How the B.C. election of ’96 changed provincial politics – British Columbia

It was a tight election that included a singing candidate, plenty of scandal, and the ultimate demise of one of B.C.’s longest-standing parties.  

Such was the B.C. election of 1996, the last time the provincial NDP was elected to power. 

Although the NDP managed to narrowly win its second consecutive victory, it lost 12 seats and the popular vote to Gordon Campbell’s B.C. Liberals. 

“[It was] one of those moments that reminds us of the perils of the first-past-the-post system,” said University of Victoria associate professor emeritus Norman Ruff. 

This video, originally broadcast on May 29, 1996, captures the day after the election:

From the Archives ’96: The road ahead for Premier Glen Clark2:31

Glen Clark had recently taken over the B.C. NDP leadership from Mike Harcourt, who had defeated the long-standing Social Credit Party during the 1991 election.

But Harcourt stepped down after the so-called “bingogate” scandal in which an NDP staffer used money raised by a charity to fund the party, which set the stage for a potentially difficult win. 

Helping the NDP’s cause, however, was the B.C. Reform Party, led by Jack Weisgerber, which many have argued split the vote on the right and contributed towards the NDP’s narrow victory. 

​”They were a significant force on the right wing,” Ruff said. “I suppose you could say they helped deny Mr. Campbell a victory.”

From the Archives ’96:Highlights from the campaign trail2:08

Vote splitting on the right

Ruff, like many other political scientists, said a look back at history shows that most of the NDP’s electoral wins have been helped along by vote-splitting on the right. 

But Bill Tieleman, the NDP’s communications director at the time, said a good portion of the party’s win was due to the Liberal Party’s own campaign missteps. 

“They made a number of key errors,” Tieleman said, pointing to Campbell’s promise to privatize B.C. Rail and reduce the number of ridings, which would have decreased seats in the North and the Interior.

“They made their own mistakes.”

Tieleman said one of the biggest scandals for the Liberals were accusations that Campbell had been meeting in private with the Socreds as part of a bid to unite the right. 

Campbell and the Liberals denied the allegations, but Socred leader Larry Gillanders insisted the Liberals asked 20 of the party’s candidates to step aside.  

Party system in transition

The Socreds — the party that had ruled B.C. for so long and had already lost most of its seats in ’91 — ended up losing all of its remaining seven seats during the election. 

The end result was a complete shift in the province’s three-party system, according to Tieleman and Ruff.  

“It was a party system still in transition,” Ruff said. 

The Liberals had previously been seen as the province’s distant second opposition, Ruff said, but…

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