Conservatives eye B.C. seat gains but also have weaknesses

Trust will be the dominant theme of the federal election campaign now underway, predicts a veteran B.C. political observer.

Trust will be the dominant theme of the federal election campaign now underway, predicts a veteran B.C. political observer.

SFU political scientist Patrick Smith said the Conservatives will argue only they can be counted on to carefully steer the economy through a still-fragile recovery and assure stability.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, will contend Canadians shouldn’t trust the Tories – particularly so far as to give them a majority – because they tried to hide the full costs of the government’s crime-fighting agenda and F-35 fighter jet purchases.

The minority government fell on a non-confidence motion Friday when MPs voted 156-145 to find the Tories in contempt of Parliament. Election day will be May 2.

“We will hear a lot about U.S.-style mega-prisons and the whole idea that you can’t trust their numbers,” Smith said. “Lines like ‘Do you want fighter jets to fly around the Arctic or get all seniors out of poverty in Canada?'”

Conservatives will play the economic card, he said, painting New Democrats and Liberals as blocking a budget that was poised to aid seniors in order to spark an election.

Smith said he believes Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided to trigger the election by tabling a budget carefully calculated so other parties couldn’t support it.

“More than any party, the Conservatives wanted this election,” he said. “I think they looked at the polls and said ‘We’re at 39 per cent – we can grow to 42 per cent and get a majority.'”

Fears will be stoked about what Harper would do with a majority, he said, and, conversely, the spectre of the other parties forming a coalition government.

The Conservatives need 11 more seats across the country to win a majority and some of them could come from B.C.

Tory strategists hope to recapture Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, where Liberal MP Keith Martin has retired.

Smith said they are also likely to aim at ridings with narrow margins in the last federal vote, such as Liberal health critic Ujjal Dosanjh’s Vancouver South riding.

They’ll also hope to reclaim former Conservative ridings, like Newton-North Delta, held by Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal.

Depending on the part of the Lower Mainland, the battle may not be Liberal-Conservative but Liberal-NDP or even NDP-Conservative.

While the Conservatives hope to make gains, they will also be under threat in some areas.

Smith said Tory MP Nina Grewal (Fleetwood-Port Kells) is “pretty low profile” and and Dona Cadman (Surrey North) could also be vulnerable.

“Just as the Conservatives are thinking we can pick up Esquimalt, there will be people in the New Democrat and Liberal war rooms thinking, ‘We can take this from the Conservatives.'”

Tory incumbents in the two North Shore ridings may also be in for a battle, he said.

Even traditional Conservative strongholds could be in play because of missteps, in come cases due to the whirlwind pace of nomination meetings.

In Delta-Richmond East – held by John Cummins until he opted to pursue provincial politics – Conservative candidate Dale Saip has stepped down over financial problems in his past.

There’s been dissatisfaction among local Tories in some ridings, including Okanagan-Coquihalla and Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon, where complaints are being aired that accelerated nominations weren’t fair. In some cases, disgruntled Tories are vowing to run as independents.

And in South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale, some Conservatives weren’t happy the party refused to allow a nomination challenge of incumbent MP Russ Hiebert, who faced a partial revolt of his riding association executive last year.

Now two ex-Conservatives are running against him – one is a former White Rock mayor running for the Liberals  and the other calls himself an “independent conservative.”

“Suddenly, you could gift a constituency to a third party that never before had a chance of winning,” Smith said.

Some seats will likely change hands in B.C., but Smith said at this point he’d have to bet on another minority government.

“The Conservatives have a shot at the majority,” he said. “It’s doable. But everything has to break their way.”

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