Voter apathy could cost the B.C. Liberals a whack of seats that are on the margin. Complacency could similarly deprive the NDP of many seats it might otherwise win. When voters see any election as a lost cause or as a foregone conclusion, the losing and winning parties alike stand to forfeit winnable seats when their supporters sit on their hands.

      Paradoxically, in a “race” that appears to be over at the provincial level, the race is actually getting tighter at the riding level in former B.C. Liberal strongholds that are now within reach.

      The NDP have to be worried that voters who want a change in government may feel they can vote with impunity for other candidates, including for B.C. Liberals, if they believe that the NDP can’t lose and that some other candidate is uniquely preferable.

      For the B.C. Liberals, the problem is reversed. Their potential supporters might feel that because the fate of the government doesn’t hinge on their vote, they can take a flyer on whoever they see as the strongest candidate to represent their values, interests, or community in the legislature. Even the NDP stand to benefit from that dynamic, which the independents, Greens, and B.C. Conservatives are also banking on.

      The change that most Liberal supporters want from their own party is renewal. Yet that message has been downplayed at every turn. Inexplicably, the Premier did not even mention her team in the leaders’ debates or in her party platform. And her campaign has kept the spotlight squarely on her, with minimal focus on the strength of new talent that she can claim to have attracted.

      Instead of focusing on their strongest asset—their new candidates and fresh faces—the B.C. Liberals have almost exclusively focused on their largest liability. Clark’s disapprovals are still off the charts, even if she has done a better job of late of looking like a premier.

      While many B.C. Liberal candidates have tried to distance themselves from Clark's leadership and even from their party label, they will need a better argument than their leader has made for them to get elected.

      Candidates who know they will lose without a radical shift in strategy might feel emboldened to change their pitch. They may seek to focus public attention on opportunities for change within the pending change that’s bound to deliver an NDP government.

      At the root of that appeal is an acknowledgement that their party will not form the government, that their leader will not be around for long, and that neither of those factors should determine people’s votes.

      It’s a risky but potentially powerful strategy for those candidates who are on the cusp.

      Would it really be healthy for democracy to have another lopsided government? Experience suggests that we are always better off with a strong opposition and a wide diversity of skills, perspectives, and values on both sides of the legislature, even though I certainly never would have admitted that in past partisan capacities.

      Would it really be in the public interest for entire regions like Vancouver Island to be without any voice in opposition? When the tables were reversed, and the B.C. Liberals’ swept every seat outside of Vancouver, not many voters agreed that it was an ideal outcome. 

      Candidates might frame their case less around who will form the government then about why they are needed in the legislature, especially in the event of an NDP government.  

      Valid arguments abound. They include the need to ensure a strong opposition that can hold the NDP accountable over the next four-and-a-half years. They include the need to have new MLAs and a strong B.C. Liberal presence to help rebuild the party or its successor before the next election. They include representing local issues, community concerns, and societal values that are not likely to be front and center in the NDP’s agenda.

      Independents, Greens, and Conservatives are already making a similar pitch, also arguing to elect them and make history by forever changing our flawed two-party political system. More choice means a better voice for those values that the two main parties will never advance.

      The NDP candidates also stand to make history by winning seats that will forever change B.C.’s political landscape. Simply electing members in places that have been historically impossible to crack could permanently make those seats more competitive. We saw that in the Cariboo, when Dave Zirnhelt was elected years ago in a byelection, and in Oak Bay-Gordon Head, when Elizabeth Cull swept into office, and in Chilliwack-Hope one year ago.

      All of those seats were so-called "free enterprise" bastions that went NDP. The truth is, these days, precious few seats are truly "safe" when ideology is trumped by other considerations, as we see today in B.C.

      With an NDP government still looking most likely, “a strong voice in government” is an eternally powerful message that is newly relevant for those candidates who are knocking at the door in swing ridings. And unless the B.C. Liberals get well over 40 percent in the polls, it is a message that only the NDP candidates can credibly claim.

      As suddenly viable contenders in previously unthinkable seats, those NDP candidates can also make an appeal to end the polarized, partisan politics that has for too long created barriers instead of bridges to understanding when governments inevitably change.

      That would certainly be healthy for democracy and for forging new relationships between government and their traditional ideological opponents. They would do much better for everyone if they started talking and listening to one another, instead of putting each other down or simply ignoring each other, as is usually the case when governments change stripes.

      I know. I helped fuel that dynamic in various partisan positions that I held over the decades and it was anything but ideal in advancing economic opportunities or in addressing vexing social problems, with shared insights, ideas, skills, and workable solutions.

      The point is, all of the above types of arguments that candidates can make to increase voter interest, support, and turnout are largely liberated because of voters’ expectations of a lopsided NDP victory. That might seem less likely today than it did a week ago, but it is still the odds-on probability.

      To the extent that voters believe that the NDP is still the runaway favourite to win on May 14, and if they remain focused on what they want their legislature to look like on May 15, they may find other motivations for voting than simply who will form the government.

      The important thing is to get out and vote, because the individual choices that voters make in each riding can still change the face of change that our elected representatives will lead and deliver.

      Like the song says, “there's got to be a morning after,” even in a Poseidon Adventure. The B.C. Liberals might download that corny Ringtone.

      Martyn Brown is the author of the new e-book Towards a New Government in British Columbia, available on Amazon. He was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, a top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment in British Columbia.




      May 3, 2013 at 1:08pm

      Changing the face of change??? So he has already won and now change will happend,thats what Boarako said vot
      e for change what???


      May 3, 2013 at 2:14pm

      Mr Brown

      You are the most fascinating person. Will you ever disclose the reasons behind your change of heart?


      May 3, 2013 at 2:15pm

      If NOTHING ELSE, I'd like to see the Liberals win---if only to speed Mr. Brown's overdue slide into the dank, cold, lonely basement of irrelevancy---a posting he so richly deserves, having been Gordo's pitbull during the 'Darth'est Decade'.

      Robert Doran

      May 3, 2013 at 2:22pm

      Why does the Vancouver Sun give this person space. His comments are self serving and combative only to give himself a platform. To Mr. Brown, was Christy Clark perceived by you as part of the Liberal backroom who were active in ousting your previous boss and, in retaliation, are you now attempting to place a dagger into her side.


      May 3, 2013 at 2:23pm

      What BC needs is a government that comes in with a large majority so that it can undertake the necessary policy actions and changes without worrying about losing the next election. A larger win in 2013 means more of a cushion for 2017 - they might lose some seats based on this or that thing they do, but not enough to risk their majority. A big win now essentially means 8 years in power for sure, as Martyn Brown surely knows well.


      May 3, 2013 at 2:59pm

      In view of the recent polls, giving the Liberals a boost (Sun paid for ad, etc.), this article is very uplifting!

      Salty One

      May 3, 2013 at 3:13pm

      I wouldn't be too hard on Brown. Remember, Dix was Glen Clarke's pit bull. He had a change of heart and philosophy and grew up. I don't know that any one thing changed Brown. He's telling it like it is, and is going to be. By not concentrating on the fresh faces and future of the part, the Libs are in fight instead of survival mode, and they're not going to survive this one.


      May 3, 2013 at 3:24pm

      Martyn Brown AND David Shreck now BOTH pulling their punches?? Goodness, what a few polls can do.

      Why, it almost makes one think that there really isn't a platform/plan or policies to lean on...

      Say it ain't so!

      Are you that insecure about your party's stands/policies/vision that

      ( It's a stylized Jolly Roger, btw.


      May 3, 2013 at 3:34pm

      If Martyn Brown isn't positioning himself for politics, I'll eat my large ribeye steak with selection of seasonal grilled vegetables and a nice glass of, oh I dunno, Shiraz maybe.

      Justa Voter

      May 4, 2013 at 1:14am

      If worse comes to worst and the Liberals pull of a come-from-behind (make jokes of that as you will) win, I am betting that the Liberal machine makes sure that, in the course of events, Christy Clark loses her seat and they can go forward with a leadership convention to pick a new (non-millstone) leader to refresh their brand. I'm thinking that she will lose in any event, Liberals win or lose, and the rebuilding goes forward without her self-aggrandizing face on the posters.