Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Exclusive Opinion Poll Oak Bay: NDP Leading, Conservatives Surging

This article is published with a couple of typos in the December Street Newz, now being sold on the streets of Victoria. Gordon Pollard, the fellow who offers to produce these opinion polls, prefers to use a typewriter and then entrusts me with re-typing the document. Unfortunately neither I nor my proof readers found the typos prior to sending the paper to print. This is the corrected version, with all the correct information in paragraphs two and three. My apologies for the blundered print edition!

If a provincial election were held today, the B.C. Liberals would likely lose the Oak Bay-Gordon Head seat to the NDP and would be seriously challenged for second place in the riding by the resurgent B.C. Conservatives even though both the NDP and Conservatives are also beset with problems.

That is the trend indicated in an exclusive public opinion survey conducted by secret-ballot for Victoria Street Newz over a five-week period in 16 representative polling divisions across the riding. A random sample of 400 voters (25 in each polling area) cast ballots, with Jessica Van der Veen of the NDP obtaining 189 votes (47.3 per cent), current MLA Ida Chong of the BC Liberals 93 votes (23.3 per cent), the not-yet-chosen candidate of the B.C. Conservatives 87 votes (21.8 per cent) and Steven Johns of the Green Party 31 votes (7.8 per cent).

 For the Liberals, the poll results represent a humiliating fall from grace in Oak Bay-Gordon Head. The party’s share of the vote has plummeted by a shocking 34 points: from 57.3 per cent in 2001 to just 23.3 per cent in the poll. With numbers like these, Gordon Campbell’s recent cabinet shuffle isn’t likely to make much difference. Nor are many of his dwindling band of supporters likely to be reassured by his claim that this is just a temporary glitch for the Liberals and their support will bounce back “once people understand the benefits of the Harmonized Sales Tax.” Campbell’s message brings to mind that old joke about the last words of the captain of the “Titanic”: “There’s nothing to worry about, folks. We’re just slowing down to take a little ice on board for the party tonight.”

Chong, who was recently shifted from minister of healthy living and sport to minister of science and universities, was first elected in Oak Bay-Gordon Head in 1996, winning by 640 votes, and she boosted her victory margin to a whopping 8,799 votes in 2001. But that margin dwindled to 1,427 votes in 2005, and last year she squeaked back in by just 561 votes. She now appears to be in grave danger of being turfed out if she seeks a fifth term in 2013.

But while the NDP topped the poll, perhaps the biggest story emerging from this survey is the strong showing by the back-from-the-dead Conservatives who obtained 21.8 per cent of the vote even though they have not yet chosen their candidate in the riding for the next election and haven’t contested the Oak Bay seat for many years. Moreover, there hasn’t been a Conservative MLA in B.C. for 32 years and there hasn’t been a Conservative premier for 75 years.

It should be noted, however, that, historically, Oak Bay has been good fighting ground for Conservatives. The last Conservative to sit in the B.C. house, Victor Stephens, was elected in Oak Bay in a 1978 by-election, and earlier the riding was the home base of diminutive Red Tory gadfly Dr. Scott Wallace, who led the B.C. Progressive Conservatives for many years and was a constant thorn in the side of both W.A.C. Bennett and his son Bill.

The Street Newz poll clearly indicates this is a golden hour of opportunity for the B.C. Conservatives since a lot of people obviously don’t want to vote for either the Liberals or NDP – but it is by no means certain the Conservatives will be able to take advantage of this opportunity since the party has been rocked in recent months by controversy and internal strife.

The party recently suffered a high-profile resignation when its former deputy leader Chris Delaney left in a huff, saying the Conservatives didn’t do enough to fight against the HST, which Delaney vigorously opposed. During the anti-HST campaign, Delaney played the role of the faithful Tonto who was always at the side of gun-slinging Lone Ranger Bill Vander Zalm. Delaney has now become spokesperson for a new party, B.C. First, which was founded this past summer by a Vancouver HandyDart driver, Sal Vetro, who is also a disgruntled ex-Conservative. B.C. First becomes, astonishingly, the 23rd officially registered political party in B.C.

Meanwhile, seemingly undaunted, B.C. Conservative Party President Wayne McGrath, a former mayor of Vernon, has been busy beavering around the province, setting up organizational infrastructure. The party is planning to hold a leadership convention in the spring, so it should become clearer then whether the Conservatives can get their act together and find a leader who will be credible in the eyes of B.C. voters. As one survey respondent on Windsor Road wryly observed: “If the Conservatives are serious about winning the horse race, the first thing they’ve got to do is get themselves a horse.”

In any case, it is important to keep the poll results in perspective. While the Conservatives did surprisingly well, the big winner was clearly the NDP – especially considering the party has won the largely affluent Oak Bay riding only once in the 22 general elections the CCF-NDP has contested in B.C. since 1933.

But despite the NDP’s impressive showing in Oak Bay-Gordon Head and in a number of province-wide polls, there have been strong indications in recent weeks that the party might well succeed in snatching defeat from the jaws of what had seemed to be shaping up as a likely victory in the next election. As it has done so many times in the past, the B.C. NDP appears to be on the verge of shooting itself not just in the foot but in the other much more strategic parts of the body.

Persistent rumours of discontent within NDP ranks with the leadership of Carole James burst into the open in early October when Cariboo North NDP MLA Bob Simpson publicly criticized James and was promptly expelled from the party caucus. Simpson said the NDP has been “wilting” under James’s leadership, with both membership and financial donations dropping.

Although the rest of the caucus is continuing to support James’s leadership, at least publicly, much of that support seems lukewarm at best. As he has done so often over the years, the NDP’s stalwart country-philosopher Corky Evans cut through the flim-flam with a charismatically blunt statement from his home in the Slocan Valley: “Bob Simpson’s comments remind me of that little boy who said what everyone else had been afraid to say – that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.”

Clearly there are deep divisions within the B.C. NDP, with a number of knife-wielding pretenders to the throne lurking in the shadows. At this point, the party seems to be heading almost inexorably toward doing what it has always done best: self-destruct. Indeed if the NDP is looking for a campaign song for 2013, the most appropriate choice would probably be the old M*A*S*H theme song, “Suicide is Painless.”

As for the Green Party, the Oak-Bay Gordon Head results will come as a major disappointment. Though the Liberals appear to have lost a huge amount of the support they had in Oak Bay in the last election, the Greens have not only failed to attract disillusioned ex-Liberals but also appear to have lost a bit of their own previous support.

This is in striking contrast to what happened a decade ago when the NDP vote was collapsing across B.C. At that time the Greens were able to take advantage of the situation and increase their share of the vote in Oak Bay to 18.3 per cent in the 2001 election from just 2.1 per cent in 1996. This time, however, while the NDP and Conservatives are gorging themselves on the decaying Liberal carcass, the Greens appear to be missing out on the feast.

Although respondents to the “Street Newz” poll were not asked to give reasons for their choice of candidate or party, many did offer comments and it is clear that the campaign against the HST, spearheaded by the charismatic and seemingly ageless former premier Bill Vander Zalm, has had a huge impact in Oak Bay-Gordon Head, just as it appears to have had throughout the province.

In addition, Ida Chong’s personal standing in the riding seems to have been seriously damaged by the revelation she submitted expense claims for $5,921 in meals last yar even though she is paid $152,393 as a cabinet minister and lives only a 20-minute drive from the legislature. In fairness, however, it should be noted that local NDP MLAs declined to criticize Chong for pigging out at the public trough – presumably because they too have sometimes partaken of porcine repasts at taxpayers’ expense.

In any case, Chong now faces, potentially at least, a more serious problem as the threat of recall looms on the horizon. If Bill Vander Zalm’s horde of anti-HST campaigners follow through on their plans to target Oak Bay-Gordon Head in a recall campaign, it is possible they might be able to persuade 40 per cent of the voters in the riding to sign a petition forcing a by-election in the constituency.

Frankly, however, I think that is very unlikely. The impression I got while conducting the poll is that while there is a lot of resentment toward Chong and widespread feeling that it is time for a change in the riding, there doesn’t appear to be the kind of white-hot hostility that would be needed for a recall effort to have any realistic chance of success. I think it is much more likely Chong will lurch along (Or in Ida’s case should we say “lunch” along?) for another couple of years and then announce her retirement from politics just before the 2013 election.

One survey respondent in the Hillcrest area summed up the general sentiment in the riding quite well. “Ida,” he said, “should be given a chance to fade into the sunset at the next election – but, if she doesn’t, she’ll be catapulted into the sunset.” Another voter, on Torquay Drive, added: “it was stupid of Ida to waste so much public money on meals – but if we recalled every MLA who did something stupid, there would be nobody left in the legislature.”

In any case, for the Liberals the next order of business is clearly choosing a new leader since Gordon Campbell has about as much chance of winning a fourth term as Sarah Palin has of becoming head of Mensa International. But the Liberals’ biggest problem is that their legislative caucus is, to put it charitably, not suffering from any embarrassment of riches when it comes to credible leadership contenders.

Before the furor over the HST, the odds-on favourite to take over as Liberal leader was Finance Minister Colin Hansen, whose dreams of becoming premier have been common knowledge for years. But now those dreams have been shattered by Hansen’s convoluted pants-on-fire denials that the government’s plans for the HST were hatched before the last election.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Mike de Jong’s well-known leadership aspirations were also dealt a severe blow recently when the long-running BC Rail trial was brought to a sudden sleazy let’s-make-a-deal conclusion just as former finance minister Gary Collins was about to testify and after it had been disclosed that Gordon Campbell might also be called to testify. De Jong’s clumsy, fumbling attempts to explain away this sordid scandal were even more ridiculously unconvincing than Hansen’s story about the HST.

One other Liberal MLA who has been mentioned as a possible leadership candidate is Health Minister Kevin Falcon, but it is not likely he will be able to grab the brass ring. Though he sometimes displays a certain eccentric charm, Falcon is too far to the right and a bit too “off-the-wall” to garner broad-based support. He is truly quite a strange bird. In fact, he is the only “falcon” in the world that has two right wings but no left wing.

In view of the dearth of leadership talent in their caucus, the Liberals may have to cast about for a new leader from outside the legislature. While Surrey mayor Diane Watts and former education minister turned talk-show host Christy Clark are possible candidates, both have to be regarded, realistically, as lightweight longshots. The Liberals’ best hope by far of retaining power rests with super-smooth finance minister Carole Taylor.

Indeed, the leadership is likely Taylor’s more or less for the asking if she decides she wants it. Although Taylor has constantly denied she is interested in returning to provincial politics and was recently appointed chancellor of Simon Fraser University, many still believe she would dearly love to end her career as premier of B.C. But she won’t run for the Liberal leadership unless she feels totally confident she can win the next election. The last thing she wants is to be remembered as another Kim Campbell or Rita Johnston, who became pathetic footnotes in Canadian political history as eleventh-hour captains of the Brian Mulroney “Titanic” and Bill Vander Zalm “Titanic” respectively. So it remains to be seen whether we mere mortals will actually get to witness the Second Coming of Carole Taylor complete with the corporate media singing the hallelujah chorus in the background.

During her relatively short stint as B.C.’s finance minister, Taylor became the darling of Howe Street and the corporate media. Her main claim to fame (or notoriety depending on one’s point of view) was shoveling out truckloads of public money to bribe workers with so-called “signing bonuses” so they wouldn’t go on strike during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Obviously the days when one could bribe effectively with just 30 pieces of silver are long gone!

In any event, it is far from certain that she would be able to provide a Taylor-made solution to all of the B.C. Liberals’ problems (and yes, folks, that is about as bad as a pun can get!). Though she looks much younger, Taylor will be 67 years old in 2013 – two years older than the departing Gordon Campbell. Moreover, Taylor’s plastic smile and noblesse oblige persona might well come across as irritatingly smarmy and cloying to a lot of lower-income British Columbians, especially in rural areas.

Also on the subject of leadership, speculation persists that Bill Vander Zalm just won’t be able to resist making one last foray into the B.C. political arena – but I think that is very unlikely. For all his great charm and faa-ann-tastic energy, the Zalm, now 76, is far too old – and, of course, he carries more baggage than a whole fleet of jumbo jets. In fact, the talk of a possible political comeback by the Zalm reminds me of that old joke about the guy with his arm in a sling who is asked, “Have an accident?” “No, thanks,” he replies, “I’ve already had one.”

In the final analysis, however, the only thing that is ever really certain about B.C. politics is that nothing is ever certain. Way back in days of yore (and W.A.C. Bennett) one political wag made the sage observation that “B.C. is such a weird place that while things might sometimes seem a little surprising, nothing is ever very surprising.” Having now watched the bizarre world of B.C. politics for more than half a century, I can see how right that fellow was. Indeed, if a sasquatch were to win a seat in the legislature in the next provincial election, I would be a bit surprised – but not really very surprised.

How Our Poll Was Conducted
The Victoria Street Newz public opinion survey in Oak Bay-Gordon Head was a secret-ballot poll of 400 voters selected at random in 16 strategic polling divisions across the riding (25 voters each in Polls 5, 9, 11, 16, 27, 35, 42, 52, 64, 71, 91, 95, 105, 113, 121 and 127).
These polls were chosen because they are a microcosm of the constituency. In the 2009 election, the B.C. Liberals obtained 46.7 per cent of the vote in these 16 polls (compared to 46.5 per cent in the entire riding) and the Greens obtained 9.2 per cent (compared to 9.1 per cent in the entire riding).
Each voter participating in the survey was given a ballot and a small envelope. The question on the ballot was:
If a provincial election were being held today, which candidate would you vote for in the Oak Bay-Gordon Head constituency?
Ida Chong (B.C. Liberal Party)
Steven Johns (Green Party)
Jessica Van der Veen (New Democratic Party)
Candidate Not Yet Chosen (B.C. Conservative Party).
After secretly indicating his or her choice of candidate on the ballot, the voter sealed the ballot in the small envelope and then dropped it into a large sealed “ballot box” envelope.
For our survey, the B.C. Liberals, NDP and Greens were represented by their candidates in the riding in 2009. But we also decided to include on the survey ballot a “generic” candidate of the B.C. Conservative Party. That decision was made for three reasons: (1) The B.C. Conservatives have been consistently showing up on the radar screen in recent province-wide opinion polls. (2) B.C. Conservative Party President Wayne McGrath personally assured us his party plans to run a candidate in Oak Bay-Gordon Head in 2013. (3) From the earliest days of party politics in B.C., Oak Bay has been an area in which Conservative candidates have enjoyed considerable success.
We would like to thank all the people in Oak Bay-Gordon Head who cast ballots in our survey for their wonderful co-operation in helping us carry out successfully this exercise in participatory journalism.
Gordon Pollard has conducted seven previous constituency polls for Victoria Street Newz, for the 2005 and 2009 B.C. elections and the 2006 and 2008 federal elections. All seven accurately predicted the election results. In last year’s provincial election, for example, Street Newz predicted Carole James would win in Victoria-Beacon Hill with 55.6 per cent of the vote and Rob Fleming in Victoria-Swan Lake with 60.0 per cent. James won with 55.4 per cent and Fleming with 60.5 per cent.