The Battle for Quadra

The seats were the Liberals’ to lose. That was the thinking around the March by-elections in the West Side riding of Vancouver Quadra and across the country. In Ontario and Saskatchewan, as in British Columbia, Grits were expected to sweep the polls, holding on to their seats in the Legislature. Ballots tallied, however, the red tide ebbed short of the expected quadfecta. Saskatchewan went to a first-time Conservative candidate. In Quadra, the gap between Liberal and Conservative was so narrow—151 votes—that a Conservative recount call is rumoured.

By-elections results are notoriously difficult to predict. Turnout is low: only 34 percent of eligible voters in Quadra took part in the by-election, compared to 63 percent in the general election of 2006. Campaign spending is humbler. Strategic voting goes out the window; for all the posturing on street corners, at all-candidates meetings, and in newspaper articles and on-line rebuttals, candidates get their push from private kaffeeklatsches and public appearances with party bosses. Were you, by chance, invited to Conservative candidate Deborah Meredith’s house for butter tarts and tea in January, to meet Secretary of State Jason Kenney? If so—if you’re one of the 50 or so influentials meant to spread the law-and-order message into the Chinese community—consider yourself a Tory super-delegate, squarely in the sights of the new electioneers. If not, you may not know what Meredith, a frequent no-show during the campaign, even looks like.

“Tonight we are sending a very clear message to Stephen Harper: the Liberals are strong,” Joyce Murray told jubilant supporters on voting night; but perhaps a clearer message in this hotly contested, widely ignored by-election comes from an analysis of the dramatically two-tiered results: 20,159 votes (71.6 percent) for Murray and Meredith, the 50-something main-party candidates, versus 7,856 votes (27.9 percent) for their 20-something NDP and Green party rivals.

No sooner had the scrutineers pocketed their spectacles than it was the pundits’ turn. What does the Grits’ three-for-four victory mean? Were these by-elections really about law and order, or the environment, or national security? And whither Quadra? The sixth-richest riding in Canada is also the second-most-educated, and one of the country’s oddest, encompassing Southlands mansions, Kits co-ops, and Point Grey basement suites (not to mention the Musqueam reserve and UBC). How did nearly Murray manage to lose a district that’s voted Liberal continuously since 1984, winning by only the slimmest of margins? And what does the by-election portend for the coming general election?

Anyone who could preside over the dismantling of the B.C. Ministry of the Environment, then run on an environmental platform, must be blessed with nerves of iron. And indeed Murray, 53, who has an MBA from SFU, displays a Hillary-like mettle, honed perhaps during her years in the first Gordon Campbell administration. At the March 3 all-candidates meeting, hosted by the Dunbar Residents Association, Murray took the floor for her opening five minutes. “Can everyone hear me?” she began. “Can you hear me at the back?” “No! No!” came the reply. “Good,” said Murray, in a neat encapsulation of modern politics. “Then I’ll begin.”

At another all-candidates meeting, hosted on March 6 by Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, Murray addressed head-on the most apparent difference between left-wing candidates Rebecca Coad (NDP, 24) and Dan Grice (Green party, 27), and herself and rival Deborah Meredith (Conservative, 57). “I really appreciate seeing the fire and brimstone of the NDP candidate; she’s clearly very passionate and very committed, and I welcome young people taking part in the political process.”

Coad, not without sarcasm: “Thanks, Joyce.”

Murray made much of her work in reforestation. “I planted 500,000 trees with these hands in the province of British Columbia” was a mantra during the campaign, and neatly figured into her focus on climate change (the subject of her oft-mentioned 1992 master’s thesis). “I’m proud I went from planting seedlings to planting the seeds of an awareness and a commitment on climate change,” Murray has said. “And we’re seeing those seeds germinate in British Columbia today.”

Murray came to federal prominence after co-chairing the 2006 campaign in British Columbia to elect Liberal leader Stéphane Dion. “This by-election is not just some kind of poll,” she has said. “This by-election is critical to create momentum, and that’s the momentum to get Mr. Dion into the prime minister’s chair. You can shoot at that, but I am the candidate who has experience serving the public.” In the end, that may be what carried the day.

Sauder School of Business law prof Deborah Meredith hewed close to Tory policy in her selective appearances. Absent from many public events, she also ignored a Friends of CBC questionnaire regarding the public broadcaster. Criticism fell on deaf ears, though, as she made clear at the one all-candidates meeting she did attend: “My 26 years as an educator have given me good communication skills and a very thick skin.” Hers were the only lawn signs not in both Chinese characters and English, yet wooing the so-called ethnic vote was a cornerstone of her strategy, and an effective one: blue support increased from Stephen Rogers’s 29 percent in 2006 to 35.5 percent this year, within striking distance of the win.

“The party may be able to declare victory of a sort, without an actual win at the ballot box,” opined Greg Lyle, managing director of Innovative Research Group, in a pre-results piece for the Globe and Mail. “If the Conservatives can move their vote past 30 percent, on the strength of their appeal to the Chinese community, that will bode well in a general election in other ridings with higher proportions of ethnic voters.” And

in a second story: “The Tories are not expected to win, but if they can come a closer second, they send a signal that they are poised to win in places like Richmond and the North Shore.”

Meredith’s strategy nearly worked. And the Tories served notice to the Grits that the immigrant vote—long a pillar of Liberal support—can no longer be taken for granted.

My first glimpse of Rebecca Coad came on my front porch. With her pert smile and clipboard, she was surely selling Girl Guide cookies or on a bottle drive for her band’s trip to Europe. Nope: she wanted our support for the NDP.

“I lost patience waiting for action on the issues that really matter to me,” Coad was fond of saying during stump speeches. “I began to ask myself, ‘What if?’ We have some of the most relaxed environmental standards in the industrialized world. So, ‘What if we had a government that was pressed to take action?’ ” With her earnest vigour and hypnotic cadences, she brought to mind the strains of Barack Obama’s “Yes. We. Can.”

“Everyone in this room knows that Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are moving full speed ahead with their right-wing agenda,” she said at one all-candidates meeting. “And the Liberals? They were elected by the Canadian people to be the Opposition, but we’ve seen the Liberals abstain on every single confidence vote in the last session of Parliament, letting Stephen Harper do whatever he wants.

O“So in this by-election, if you believe that Stephen Harper is going in the right direction, if you are with his priorities, then you can vote for either my Conservative or my Liberal opponent.” This got a big laugh—applause, hooting, whistling.

Unfortunately for her, the voters of Quadra followed her suggestion, dropping NDP support from David Askew’s 2006 showing of 16 percent to her 14.4. Her Elect Rebecca Coad Facebook group closed with the voting stations, but at its height it boasted 316 members. Recent comment: “Dude, you have 10 times as many FB supporters as Joyce Murray!” But Murray got a lot more votes. As the Green party picks off votes from the NDP’s left flank and the Liberals encroach on the right, the Quadra by-election did little to refute the notion that the federal NDP is wandering in the wilderness.

 “Thanks, guys, for putting this on.” In his gosh-gee sincerity, UBC archaeology grad and Green party candidate Dan Grice came across as committed, passionate, and a tad naïve. Speaking from neither notes (as Murray did) nor memory (as Coad, a theatre grad, did), he addressed the seniors who’d filled a Dunbar church hall as “guys” four times in five minutes. Love him or loathe him, Grice seemed fully himself. “I really like meeting people,” he said by way of introduction. “But I find just being out there on the streets is better. I like that better than knocking on doors some nights because I’m not disturbing you during dinner.”

As Grice spoke (“We need some passion in politics; we need some excitement”), I recalled a 24 Hours column in which Bill Tieleman (a long-time NDP supporter and an opponent of Grice’s on electoral reform) claimed that party leader Elizabeth May had written every Quadra Green party member, asking them not to nominate Grice: “A vote for None of the Above or a vote to re-open the nomination process would be appreciated.” But Grice, a self-described “new-media consultant,” prevailed and was unfailingly positive: “I’m really reaching out to you guys to give us a chance.”

Unlike Coad, he substantially bettered the showing of his predecessor, earning 13.5 percent of the vote compared to Ben West’s five percent in 2006. “Dan and the team ran an excellent campaign,” the federal Green party declared after election day. “The team focused on canvassing, the virtual phone bank and in the last few days main streeting.” And Grice best understood how the much-vaunted Web 2.0 could increase his traction. While the other candidates used Facebook groups, blogs, and party pages cautiously, Grice threw it all up on Elect Dan Grice: squabbles (including one with Tieleman), scores for his IQ (143) and Traveler IQ (average at 93), even goofy Halloween pictures.

This is the opposite of old-time spin doctoring, though perhaps ahead of the curve for voting blocs like the Dunbar Residents Association. It is, as the Greens like to say, a different brand of politics. Yes, there were unnervingly unvetted comments on Grice’s Facebook page, but his open-mindedness and genial embrace of community partly explained the Georgia Straight’s endorsement (“A vote for Grice will reward a young man who has worked extremely hard and sacrificed making money because he wants to save the planet”)—and the fact that he nearly trebled the support given to his 2006 counterpart. The next election will be about many things; one of them, the Quadra by-election suggests, will be the effective use of new media.