1991 British Columbia general election

1986 British Columbia general election Rita Johnston British Columbia Social Credit Party
1991 British Columbia general election

← 1986 October 17, 1991 1996 →

75 seats of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia
38 seats were needed for a majority
Turnout64.03%[1] Decrease 1.77 pp
  First party Second party Third party
  Mike Harcourt.jpg
Leader Mike Harcourt Gordon Wilson Rita Johnston
Party New Democratic Liberal Social Credit
Leader since 1987 1987 1991
Leader's seat Vancouver-Mount Pleasant Powell River-Sunshine Coast Surrey-Newton (lost re-election)
Last election 22 0 47
Seats won 51 17 7
Seat change Increase29 Increase17 Decrease40
Popular vote 595,391 486,208 351,660
Percentage 40.71 33.25 24.05
Swing Decrease1.89 Increase26.51 Decrease25.27

Premier before election

Rita Johnston
Social Credit

Premier after election

Mike Harcourt
New Democratic

The 1991 British Columbia general election was the 35th provincial election in the Province of British Columbia, Canada. It was held to elect members of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. The election was called on September 19, 1991, and held on October 17, 1991. The incumbent Social Credit Party of British Columbia, which had been beset by scandals during Bill Vander Zalm's only term as premier, was defeated by the New Democratic Party of Mike Harcourt. Liberal Party leader Gordon Wilson surprised observers by leading his party to winning one-third of the votes cast, and forming the official opposition in the legislature. The new legislature met for the first time on March 17, 1992.

The election was held at the same time as a referendum on recall and initiative.[2] It was also the first British Columbia general election with only single-member districts.[3]


Under Vander Zalm's leadership, Socred's control shifted from urban fiscal conservatives to social conservatives. Vander Zalm seemingly cruised to victory in the 1986 provincial election, held just a month after he was sworn in. In truth, however, a number of more moderate Socreds were not at home with the party's rightward turn on social issues, and began defecting to the Liberals.

This process was exacerbated by Vander Zalm's eccentricity, and the constant scandals that plagued his government. As well, Vander Zalm allowed his principal secretary, David Poole, to amass a substantial amount of power, despite being unelected.

Vander Zalm resigned in April 1991 amid a conflict of interest scandal surrounding the sale of a theme park that he owned. Socred members elected the lesser-known Deputy Premier Rita Johnston, a close ally of Vander Zalm, to be their new leader, over Grace McCarthy, a longtime associate of former Premier Bill Bennett. Many viewed this as a mistake, as Johnston was close to the Vander Zalm legacy; even NDP leader Mike Harcourt admitted later that he preferred Johnston over McCarthy, as the latter would be a much tougher opponent in an election.


Johnston had little time to make up ground in the polls or distance herself from the now-detested Vander Zalm. Additionally, the Socreds were still bitterly divided over the bruising leadership contest.

The Liberals, who had not been represented in the legislature since 1979, gained slightly in the polls due to great resentment against the ruling Socreds and skepticism towards the NDP. A turning point came when Wilson successfully took legal action to be included in the televised leaders' debate, which took place on 8 October. During the debate Johnston and Harcourt exchanged many bitter attacks, while Wilson, still not considered a serious contender, was able to successfully portray himself as an "outsider" who was above the partisan bickering of the other two parties. Liberal support surged dramatically as a result of Wilson's performance. One of the memorable moments of the debate came as Harcourt and Johnston argued loudly amongst each other, when Wilson pointed towards them and declared, "Here's a classic example of why nothing ever gets done in the province of British Columbia."[4]


The Socreds were swept from power in a massive NDP landslide. This was not due to the NDP winning a higher percentage of the vote as much as it was due to Socred support collapsing in favour of the BC Liberals, splitting the vote. The defeat was magnified by moderate Socred supporters voting Liberal, continuing a shift that dated to early in Vander Zalm's tenure. The combined effect was to decimate the Socred caucus, which was reduced from 47 members to only seven—only three over the minimum for official party status. Johnston herself lost her own seat in Surrey-Newton to NDP challenger Penny Priddy, and all but five members of her cabinet were defeated.

The Liberals returned to the legislature as the official opposition after a 12-year absence, replacing Social Credit as the main alternative to the NDP in the province.

51 17 7
New Democratic Liberal Social Credit
Party Party leader # of
Seats Popular vote
1986 Elected % Change # % % Change
  New Democrats Michael Harcourt 75 22 51 +131.8% 595,391 40.71% -1.89%
Liberal Gordon Wilson 71 - 17   486,208 33.25% +26.51%
Social Credit Rita Johnston 74 47 7 -85.1% 351,660 24.05% -25.27%
Green   42 - - - 12,650 0.86% +0.62%
  Independents 16 - - - 10,281 0.70% +0.57%
Reform Ron Gamble 4 * - * 2,673 0.18% *
Family Coalition   8 * - * 1,310 0.09% *
  Libertarian   11 - - - 860 0.06% +0.04%
  Western Canada Concept Doug Christie 5 - - - 651 0.04% +0.02%
  Conservative Peter B. Macdonald[5] 4 - - - 426 0.03% -0.70%
  Human Race   2 * - * 110 0.01% *
  Green Go (Green Wing/Rhino)   1 * - * 93 0.01% *
  Communist League   3 - - - 92 0.01% -0.02%
  Interdependence Party   1 * - * 62 x *
Total 317 69 75 +8.7% 1,462,467 100%  
Source: Elections BC

Notes: x - less than 0.005% of the popular vote.

* Party did not nominate candidates in the previous election.

Popular vote
Social Credit
Seats summary
Social Credit


This was considered a political realignment due to the high turnover in MLAs and the effective end of the Socreds as a political force. The party was completely shut out of the legislature in the 1996 election, never to return. Meanwhile, the Liberals replaced them as the main non-socialist party in British Columbia. The NDP and Liberals have been the two main parties in the province since then.

However, neither Harcourt, Wilson, or Johnston would contest the subsequent 1996 election as leaders of the major parties, with Johnston and Harcourt having retired from politics by that campaign. Johnston, having lost her seat, resigned the leadership of the Socreds immediately in early 1992. Harcourt resigned as premier in 1996 due to a scandal among the MLAs in his caucus. Wilson proved unable to consolidate the party's leadership due to inexperience and he was eventually deposed in 1993, and he crossed to the NDP in 1997 after a brief spell as founder, leader and sole MLA of the Progressive Democratic Alliance. He served as an MLA and minister until his defeat in 2001. Wilson was also a candidate for the NDP's leadership in 2000, won by Ujjal Dosanjh.

See also


  1. ^ "B.C. Voter Participation: 1983 to 2013" (PDF). Elections BC. Retrieved May 11, 2017.
  2. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-10-09. Retrieved 2008-04-05.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  3. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-10-04. Retrieved 2008-02-02.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  4. ^ "Gordon Wilson's debate triumph in B.C." CBC News Archives. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 8 October 1991. Retrieved 25 October 2016.
  5. ^ Macdonald was not eligible to run as a candidate in 1991. He moved to Canada at the age of 10 and only discovered during the election campaign that he was a British subject and had never obtained his Canadian citizenship. (Matas, Robert, "B.C. Tory leader ineligible for election He discovered just two weeks ago that he isn't a Canadian citizen", Globe and Mail, October 2, 1991