The crowd of B.C. Liberal politicians, staff, and supporters who gathered at the Fairmont Waterfront hotel in Vancouver tonight (May 9) roared in support of Christy Clark. That was despite not knowing whether or not she was actually re-elected premier.
The 2017 vote was too close to call.
At the time of writing, the Liberals were declared the winner in 43 ridings, the NDP had 41 seats, and the Greens had three—a historic victory for their supporters.
But several races looked close enough to trigger recounts and thousands of absentee ballots won't be counted until May 22-24. (Update: more than 176,000 absentee ballots, according to Elections B.C.)
The balance of power could still shift to give the Liberals their fifth consecutive majority, or it could give the Liberals a minority government, or it could even give the NDP a minority government. (In almost any situation, the Greens have gained an unprecedented position of importance in the legislature.)
All of that must have been going through Clark's head as she took the stage with a smile.
"Some things only happen in British Columbia," she began. "And here tonight, we have an opportunity—we've been presented with an opportunity by British Columbians—to open a whole new dialogue in our province, in our legislature. A dialogue about how we do things, what we should do, how we want to shape the future of our province. And so tonight is the beginning is something very different."
It is the first time since taking the government from the NDP in 2001 that the Liberals could lose their majority. (The likely outcome when all of the votes are finally counted.)
No matter what happens, the loss will be fairly substantial for the Liberals. In 2013, they captured 49 seats of the legislature compared to the NDP’s 34.
What's more, candidates counted among tonight's defeated Liberals are four cabinet ministers. Those are Naomi Yamamoto, Suzanne Anton, Peter Fassbender, and Amrik Virk.
At the Fairmont, Clark remained optimistic.
"We won the popular vote," she said before having to wait for a long round of applause.
"We have also won the most seats, and with absentee ballots still to be counted, I am confident that they will strike within our margin of victory," Clark continued. "So it is my intention to continue to lead British Columbia's government.
"But British Columbians did tell us tonight that they want us to do some things differently. They want us to work together, they want us to work across party lines, and they want us to find a way to get along so that we can all work for the province that all of us love so very, very much. They want us to work together for a strong B.C., for a bright future for our children and grandchildren."
There is a lot that critics of the Liberals had to complain about during this campaign cycle. Since the last provincial election, in 2013, an epidemic of overdose deaths claimed 2,400 lives and only continues to get worse. Meanwhile, Metro Vancouver’s real-estate market broke from the local economy and skyrocketed beyond the means of many young families. And government transparency and accountability became major issues over successive scandals concerning campaign donations, the so-called triple-delete affair concerning missing emails, and the botched handling of health-researcher firings.
Tonight it looks like voters sent a message on those issues.
But B.C.’s economy remains strong. The Liberals hammered on that issue during the campaign and the numbers do support it.
According to Statistics Canada data for April 2017, B.C. has the second-lowest unemployment rate in Canada; with 5.5-percent unemployment, it’s just one-tenth of a point away from the lowest in the country (that of Manitoba). In addition, a BMO Financial Group report published last October estimates B.C.'s economy grew by three percent in 2016 and will grow by 2.5 percent in 2017, in both instances above the national average.
Alongside jobs in the minds of voters this election was housing. There the Liberal’s record is open to criticism, given how hard it is to find an apartment to rent in Metro Vancouver (forget buying, as many have). Making matters worse for the Liberals was Clark’s repeated argument against cooling the market lest the government erode equity that home buyers had already invested in their properties.
"We have to be careful about any solution that we come up with—while they help make housing more affordable, particularly for people entering the market for the first time—that they don’t devalue the price of a home that somebody’s already in,” Clark said in January 2016.
In July of that year, however, her government finally caved to public pressure and announced a 15-percent tax on foreign nationals who purchased real estate in Metro Vancouver.
That was followed by a program for first-time home buyers that gave them access to $37,500 in interest-free loans.
Metro Vancouver real-estate prices still haven't returned to earth but those policies appear to have convinced many voters that the Liberals are doing something on the housing issue.
On other issues, it sometimes appeared the Liberal campaign was barely trying.
For a period of three consecutive weeks, the party refused to allow any candidate to give the Straight an interview on the subject of overdose deaths.
Taking the environment as another example, the Liberals’ totally walked away from the relatively green legacy that former premier Gordon Campbell left them.
Clark supports an expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which would substantially increase the number of oil tankers sailing through the Burrard Inlet. She’s also pushed ahead with the construction of the $8.8-billion Site C dam, despite little evidence the province actually needs the boost in power generation. Then there was a plebiscite for public-transit funding that many speculate the province designed to fail; meanwhile, Clark championed a 10-lane bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel, at a cost of $8 billion. Finally, there is Clark’s personal mission to create of a booming natural-gas industry that, if it ever takes off, would keep B.C. pumping fossil fuels out of the ground for generations to come.
During the campaign, Clark said that the NDP and its leader, John Horgan, could not be trusted with B.C.’s economy. That claim was repeated ad nauseam alongside the Liberal government’s record on jobs. Her bet was obviously that money mattered to voters above all else.
As the votes continue to be counted and recounted, it looks like that was not the case.