Changing of the political guard

The first two words of the Vancouver Sun’s story on Tuesday that MP John Reynolds was stepping down as Conservative House leader and won’t be seeking re-election described him as a "political warhorse." There may be no better epitaph when his political career is finally over.

Reynolds’s life in politics started in 1972 when, at the age of 30, he won election as the Conservative MP for Burnaby-Richmond. A true conservative, he didn’t support leader Robert Stanfield and quit the party not too long after Joe Clark became leader in 1978. After a few years away from politics he was elected as Social Credit MLA for West Vancouver-Howe Sound in 1983, beginning his long connection to this area. He served as Speaker of the legislature from 1986 to 1989 and then spent two years as environment minister before the only loss of his political career in 1991.

In 1997 he returned to federal politics as the Reform MP for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast, after Herb Grubel decided not to seek re-election. Reynolds played an important role as the party morphed from Reform to Alliance and finally Conservative. When an Alliance caucus revolt threatened to destroy the party in 2000 Reynolds’s support of leader Stockwell Day was a key to keeping the party together.

Despite his political successes, Reynolds has never been everyone’s favourite. His deep conservative roots and his blunt assessment of matters, such as his support of leader Stephen Harper’s current campaign against same-sex marriage, leave no middle ground. Consequently most people are either strongly for him or strongly against him.

Yet Reynolds is reportedly popular with MPs from all parties and considers former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien a friend. Even those constituents who have not voted for him admit grudging respect for his commitment to people in this riding. From salmon enhancement programs to immigration matters, Reynolds has not hesitated to go to bat for his constituents, and he has usually produced results.

While Reynolds stepping down signals a changing of the political guard, it is just one sign that political change is taking place in this corner of British Columbia. MLA Ted Nebbeling, who has represented West Vancouver-Garibaldi since 1996, won’t be running in May’s provincial election. Joan McIntyre is the new Liberal candidate, and almost certainly our next MLA.

There will also be municipal elections across the province in November, and it is likely that there will be some change on Whistler’s council, if only because some councillors won’t seek re-election.

And, of course, with a minority government in Ottawa there could be a federal election at any time. Reynolds’s narrow victory over first-time Liberal candidate Blair Wilson in last year’s federal election suggests the Conservatives could have their hands full in this riding whenever the next election comes along.

But trying to read the political landscape in 2005 – at any level – is no easy matter. Those who see conservatism on the rise can cite the re-election of George W. Bush and Republican majorities in the United States Senate and Congress. In Alberta, Premier Ralph Klein wasn’t considered conservative enough by some so a new right-of-the-Conservatives party was born. And in B.C., with Gary Collins stepping down as finance minister and Attorney General Geoff Plant non-committal about seeking re-election, some see the conservative wing of the B.C. Liberals on the rise.

Conversely, Wilson’s strong challenge to Reynolds last year suggests the West Vancouver-Squamish-Whistler area may be growing less conservative. It has certainly changed over the last decade. At one time the provincial riding of West Vancouver-Garibaldi was considered a microcosm of B.C., with the forestry industry, tourism, business and agriculture all represented and a pronounced urban-rural or urban-hinterland dichotomy. But forestry is less important to Squamish and Pemberton than it used to be, while both towns have seen and will continue to see exponential growth.

And the political geography of British Columbia has also changed in the last decade, with differences between the south – particularly the south coast – and the northern half of the province becoming more pronounced. This is the source of political change; change within the electorate, which leads to changing of the political guard.

Perhaps we are not becoming more conservative so much as more sharply divided in our political views. With British Columbians facing the possibility of three elections this year, perhaps we will find out. It may be time for a new breed of political warhorses.

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