Nanaimo-Ladysmith byelection a test of political forces

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Nanaimo-Ladysmith riding residents take part in anti-pipeline action. Photo: Leadnow Canada/Flickr

On Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that a byelection will be held May 6 in the riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith on Vancouver Island to replace Sheila Malcolmson, the NDP member who resigned to run successfully in a provincial byelection.

The prime minister declined to fill two other vacant ridings: Saint-Léonard–Saint-Michel (Quebec) and Kings–Hants (Nova Scotia).

The Liberals took the NDP by surprise. Trudeau had until July 6 to make the B.C. byelection call -- the NDP had not planned candidate selection to take place until May.

Despite not yet having a nominated candidate, the NDP is favoured to win the riding.

Nanaimo-Ladysmith was created before the 2015 general election. Its current boundaries cover two former Vancouver Island seats where the NDP were traditionally difficult to beat.

Two high-profile candidates have already announced their intention to contest the NDP nomination.

Kwikwasut'inuxw Haxwa'mis Chief Bob Chamberlin is a vice-president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs and has been prominent in the fight against the Trans Mountain pipeline extension.

The pledge by Chief Chamberlin to "ensure the federal government lives up to its promise to honour the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)" will resonate in a riding that is 10 per cent Indigenous.

The other announced candidate is Lauren Semple, a former Pride Nanaimo president and event director, and an organizer of the Nanaimo Women's March. Semple knows the riding well having worked as a constituency assistant to Malcolmson. 

In the 2015 general election, the Conservatives and the Liberals both garnered 23 per cent of the vote. The Greens polled 20 per cent, while the NDP won with 33 per cent, down from 45 per cent in the (redistributed from former ridings) results from the 2011 byelection.

In 2015 the Liberals spent only $22,000 in a riding where the locally well-known Green candidate Paul Manly raised $145,000 for his race, and the Conservatives and the NDP spent over $130,000 each.

The Liberals will not be unhappy to see the cash-poor Greens and NDP forced to raise money now for the byelection and soon again for the October general election.

For the byelection they are not expected to win, the Liberals nominated Port of Nanaimo chair Michelle Corfield in mid-March, while the Conservative candidate John Hirst, a 32-year-old financial adviser, was nominated in November.

In January, financial planner Jennifer Clarke, who lost to Hirst, accepted to run with ex-Conservative Maxime Bernier and his People's Party.

Whoever the NDP chooses can expect a stiff test from Green candidate Paul Manly, son of former NDP MP Jim Manly. He is running for the second time.

For reasons not revealed, Manly failed a confidential vetting by the federal NDP National Executive when he wanted to run for the party in 2015. At the time the son was asking the party to defend his father, who had been arrested as part of a boat to Gaza operation and detained in Israel for protesting treatment of Palestinians by the Netanyahu government.

In the test of political forces, the Conservatives, which held 40 per cent of the (redistributed) vote in 2011, then lost 17 points in 2015, will be looking to demonstrate their ability to win votes away from the Liberals who gained 17 (redistributed) points in 2015.

At the same time the Scheer-led Conservatives need to demonstrate they are capable of holding off the Maxime Bernier insurgency, which in the February Burnaby South byelection tallied 11 per cent of the vote to the Conservative 22 per cent.

The Liberals no doubt see the byelection as an opportunity to move on from cabinet and senior advisers' resignations, and controversies around SNC-Lavalin. The Liberals will tout their "no austerity" budget that features interest-rate reductions of two and one-half percentage points for young people paying down the over $28 billion in outstanding student floating-rate loans, help with pharmaceutical drugs, tax credits for job training, tax breaks for low-income seniors still working, and still leaves room for new spending announcements in the run-up to the October 23 general election.

The big Canadian issues surrounding climate and environmental protection attract great interest on Vancouver Island, where the Green Party looks to grow beyond one seat and the NDP needs to maintain its dominance.

Without being a dress rehearsal for the general election, the five-party race in Nanaimo-Ladysmith should provide an interesting test of each party's ability to gain maximum advantage over its adversaries.

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Editor's note: This column has been updated to clarify the details of Jim Manly's arrest.

Photo: Leadnow Canada/Flickr

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