The death of independent MP Chuck Cadman leaves a big hole in the political landscape and all indications are it is not one the Liberals will be in a rush to fill.
The vacancy, however, puts the minority government in a dilemma. Should it quickly call a by-election in Surrey North in an attempt to add a crucial seat by taking advantage of Conservative Party disarray in British Columbia?
Or should the government avoid the risk of a devastating loss in the Vancouver-area riding where the Liberals have been historically weak, and wait for the next general election?
One factor likely to hold the Liberals back is the reality that, despite the current unpopularity of the Conservatives in B.C., the government would have a tough time winning in the urban, blue-collar riding, which is morally conservative and highly ethnic.
The Conservatives' strong law-and-order platform plays well in Surrey, which has a serious drug crime problem and has been dubbed the car theft capital of North America.
At the same time, the working-class neighbourhoods and booming dockyards along the Fraser River tend to support the New Democratic Party.
Whenever the Liberals are a little behind in the polls, they tell people incessantly that they don't want an election at this time, and the media repeats it until people who had never given the matter any thought believe that they don't want one.
A by-election must be held within 180 days of the vacancy, which would put it well into January at the latest. A general election is likely before then. So the Liberal mantra will be, "The people don't want a by-election right before a general election."
Whether or not the Liberals have any real chance of winning this seat, the Surrey North by-election will be regarded as a judgment of the governing party. The Grits were quick to claim vindication in the Labrador by-election victory, a seat which they were in no danger of losing, although the Tories doubled their vote. In Surrey North, the judgment will be based on how far the Liberals trailed behind the winner.
The real judgment will be passed on the Conservative Party--more specifically, the Conservative Party in British Columbia.
Reform/Alliance won many traditional NDP strongholds in B.C. because it picked up the populist vote from long-time NDP voters who no longer saw it as the voice of the common man.
The Conservative Party might not enjoy that same image. The price of being electable in Ontario could well be fewer seats in B.C.
Surrey North will determine if that's been the tradeoff.
In any event, by-election timing should not be left to the discretion of the governing party. A by-election should be held at a fixed time after the vacancy comes open, whenever that might be, to prevent such shenanigans as in Sheila Copps and Joe Clark's by-elections.
Source: The Globe and Mail