When I tell my friends from outside British Columbia that an election took place this month featuring the NDP (New Democratic Party), the Liberals, and the Greens as the three main parties, I get bewildered stares. Even within the province, there’s some confusion.
The outside observer is left wondering how the three largest parties are left-wing when democracies don’t operate with a single wing.
I like to mystify my audience further by inserting the fact that the Conservatives was the most poplar political party in the province during the 2011 Federal Election. This statement leaves my audience perplexed, especially when I tell them that the BC Conservative Party won just 0.5% of the vote in the recent 2017 provincial election.
The obvious truth here is that the BC Liberals are not liberal as we generally understand it to mean in Canada today. That is to say, they are are not left of center.
But how did this happen?
Our journey begins back in 1952 when British Columbia experimented with electoral reform. The two main parties at the time, the Conservatives and the Liberals, joined forces by bringing in preferential balloting (similar to what Justin Trudeau was hoping for nationally, and likely for the same reason).
The object of this electoral reform was to keep the rising socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) out of power. The center-right conservatives assumed the Liberals would pick them as their second choice and the center-left Liberals were equally optimistic that they would get the center-right second choice votes.
It backfired big time as both parties were utterly decimated to 3rd and 4th party status. Meanwhile, the socially conservative British Columbia Social Credit League (afterwards referred to as Social Credit) was swept into power as they captured the lion’s share of the second place votes from among both the Liberals and Conservatives. The traditional parties didn’t count on voters playing games by chosing a 4th string party as the means of defeating the main rival across the political isle.
Social Credit only beat the CCF by a single seat, and thus formed a minority government since the Liberals and Conservatives also won seats. A new election occurred in 1953, at which point W.A.C. Bennett won a majority government for Social Credit.
Elections reverted back to the old system of winner take all in each riding/electoral district, and Social Credit ruled for most of the next four decades with the CCF — renamed the New Democratic Party (NDP) in the 1960s — as the only main alternative.
Because a First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system tends to produce two main moderate parties, the Liberals and Conservatives largely jumped ship over to the two main parties dominating the political landscape, but that all changed with the populist and conspiracy theorist extraordinaire, Bill Vander Zalm, unintentionally destroyed Social Credit within three years of becoming Premier.
Populists are a somewhat newer brand of politician who believe that right or wrong is irrelevant in the traditional sense. What is most important is to tell voters what they want to hear and try to give voters what it is they really want, or at least think they want. In theory this sounds great, but the problem is that people want the world without having to have to pay for anything.
Populists are not far left or far right or even centrist. Rather, they are political chameleons who look at the direction of the wind, and then jump out in front of the crowd to become the movement’s leader.
“I cut across party lines. When I have town-hall meetings I have New Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives, I have Green Party members, Refederation Party people. They are all there.” – Bill Vander Zalm in an interview with the South Delta Leader in May of 2010
This quote comes more than two decades after Vander Zalm left office in disgrace as he was in the middle of sucking the people of British Columbia into eliminating the HST (harmonized sales tax). He never mentioned that fact that the replacement taxes would be less efficient or that the tax payers were going to give him a tax break on his luxury yacht moorage and golf green fees while they themselves would pay more tax for supplies on home repairs.
Bill Vander Zalm was instrumental in eliminating the HST. Similarly, his time in office was every bit destructive for the province.
At the beginning of his political career, “the Zalm” was a supporter of both the Liberal Party of Canada and the BC Liberal Party. He jumped at Trudeau Mania in 1968 when he ran as a federal Liberal in Surrey. He lost by 5,000 votes. He was also a candidate at the 1972 provincial Liberal leadership convention, where he lost to David Anderson. After joining the BC Social Credit Party in 1974, Vander Zalm was elected into government the following year, and then Premier in 1986.
Much like how the Liberals and Conservative tried in vain to rig the election in their favour in the 1950s, everything Vander Zalm ever tried to manipulate backfired.
He tried to destroy the teacher’s unions by forcing them to chose between province-wide unionization as the BC Teacher’s Federation (BCTF) or forming an association. As much as many teachers didn’t like the idea of the BCTF, they voted for it anyway because the alternative was worse. The legacy of Vander Zalm’s manipulation has led to decades of political unrest with the teachers and the single most negative and destructive influence on public education in British Columbia’s history.
Vander Zalm also introduced the Property Purchasers Tax (without consultation) that has contributed to making housing in British Columbia the most expensive in Canada.
A third disaster he brought it was run-of-the-river projects that were touted as “low cost and green,” but were neither.
His final undoing arose when it was discovered that he used tax payer’s money to sell his multi-million dollar Fantasy Gardens.
The height of Social Credit was a political coalition of fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and federal liberals who were united (in the words of W.A.C. Bennett) “to keep the socialist hordes behind the gates of Hell where they belong.” Bill Vander Zalm fractured the coalition with the above policies while pursuing the hot button issue of abortion (the one time he broke with populism), and finally, to be caught in a conflict of interest.
During the 1991 election, most of Social Credit’s supporters were jumping ship as Bill Vander Zalm’s divisiveness in combination with the stellar debate performance from the Liberal Leader, Gordon Wilson, who — in a single phrase during the televised leader’s debate — took the party from obscurity to 2nd place behind the NDP.
“Here’s a classic example of why nothing ever gets done in the province of British Columbia,” he quipped as the NDP’s Mike Harcourt and Rita Johnson of Social Credit were exchanging barbs.
Suddenly, a left-of center party was supported by right-of-center voters as they piled over from Social Credit. Guess what happens.
The opportune moment came just two years later in 1993 when Gordon Wilson was caught in an extramarital affair. Wilson lost the leadership of the party to the conservative Gordon Campbell. Wilson promptly left the Liberals to form a new party.
The NDP stayed in power for 10 years in British Columbia, and BC Liberals are still claiming the 1990s as the “lost decade.” The right has vowed to stay united, which is why you will often hear Christy Clark and other members of the Liberal Party today advertise themselves as the “free-enterprise coalition.”
So, BC Liberals = Social Credit = Federal Conservatives + right flank of the Federal Liberals.
That covers the history of the Liberals in BC, though it’s only scratching the surface of British Columbia politics. Outside observers are also wondering how the Greens are more than just a fringe party, but that’s a discussion for another day.