Forestry and fish are playing out as pivotal B.C. election issues in the North Island, as two party leaders paid a visit to the riding in the final week of their campaigns.
The Vancouver Island riding is an NDP stronghold where tourism and forestry, along with fishing and aquaculture, are the region’s economic pillars. And two of the riding’s candidates are heavily invested in some of those sectors.
BC Liberal candidate Norm Facey is a former forestry executive who worked for the region’s pulp mills and logging companies.
His challenger on the opposite side of the spectrum is BC Green Party candidate Alexandra Morton, a fierce critic of open-net pen salmon farms in B.C. waters.
Attempting to walk the line between the two is NDP candidate Michele Babchuk, an experienced municipal politician favoured to win the riding. But Babchuk’s victory is only assured if she stems the loss of resource sector or environmental votes to the other two parties.
The NDP is grappling with the challenge of casting itself as a friend to forestry while still presenting itself as more environmentally progressive than the Liberals — a tactic that doesn’t tend to wash with most Greens.
Both the BC Liberal and NDP leaders tried to capitalize on the political tension between the economy and environment to snag votes during visits to the North Island over the weekend.
Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson’s arrival to pitch the party’s forestry plan was heralded by a convoy of logging trucks during his second visit to Campbell River within three weeks on Saturday.
NDP Leader John Horgan visited the city the following day to announce he'll redouble the party's commitment to protect and revitalize B.C.’s dwindling wild salmon stocks — likely as a means to counter Morton’s reputation as a wild salmon defender.
The extra attention from party leaders, as well as the backgrounds of the North Island candidates, reflect how the environment and economy are intersecting as election issues in rural, resource-based ridings across the province, says Will Greaves, a political scientist at the University of Victoria.
Forestry and fish are playing out as pivotal B.C. election issues in the North Island, as two party leaders paid a visit to the riding in the final week of their campaigns. #bcpoli #BCelxn2020
“I see this tension between them as being a major fault line that runs through the NDP coalition and poses a pretty significant political risk to them,” Greaves said.
It’s still likely the NDP will take the majority of the seats in the upcoming election, but the party’s weak spot is likely to grow over time, said Greaves, especially as the NDP moves forward with liquefied natural gas development and is forced to stickhandle technical issues linked to the construction of the Site C hydroelectric project.
Recent poll results show the NDP losing a handful of points to the Liberals and Greens in the last leg of the election.
Since last week, NDP support dropped four points to 45 per cent, while the BC Liberals gained two points and sit at 35 per cent. The Greens also gained two points and sit at 16 per cent.
Polls suggest that people who have already voted, mostly in Metro Vancouver and on Vancouver Island, largely supported the NDP.
But among voters that still have to cast their ballot, in the province’s rural Northern and Interior ridings and the Fraser Valley, support appears to be closely split between the NDP and Liberals.
The NDP camp currently includes traditional allies from the labour and resource sectors, but the party has gained traction with socially progressive, young, diverse and urban voters in the Lower Mainland, Greaves said.
“So the North Island riding is going to be an interesting test case,” he said.
NDP voters in the riding likely range the party’s spectrum and will be looking to see if the NDP is serving their interests, he said.
“I think that's kind of the question on which the future of the NDP in more rural and resource-intensive ridings will hang.”
As for the North Island riding, there’s an off chance the Greens could play a spoiler role and hand the riding to the Liberals, Greaves said.
But given past election results, they’d have to pull a significant number of votes exclusively from the NDP, he said.
The NDP captured 48 per cent of the vote in the 2017 election in the North Island riding, followed by the B.C. Liberals at 35 per cent and the B.C. Greens with 15 per cent.
And the Liberals might capitalize on the resources sectors’ discontent with the NDP, but it’s unlikely to close a 10-point spread, Greaves said.
So, the NDP’s middle-lane approach to forestry and fish issues may actually help the party hang onto the riding this election, Greaves said.
“It's certainly plausible it may actually serve to benefit the NDP as being best positioned to try to navigate some of those divides.”
Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer