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Liberals win majority in British Columbia

Canadian Press

Vancouver

British Columbians re-elected Premier Gordon Campbell's Liberal government Tuesday, but voters resoundingly signalled they wanted to end the government's free ride, electing more than 30 New Democrats.

Mr. Campbell's victory, the first second-term win by a B.C. premier since 1983, was almost overshadowed by the force of the return of the New Democratic Party under rookie Leader Carole James.

With most polls reporting, the latest seat standings early Wednesday were 46 Liberals and 33 New Democrats.

The popular votes percentages were 46 Liberal and 41 NDP.

Counting votes in the referendum to change the province's electoral system was suspended overnight without a result.

The NDP was reduced to just two seats in the 2001 election when Mr. Campbell's Liberals won the most lopsided vote in B.C. history, capturing 77 of 79 seats.

Mr. Campbell, who stood on stage at his victory party with his wife, two sons and his mother, said the win gives him a mandate to continue with his program of rebuilding health care and education after deep cuts over the last four years.

Mr. Campbell said the government made tough choices during its first term, but many of its decisions involving health care and education will start bearing fruit over the next four years.

"The doctors will graduate. The nurses will graduate," he said. "Get ready because B.C. is going to continue moving forward and building the future of the province."

Several members of Mr. Campbell's cabinet were defeated, while NDP newcomers in urban Vancouver and Victoria ridings will be heading to the legislature along with old-guard New Democrats from the Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark eras.

"Things are going to be very different in the legislature," said Ms. James in a celebratory concession speech.

"There will be a lot more New Democrats standing strong, speaking up for their communities and holding the government accountable," she said. "We will take a balanced approach to our role as a greatly expanded Opposition."

Running parallel to the election was a low-key referendum campaign that asked British Columbians whether they wanted to adopt a system of proportional representation called the single transferable vote.

Other provinces were watching the results closely and in the late going the Yes side was ahead in the total number of ridings, but was slightly below the 60 per cent provincewide threshold it needed to carry the day.

Ms. James said the election results indicate British Columbians want a government that cares about all of its citizens.

The Liberals campaigned on British Columbia's strong economy, but Mr. Campbell's budget cuts hurt seniors, children and families, she said.

"British Columbians don't want our province divided into winners and losers," said Ms. James. "They don't want people left behind."

Ms. James, a former school trustee, was elected NDP leader in November, 2003. She ran as a New Democrat in Victoria in the 2001 election, but lost by less than 40 votes.

She promised to end polarization in B.C. politics by bridging the often wide divide between labour and business interests.

Ms. James candidly admitted during the campaign that past NDP governments were not balanced. Her stock with voters appeared to rise halfway through the election when she performed well during a televised leaders debate.

Mr. Campbell won't be joined by all of the members of his cabinet in the legislature. Management Services Minister Joyce Murray, Labour Minister Graham Bruce and Minister of Human Resources Susan Brice lost their seats.

Mr. Campbell acknowledged the losses of not only the cabinet ministers, but a number of his backbench MLAs.

"Some who served with us in the last legislature have not been successful tonight. They were the women and the men who decided they were going to restore British Columbia's sense of hope," he said.

Wrestler Daniel Igali, a gold medal winner at the Olympics, failed to win in suburban Surrey for the Liberals.

Green Leader Adriane Carr also fell short in her bid to become the first member of her party to be elected to a Canadian parliament.

Former CBC chairwoman Carole Taylor, considered a star candidate and potential cabinet minister for the Liberals, won a Vancouver seat.

The Liberals asked for a second mandate to increase spending on health care and education after a string of cuts to social programs and public service jobs that led to a budget surplus this year.

But former Social Credit premier Bill Vander Zalm said the election results reveal the NDP correctly sensed voters were unhappy with the depth of the cuts made by Mr. Campbell's Liberals.

"The NDP kept pointing out that social issues are very important to people in the province," he said.

Voters said they want the government to take a middle-of-the-road approach to provincial issues, said George Heyman, president of the powerful B.C. Government and Service Employees Union.

"The message has to be clear to Gordon Campbell and the Liberals, the majority of British Columbians want something that is more centrist," he said.

The campaign was sedate by B.C.'s standards. Even the normal anticipation surrounding an election call was missing this time as the province became the first in the country to send voters to the polls on a fixed date.

The personal attacks, normally the spice of a B.C. election, were replaced by the more sombre debate over the future of the economy, hospitals and schools.

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