Esquimalt-JDF a key riding for spring election

With an election all but called for this spring, Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca is poised to be a battleground riding with a renewed voting dynamic, as Liberal MP Keith Martin steps aside.

In 2008, Conservative Troy DeSouza narrowly lost by 68 votes, demonstrating that Esquimalt-JDF voters, at least at the time, were migrating toward the Tories. As Martin bows out after 17 years, it raises the question: Are Liberal voters loyal to the man or the party?

“It is a key question: Which way will the voters go? The second choice for most Liberals is Conservative, and vice-versa,” said Dennis Pilon, a political science professor with the University of Victoria. “Those who voted for Martin won’t necessarily vote Liberal. This could help Troy (DeSouza) get over  the hump. Martin bowing out throws it all up into the air.”

Making political calculations more difficult, Martin has sat with Reform, Canadian Alliance and Conservative parities before crossing the floor to the Liberals in 2004. In the past three elections he’s fielded 34 to 35 per cent of the ballots. It’s hard to predict where voters’ loyalties lie, said Dan Spinner, CEO for the  WestShore Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s an interesting question to what happens to Keith’s voters, whether they are automatically Liberal voters. He’s not always been Liberal in the past,” Spinner said. The riding leans toward the NDP provincially, but that doesn’t necessarily translate federally.

“It’s how people react to national platforms, to local platforms and to the characters of the individual candidates,” Spinner said. “We’ve got a rapidly growing population, with rapidly growing young families. Federal candidates will have to realize this is a family-focused riding.”

Rounding out the field in Esquimalt-JDF are Langford Coun. Lillian Szpak running for the Liberals and Esquimalt Coun. Randall Garrison for the NDP. Shaunna Salsman of Sooke is running for the Green Party.

Pilon said he’s not sure Szpak is high-profile enough to fill the big boots left by Martin. On the other hand, DeSouza’s ongoing campaign to build an interchange at McKenzie Avenue and the Trans-Canada Highway could backfire.

Pilon said its an easy argument to make that the Conservative government is playing politics with big infrastructure. Federal funding came through for an interchange at the airport that no one was asking for, he said, which is in Gary Lunn’s Conservative riding.

“The area in desperate need of an overpass is not in a Conservative riding,” Pilon said. “To voters, it looks like you are being held hostage. Some will say that’s how politics works. But the message is if you don’t elect Troy there is no overpass. People don’t like feeling they’re over the barrel.”

But the Conservatives have spent millions in Esquimalt-JDF, including helping fund the new gym and new seniors centre addition at West Shore Parks and Recreation, a new classroom building at Royal Roads University, the Sportplex in Langford and numerous expensive projects at CFB Esquimalt.

“In the suburbs the Conservatives have made up for weaknesses in the (urban cores),” Pilon noted. “They are making inroads.”

To galvanize diverse voters who span from Port Renfrew to Esquimalt, Spinner said candidates will need to touch on a comprehensive transportation plan, housing affordability and back the drive on the West Shore to build two new high schools.

“There is a lot of potential federal contributions to effect infrastructure across the riding,” Spinner said. “We know this is a swing riding. It will be interesting to see who has the pulse of the community.”

Spinner also noted the corporate tax cuts proposed by the Conservatives in their now-dead budget might not find favour as a campaign promise among the thousands of small and medium sized businesses throughout the riding.

“Certainly as a chamber we want to see fewer taxes, but most of the corporate cuts help big businesses, not small businesses,” he said. “The recession lingers, construction is slow, for restaurants and bars it’s slow. Business is growing, but its not easy out there.”

The Esquimalt-JDF riding has a history of higher voter turnout than the national average, hitting nearly 65 per cent in 2008, compared to 59 per cent across Canada.

Lower voter turnout is generally to the benefit of the Conservatives, Pilon suggested, while higher turnouts favour opposition parties. He cited a Conservative policy implemented in 2006 requiring photo ID to vote.

“This was brought in despite no evidence of problems with voter fraud,” Pilon said. “Mandatory ID makes it harder for certain groups, the same groups that tend not to vote Conservative.”

The WestShore Chamber of Commerce is planning an all-candidates meeting in Langford for mid April. The date will be posted at www.westshore.bc.ca.

editor@goldstreamgazette.com