October 24, 2015 - 9:00 AM
To understand how a traditionally right-wing riding like Kelowna-Lake Country turned from Conservative blue to Liberal red this week, you cannot ignore the issues imposed on the riding from afar.
Former UBC political science instructor Wolf Depner says in many ways, the election came down to a referendum on Stephen Harper and the riding was swayed like much of the country away from the Conservative Prime Minister into the welcoming arms of new Liberal Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau.
But it’s also true that local factors in the riding itself may have played a role. Changing demographics spurred on by a strong local Liberal campaign that sidelined the NDP rose to do what many considered unthinkable in a riding that has voted either Conservative or Reform Party since 1968.
NOT JUST KELOWNA
To put Kelowna-Lake Country in perspective, first just look around the Okanagan and the ridings that did the expected — return a Conservative candidate. For the last 10 to 15 years generally, ridings that included Penticton, Vernon, Kelowna, West Kelowna and, to a lesser extent, Kamloops have with few exceptions voted overwhelmingly for the party farthest to the right. In every election since 2000, those ridings (their names and boundaries have changed variously) returned a Conservative candidate with 50 per cent or more of the votes. (The highest was Stockwell Day who won a byelection — and the short-lived Canadian Alliance party’s leadership — with 70 per cent).
The massive swing away from the Conservatives in this election put all candidates at risk.
An NDP victory in the South Okanagan wasn’t entirely unexpected, at least until the full power of the Liberal movement was understood, because boundary changes added areas with traditional NDP support to Penticton’s riding.
In Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola, which encompasses West Kelowna, the NDP split the vote just enough for Conservative Dan Albas to sneak through (Albas 39.5 per cent, Libs 37 per cent and NDP 19 per cent.) Same story in the North Okanagan, where newcomer Mel Arnold won with a split (39 per cent Cons, 30 per cent Libs, 26 per cent NDP) and in Kamloops (Conservative Cathy McLeod 35 per cent, 30 per cent Libs and 31 per cent NDP.)
A split is expected in any election with multiple parties. It’s just never really mattered in B.C. Southern Interior ridings before.
So what made Kelowna-Lake Country different?
The signs may have already been here, Depner says. UBCO and Okanagan College have grown to roughly 13,000 students between them. While polling data is not yet available, he has no doubt students there made an impact, as they have across the country.
“Demographics definitely played a role,” he says. “The Liberals did a very good job reaching out to students and to young voters generally.”
And the not so young. Kelowna is still over-average in its older population that may have supported the far right party in the past, but Kelowna is also now home to more young, well-educated entrepreneurs and employees in business and the tech sector along with well-paid professional government workers at UBCO, Okanagan College, an expanded Kelowna General Hospital and even civic employees.
And they’re all voting.
The signs of a Liberal possibility here may start with former mayor and councillor Sharon Shepherd. Until she was first elected in 2005, the vote for mayor was what you expected from Kelowna: Business friendly and outwardly conservative (Walter Gray/Pride Day?). Her first election was no less stunning than a Liberal in Kelowna. Even more shocking, though, was her re-election in 2008, not because it was Sharon Shepherd, but because she led a council with vastly different priorities and far fewer concerns about business.
Yes, business bounced back big in 2011 but then along came Colin Basran who was different, like Sharon, but in a new way: Still business friendly but also youthful, energetic, inclusive, accepting. (Sound like anyone you voted for recently?)
"His whole biography is certainly not representative of the type of politician that came out of the Kelowna area,” Depner says. “But it might be representative of what would happen in the future."
But it’s not about Basran, it’s about the people who would vote for him and why. Depner cautions about comparing a municipal vote to a federal vote, but says it may be a clue.
“You would have to look carefully at the correlation of who came out for Colin and who came out for Fuhr,” he says. "Is there an overlap? I wouldn’t be surprised if there is.”
There’s actually a direct overlap. Basran’s main campaign advisor, Wayne Pierce, spearheaded Fuhr’s campaign. Perhaps more importantly, some of Basran's young professional backers went too. They are the ones attracted to and motivated to move the world for the candidate. They are who votes for them.
Of course, there’s Fuhr himself. It’s always tough to gauge an untested politician — especially a local candidate in a federal campaign — but he certainly showed up at the right time: A disaffected Conservative motivated to create an alternative. That he’s in his early 40s, is a prize-reaching, achieving, educated, professional and business man turns the line between Basran and Trudeau into a pattern.
THE RED TORIES
But as was indicated off the top, the greatest factors in the Liberal win in Kelowna had far less to do with Basran, Fuhr and Kelowna and more to do with Harper, Trudeau and NDP leader Tom Mulcair.
While it was a referendum on Harper, his far right-wing policies and tactics, it was his aggressiveness that would define his rivals time and again. Mulcair danced to Harper’s tune and failed to position the NDP as the party of change.
"The anti-Harper vote eventually congealed around Trudeau,” Depner says. “If you look at the last two weeks of the campaign, it became increasingly apparent New Democrats were abandoning the NDP party. They looked around and saw Trudeau represented the best alternative to Stephen Harper."
"Trudeau and the Liberals created a much better alternative than the NDP. The NDP took a Goldilocks approach — not too much, not too little. (They promised affordable child care, low taxes and no deficits) and in the end, the promises were irreconcilable. Trudeau ran to the left of the NDP. Now New Democrats were asking themselves 'why is our party talking about balanced budgets?’"
And in many ways, Harper made Trudeau himself. From the moment he became leader, the Conservatives attacked him as they did former Liberal leaders Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff — far more experienced, far more qualified men — and they wilted away as they took his bait.
Trudeau, Depner says, stayed on his own narrative.
“The Conservatives said 'in order to get elected and govern Canada, you have to be a party that promotes low taxes and low spending,'” he says. And while Mulcair followed their lead, as Dion and Ignatieff did, “Justin Trudeau comes along and shatters the narrative, said we would not be hostages to austerity."
“The difference between (Trudeau) and Ignatieff and Dion is they backed down when Harper attacked them. They cowered in front of Harper and Trudeau doubled down and talked about taxes on the rich and running deficits.”
He won the job as Best Alternative to Govern and by a wide margin. He drew from the left and that was important around the country. Results show it wasn’t even close. But Trudeau also drew from the right, the old Red Tories, a moderate conservative group, that supported the Conservatives Party throughout Harper’s reign.
"What we saw is some old forces in Canadian politics reasserting themselves,” Depner says.
It was such a defeat, it plunged the Conservative Party back to 1997. While Harper arguably created much of the Canada Conservatives intended — creating a business friendly climate and systematically removing government from the lives of Canadians — his last term and election tactics exposed the hard right social conservatives, what Depner calls the ’shadow of the Reform Party.'
"The Conservative Party governed Canada for nine years as a Stephen Harper creation,” he says. “It’s the old Reform with some leftover old line Tories and he created the style, the ruthlessness, the intelligence but also the control and the discipline. More than anything he is the face of the party. What happened (Oct. 19) is the repudiation of Harper the person but also the project the party represents.
"No party in (Canada) has ever been more to the right than Stephen Harper's Conservatives. This Conservative Party is not the old (Progressive Conservative) party. He tried to link his party with the old line Tories but they are not the old line Tories.
"Harper managed to win the old Red Tory vote in the past. And they stuck to Stephen Harper through at least three elections. They grew increasingly uncomfortable with what Stephen Harper was offering. The Red Tories, they believe in an activist role for government, they believe there’s a positive role for government. The Liberals want to play an active role in the lives of Canadians. Stephen Harper wants government to play no role at all in the lives of individuals.
“The Red Tories said enough of this. Stephen Harper no longer speaks for my vision of what government can do and should do. Their most logical choice was to go not for the NDP but for the Liberals."
If you look at where the Conservatives retained seats across Canada, it’s largely the same Reform base from 1993 to 2000 with a 33-seat bonus in Ontario.
And the Okanagan was an early adopter of the original Reform.
But in Kelowna-Lake Country — not this time.
— Marshall Jones is the editor of Infonews.ca
News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2015