The Nanaimo byelection is unlike any other in British Columbia’s history.
The stakes are sky high. If the NDP or the Greens win the byelection, then Premier John Horgan will continue to govern with a very slim majority and the support of Andrew Weaver’s party.
WATCH: Jan. 18 — New poll suggests Nanaimo byelection race a dead heat
If the Liberals win, then the B.C. Legislature will be tied with the Liberals occupying 43 seats, the NDP and Greens holding 43 seats and Independent speaker Darryl Plecas breaking any tie votes.
There have been a pair of large-scale public debates, dozens of visits from party leaders and MLAs and intense public attention rare for a byelection.
Even with so much information, some Nanaimo residents may still be trying to figure out what distinguishes the parties and the candidates.
If you find yourself in that boat – whether you don’t have time to comb through all of the promises or are struggling to cut through the noise – don’t panic.
Global News has prepared a straightforward breakdown of who the candidates are, what’s at stake and where they stand on some big policy issues.
Why are we here
Byelections are relatively rare. Nanaimo is just the eleventh byelection since 2001.
They are triggered when a sitting MLA steps down or — in the rarest of circumstances — dies in office.
In this case, longtime NDP MLA Leonard Krog resigned his seat to take on the job as Nanaimo’s mayor.
Krog won the riding decisively in the past four elections.
“I am almost amused by all the press coverage that would have you believe the sky is falling. I didn’t think there were so many Chicken Littles in British Columbia,” Krog said on June 13, in response to a question about the government falling because of his resignation.
“This isn’t a tired old government like the BC Liberals were going into a provincial election. This is a fresh, young government. Our leader is popular.”
But although the NDP have won Nanaimo all but once since 1972, governments historically have a hard time winning byelections in B.C.
In the last 25 byelections, the sitting government has won just 3 times. Two of those victories were by Christy Clark, who as the sitting premier won first in Vancouver-Point Grey and then in Kelowna West.
Getting prepare to vote
Nanaimo has already seen a high number of ballots cast. Over six days of advanced polling, 9,322 votes were cast out of 45,359 registered voters.
Considering that voter turnout is traditionally lower in byelections, the early turnout numbers could make up a good chunk of the votes cast.
If you wish to vote, you must live in the Nanaimo electoral district, be 18 or older on Jan. 30, 2019, be a Canadian citizen and a resident of B.C. since July 29, 2018.
If you haven’t registered to vote, you can do so at any polling station on Wednesday.
Meet the candidates
There are six people running to be the next MLA of Nanaimo. But the polls are indicating this is a two-way race between the NDP and the Liberals. Green Party candidate Michelle Ney was hopeful she could wrestle the seat away from the NDP but recent polling numbers have not been in her favour.
Justin Greenwood, BC Conservatives
Greenwood is the interim leader of the BC Conservative Party. The Langley resident said he’ll move to Nanaimo if he wins the byelection.
The 37-year-old previously mounted an unsuccessful run for the BC Conservatives in Langley in the 2017 provincial election.
Greenwood does have some island roots, having been born in Victoria and raised in Central Saanich.
Tony Harris, BC Liberals
This is Harris’ first foray into electoral politics. The businessman was born and raised in Nanaimo.
His father, Tom, was a legendary businessman in the community, owning a string of car dealerships and a cellular phone business.
Harris has come under fire during the campaign for a social media post in which he was dressed up as U.S. President Donald Trump. The Liberal candidate said the pictures were from a few years ago and that he was joking around about the controversial politician.
The father of two would be the first Liberal to represent Nanaimo since the party won the seat in 2001.
Sheila Malcolmson, BC NDP
Malcolmson has served Nanaimo before, albeit as the Member of Parliament for Nanaimo-Ladysmith.
The one-term MP was first elected in 2015 and stepped down from the job to run for the BC NDP in the byelection.
The 52-year-old has lived in the Nanaimo region for 29 years and served as the chair of the Islands Trust Council.
She is a strong advocate for greater marine safety and oil spill prevention and for the removal of derelict vessels.
Michele Ney, BC Green Party
Ney was born and raised in Nanaimo.
Her father Frank is one of the best-known politicians in the region’s history having served the community for 21 years, starting the iconic World Bathtub Race in the city and there is now a statue of the “Pirate Mayor” in the city’s harbour.
The long-time teacher taught for 32 years spanning from elementary to high school. This is her first foray into electoral politics.
Robin Richardson, Vancouver Island Party
Richardson is focused heavily on one issue and one issue only, making Vancouver Island its own province. The leader and founder of the Vancouver Island Party served as a member of Parliament for the Beaches from 1979 to 1980 but has called B.C. home since 1983.
The Vancouver Island Party platform includes plans for either free or lowered BC Ferries fees. Free tuition to island universities for island residents, along with preferential hiring practices for graduates of island institutions.
A light rail transit system between Sooke, Langford, Victoria and Sidney is also part of the plan, combined with similar LRT networks between Duncan and Nanaimo.
Bill Walker, Libertarian Party
The 61-year-old has worked and lived in Nanaimo for 25 years. He says he was drawn to libertarianism because he “felt frustrated with the political choices” available.
Walker said he believes in less government and lower taxes for “the hard working, responsible, self determined people of this community.”
The Big Issues
During the middle of the byelection, the provincial government announced that all British Columbians in the affected areas would have to opt out of the speculation tax by filling an online form.
The move was met by criticism from Liberal candidate Tony Harris who called it unnecessarily expensive and bureaucratic. Harris also criticized the government for requiring married couples to fill out the online form separately.
“It is objectionable to British Columbians that they need to proove themselves when we could have just looked at B.C. Assessment,” Harris said.
The NDP said 99 per cent of British Columbians will not have to pay the tax and Malcolmson said, generally, homeowners she has met have been supported the party’s initiatives to address housing affordability.
“This is one tool. We were left with a huge mess with 16 years of neglect and a money-laundering scandal that festered in the housing market,” Malcolmson said.
“In a short time we have been able to bring a few tools to bear.”
Nanaimo was one of the cities that asked to opt out of the tax.
Nanaimo’s economy has long been associated with the forestry industry and with a population that is skewing older the region already has low workforce participation. Creating well-paying jobs and attracting younger people to settle in Nanaimo has been a core issue in the byelection campaign.
Harris focused his campaign on creating jobs around “institutions” such as the mid-Island community’s hospital and university.
“You can’t just do it in a four-year election cycle. You need to set up a plan and work your way back,” Harris said.
“We need strong jobs here. The way you do it is invest in the institutional components of our communities. We need to have a tertiary hospital here and if you do you can challenge Vancouver Island University to have a medical school.”
WATCH: Speaker may hold the power after Nanaimo by-election
For Malcolmson and the NDP, the focus has been on childcare support and housing support to ensure people have a place to live and have someone to take care of their children so they can work.
“The foundation is housing and families,” she said.
“You need to bring housing prices down, it has been a calamity that hasn’t been dealt with in 16 years.”
For the Green Party, a strong economy is about education focused especially on the “new economy.”
“Investing in education is our gold stock that will get us through the 21st century,” Ney said.
“By investing in education, science and innovation and technology, we can help young people transition into the new economy and they will be the leaders in getting small and medium-sized businesses in Nanaimo.”
According to Nanaimo Economic Development, the city is the fifth-fastest growing urban centre in British Columbia. With that comes challenges.
Housing prices are up but they’re still affordable compared to other major B.C. communities.
In March 2018, the average price of a new single detached home in Nanaimo was $611,109, the organization said.
It was $2,303,373 in Vancouver and it was $1,063,422 in Victoria.
WATCH: How important is the byelection in Nanaimo?
Nanaimo is, however, lacking homes available to rent and units affordable enough for people to buy.
“We need to have the provincial government working with the municipality to provide more rental availability,” Ney said. “When I was younger you would see places for rent. You don’t see that anymore.”
The Greens’ goal is to produce more lower-income homes and condos for middle-income earners. The BC NDP have staked their government’s reputation on addressing the housing crisis. But they are also addressing affordability other ways.
“Housing is number one. We hear that from anyone,” Malcolmson said.
Another way the BC NDP are tackling affordability – by cutting MSP premiums, she said.
“We are cutting them to zero from by 2020,” Malcolmson said. “That is the largest middle-class tax cut B.C. has ever seen.”
The goal for Harris and the Liberals is home ownership and building more homes for people to buy.
“I am sensitive to it because I think young Canadians should aspire to home ownership. I want to ensure we keep that dream alive,” Harris said.
“It is up to the province and the civic government to create land available in the city to produce supply of housing along a continuum.”
After years of delay by the previous Liberal government, the NDP government announced in November that the Nanaimo hospital was going to receive a new intensive care unit at the Nanaimo Regional General Hospital.
The new facility will be built by 2021, replacing an ICU that Island Health labelled as the worst in Canada in 2013.
The current unit was built in 1970 and has room for patients with life-threatening illnesses or injuries.
“The Liberals failed to act on it,” Malcolmson said.
WATCH: Nanaimo byelection debate a civil affair
It isn’t issue number one on the Nanaimo doorsteps, but there is no doubt that the ongoing scandal at the B.C. Legislature involving alleged misspending of tax dollars is something people are curious about.
The BC Liberals have been tied more closely to the scandal than the NDP because of mentions in the Plecas Report of meetings that clerk Craig James took with high-profile Liberals.
“The more we learn about the culture of entitlement under the Liberals, the more I am hearing from people how disgusted they are by it,” Malcolmson said.
If Harris is elected, he said he’ll work to bring more accountability to the legislature.
“I think there has been an attention from the government to paint it that way. But I think people understand that these people have been overseen by a committee represented by all parties and there is a need for more transparency,” Harris said.
The prevailing theory in British Columbia is that the NDP and Greens split votes in some ridings and that splitting helps Liberals get elected. It’s not clear how true that is but it is no doubt an issue Ney hears about often.
The Green Party candidate said if you look at the last provincial election, MLAs Sonia Furstenau and Adam Olsen won their ridings by growing the voter pool, not by taking votes from the NDP.
Ney said that’s her blueprint for her campaign.
“The votes they got were new votes. It was the disenfranchised and new voters,” Ney said.
There is universal agreement among the candidates that transportation issues need to be addressed. One of the main priorities for the Greens provincial has been ridesharing.
Ney also raised the issue of connecting communities so there is less reliance on vehicles.
“I would like to see a vision for neighbourhoods where we bring the population downtown,” Ney said.
“So that we can live and work and live and pedal to the shops. We can’t seem to create that.”
The passenger ferry from Vancouver to Nanaimo is a popular idea as well. Malcolmson has been pushing for the ferry but it’s still not over the final hump.
“I have been raising the harbour to harbour ferry since 2014. It is something we want to see happen,” Malcolmson said. “I heard from people they could get jobs on the mainland and bring the money back to our community.”
Harris is focused on connecting Nanaimo with Vancouver and Victoria to create a transportation triangle. He also mentioned ridesharing. The Liberals failed to deliver on ridesharing while in office but critics are quick to point out the NDP’s plan for ridesharing by the end of 2019 may keep out companies like Uber and Lyft.
“Nanaimo would be particularly affected because our city is so spread out and we have so many neighbourhoods and people are mindful of not driving after having a beer or wine and I think that isolates some communities,” Harris said. “We need more options in the community. We are spread out in Nanaimo.”
The future of the B.C. government
The under-arching theme of the entire byelection is the future of the NDP government.
There will likely not be an immediate election if the Liberals win the byelection but it will put increased pressure on the NDP.
WATCH: Provincial election unlikely after byelection
The next confidence vote is expected to be tied to the provincial budget. Unless there are MLAs who are sick or unable to make it to the legislature for other reasons, the speaker is expected to support that budget if there is a tie vote.
Political parties are also set to receive their bi-annual payouts from taxpayers as part of the new fundraising rules on July 1, which makes it less appealing for any party to force an election before then.
The NDP government could then avoid another confidence vote in a tie situation until the spring of 2020, by avoiding a fall legislative session.
No matter how you cut it, this byelection has incredibly high stakes.