Does B.C. really matter in federal elections?

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shutterstock_104711162-e1439569511313-900x0Originally published in The Vancouver Sun on August 11, 2015

By David Mitchell –

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “In this election, the B.C. results will be key, likely deciding the outcome of the national contest.”

More than a little hopefulness has been expressed that, for once, those smug easterners will need to stay up late to hear how British Columbians voted before knowing which party has won the most seats.

Although pundits and prognosticators have repeatedly predicted such scenarios in previous elections, it’s never really happened. B.C. votes have usually been tallied well after Canadians in eastern and Central Canada had already gone to bed knowing the outcome. However, staggered voting hours across the country mean the majority of results on election night are now available at about the same time.

Still, some British Columbians dream of making a difference in our national body politic. And why not? B.C. is the third-largest province and it should be able to assert itself in both politics and public policy. Yet, such ambitions have yet to be realized.

Sure, with competitive party politics in much of the province, federal party leaders fly into B.C. during election campaigns, touching down briefly to lend support to candidates in perceived tight races. But let’s face it: Ontario and Quebec are still the primary Canadian electoral battlegrounds, where governments are either won or lost.

This is ironic, because many perceive Ottawa as now being dominated by Westerners. The old Reform party slogan that “the West wants in” is regarded to have triumphed with the current Conservative government. But is this definition of the West simply a synonym for Alberta, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s home base of Calgary? Where do Saskatchewan and Manitoba fit into this equation, not to mention “the West beyond the west,” British Columbia?

B.C. is the only mainland province in Canada to never have elected a prime minister. (Yes, both John Turner and Kim Campbell represented Vancouver constituencies, but, after they won their respective parties’ leadership, neither were elected prime minister). Likewise, it’s difficult to think of federal cabinet ministers from B.C. who have had either significant clout in Ottawa, served as an effective regional power broker or nurtured a realistic pretence of becoming prime minister.

Could it be that British Columbians are largely content in their splendid isolation and disinterested in the affairs of the federation of which they are such an important part?

I’ve long been puzzled over this. It’s true that Ottawa is a long way from B.C. And numerous competent elected representatives from the province have faded into obscurity in the national capital. But other smaller Canadian provinces have produced leaders of national importance who have raised the profile of their regions: think of John Diefenbaker or Tommy Douglas from Saskatchewan; Lloyd Axworthy from Manitoba; Frank McKenna from New Brunswick; Robert Stanfield from Nova Scotia. These are people who both represented their provinces and helped shape national policy. In the process, they also provided visibility and tangible benefits for their constituents at home.

Although B.C. has sometimes been referred to as “the California of Canada,” it’s a clumsy analogy politically. California — where business, cultural and political trends often emerge before moving east — has long had national impact in the U.S. And the state has produced three U.S. presidents.

Rather than jealously viewing B.C. as a kind of California, why not imagine the province as a rich, diverse and essential part of Canada, ready at last to provide leadership to a country in serious need of a reboot?

So let me engage in wishful thinking: Maybe B.C. is finally at the stage in its political evolution at which it might be equipped to play a more decisive role in the leadership of our country. Could one of the MPs from the province elected on Oct. 19 be a future prime minister? Canada would be the ultimate beneficiary.

David Mitchell is a political historian, former B.C. MLA and has served as president & CEO of the Public Policy Forum since 2009.

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