B.C. VIEWS: Rural voters maintain edge

Rural B.C. isn't just the source of most of the province's resources

VICTORIA – There aren’t too many benefits to living in B.C.’s vast hinterlands, compared to the southwest where three quarters of B.C. residents reside.

A few advantages of rural life spring to mind: it’s quieter, traffic jams are fewer and shorter, and real estate prices are more reasonable.

Another advantage is little noticed, but significant just the same. Rural voters have more clout than their urban counterparts. There can be as many as three times the number of voters in a Metro Vancouver constituency as in one of the remote northern seats, but each gets one MLA.

That advantage was reinforced during the 2008 electoral boundary redistribution, when the B.C. Liberal government decided not to eliminate rural seats – a move recommended by an independent commission to equalize representation in the B.C. legislature. Instead, both the B.C. Liberals and the NDP supported adding six extra seats, in the Fraser Valley, Lower Mainland, Okanagan and Southern Vancouver Island. That narrowed the gap, but the other regions remain over-represented in Victoria.

The B.C. Liberal Party has now moved to match this rural clout in its own leadership vote, set for Feb. 26. At a weekend convention, party delegates voted almost unanimously to get rid of the one member-one vote system that put Vancouverite Gordon Campbell into the leadership 17 years ago.

The new weighted voting system ensures that constituencies with small memberships have the same influence in the leadership contest as those who have signed up thousands of new members in urban areas. A rural member’s vote might be up to 10 times as powerful as one in Surrey, where many new members have been signed up.

As one delegate pointed out, this isn’t strictly a rural-urban thing. In NDP strongholds such as East Vancouver or Nanaimo, there are large populations but only a hardy little band of B.C. Liberal stalwarts maintaining membership in a constituency the party has little chance of winning.

There wasn’t much grumbling about this decision. Most B.C. Liberals agreed with the candidates that sticking with a one member-one vote system would mean only urban candidates have a chance of leading the party.

Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett was one of those advocating the change to weighted voting, before his noisy expulsion from the B.C. Liberal cabinet and caucus last fall. Still a faithful party member, Bennett urged delegates to adopt the new system, partly because it gives the party “a huge advantage” over the NDP.

The NDP is selecting its next leader in April, using the one member-one vote system for the first time. NDP leadership candidates have also signed up thousands of new members, most of them from urban constituencies.

The NDP now risks becoming the party of the urban poor, and that’s not a recipe for success.

Some rural voters will remember that Glen Clark made his first visit to Prince George only after he became premier. He spoke about how pleased he was to finally visit the north, apparently unaware that he had only reached the middle of the province, with the north still to come.

Carole James worked hard for seven years as leader to make the NDP reach out beyond its traditional power base. She was rewarded in 2005 with seats regained in the North Coast, Kootenays and Cariboo as well as traditional areas of strength.

It won’t be easy for an urban-dominated NDP to retain these far-flung constituencies, much less add to their current seats and form a majority government.

The B.C. Liberals have gone a long way to holding their rural-urban coalition together.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com. tfletcher@blackpress.ca

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