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VIEW: Will Clark and Dix get objective consideration or past condemnation?

[Editor's note: This appeared today on the blog of Gordon Wilson, former leader of the BC Liberals and NDP cabinet minister. During the election season, we'll post various perspectives on The Tyee's Election Hook, labelled clearly as "VIEW."]

The British Columbia provincial election is six weeks away and if the most recent polling numbers are accurate, Adrian Dix and the NDP will win a substantial majority of seats.

The Feb. 24 Angus Reid poll gives the BC NDP 47 per cent, BC Liberals 31 per cent, BC Green 10 per cent and the BC Conservatives nine per cent amongst the decided and leaning voters polled, with 13 per cent still undecided. More importantly, the BC NDP vote seems to be evenly distributed, making a regional split favouring the Liberals unlikely. It was a regional split that elected the NDP to government in 1996, gaining the NDP more seats than the Liberals despite having less of the popular vote. While many political pundits have already written the BC Liberals off, some even suggesting the Liberals will drop to as few as seven seats, I am not yet amongst them for three reasons.

1. My experience in B.C. politics over the last 30 years has taught me to never take the voter for granted. Those who do so, do it at their peril. B.C. elections in 1965, 1983 and 1996 all demonstrate that a party can go into the election with a big lead and still lose. Examples can be read in The Tyee.

This will be the first time that either Christy Clark or Adrian Dix will stand before the electorate as a whole to seek a mandate to govern. This will provide a very stark contrast for voter consideration.

The Liberals' banner touts them as "Today's BC Liberals," presumably to contrast Clark's Liberal team from the decade of rule by Gordon Campbell. To be fair to Clark, she has reshaped the party considerably and there is tangible evidence that the BC Liberals under her leadership are a very different party from that of Gordon Campbell. She has removed Campbell's training wage, increased minimum wage to $10.25 per hour, and imposed a tax on those earning more than $150,000 per year, to mention only three out of many initiatives that would not have happened under Campbell.

The NDP, running under the rather lengthy banner of "Change for the Better – One Practical Step at a Time," is filled with veteran candidates who, to these tired eyes, are more a reflection of the past than a view to the future. MLAs like Leonard Krog, Sue Hammell, Harry Lali and Mike Farnworth, all running again, were first elected in 1991. NDP heavyweights Bruce Ralston and John Horgan, who weren't elected members during the 1990s, were omnipresent in Victoria during that decade. Ralston was NDP President/legal counsel and Horgan was a senior staffer. In addition, current Leader Adrian Dix served as right hand to Glen Clark during his years in cabinet and later when Clark was premier.

In the heat of a campaign, both parties are vulnerable to being painted with the colours of the past. Christy Clark needs to be as far away as she can get from Gordon Campbell without alienating her right-wing members. Adrian Dix likely doesn't want those voters who can still remember the tumultuous NDP governments of the 1990s to be reminded of his role in a government that was so reviled that the electorate reduced them to only two seats in the 2001 election. To his credit, Dix has made it clear that the NDP doesn't plan to use attack ads. Anti-NDP third party interests are already doing so on behalf of the Liberals' re-election efforts. As distasteful as these attack ads are, they have been proven to shape public opinion.

Both leaders have their skeletons: Clark's alleged role in the sale of BC Rail and Dix's admitted falsifying of documents, allegedly done to protect former premier Glen Clark and cabinet minister Mike Farnworth, who is still an elected member and a current candidate. If either skeleton falls out of the closet to any effect, it will be negative and could easily shift the focus and outcome of this election.

2. A Feb. 21 Ipsos poll provided information that, properly exploited by the Liberals, may prove critical during the campaign. This information is regarding how voters perceive each leader's intention to manage government spending in the current economy. All the polls I have reviewed show that the economy is the top issue concerning British Columbians. However, when Ipsos asked if they thought the economy would be better today if Dix and the NDP had been running BC, only 24 per cent said yes, and 40 per cent replied that they think the province's financial situation would be worse under Adrian Dix and the NDP. Whether the accusation is fair or not, the NDP have not been successful in changing the public perception that they are poor fiscal managers.

At a time when the province is posting a record and rising debt, NDP finance critic Bruce Ralston is on record saying that the NDP consider the debt "manageable," and more to the point, they intend to increase spending by running consecutive deficit budgets. By contrast, Finance Minister Mike de Jong tabled a "balanced" budget and almost immediately came under fire from many analysts who didn't believe the projected revenue numbers in the latest budget. If de Jong's numbers are wrong, what would the response be to Ralston's?

Obviously, if the revenue projections that de Jong tabled in the latest budget aren't to be believed, the province will be worse off at the end of the fiscal year. This may cause the voters to question the wisdom of the NDP's promise to increase the deficit and push debt up even further. British Columbia, along with Ontario, led the country in full-time job growth in February, suggesting that the Liberal job strategy may be taking hold and starting to work. With that in mind, voters may well question why, when governments worldwide have learned the harsh lesson that deficits and rising debt don’t work, the NDP seems bent on doing exactly that.

3. Mr. Black's press conference this week tossed a $25-billion dollar refinery "cat" amongst the pigeons by potentially changing the debate on the merits of an oil pipeline across northern British Columbia. This proposal will appeal to core NDP support within the labour movement. However, the "green" NDP won't like it at all. This dichotomy in the NDP is hard for a leader to manage, as I have witnessed firsthand sitting around the cabinet table in the late 1990s. Just how Adrian Dix responds to this proposal will be a critical issue, as will the whole debate on energy reliance for long-term projected revenue for BC.

In August 2012 in Prince George, Dix called Black's plan "irrelevant." It is not clear how at a time of rising provincial debt and fiscal uncertainty in British Columbia a serious proposal to invest $25 billion with over 6,000 construction and 3,000 permanent jobs into B.C., is "irrelevant."

Black, it seems, has investors committed to this project, and Premier Clark has endorsed it as a way to ship both diesel and refined gasoline, which are far less problematic than the proposed bitumen shipments that have been debated over the last year. She has also endorsed putting value to Canadian resources prior to export, which makes sense.

I doubt that Dix still thinks this proposal is irrelevant. NDP energy critic John Horgan is going to meet with Black to get a better understanding of the project. It is a given that the project will have to pass an environmental review process to address environmental and First Nations concerns, but my guess is that the electorate, especially those who are toying with a vote for the Green Party, will want to know whether or not Dix supports this proposal. Either way, I am sure that Adrian Dix will find out that Black’s proposal is not "irrelevant."

It is said that a week in B.C. politics is a long time. I agree with that, and we have six weeks left to the next election. A great deal can change in that time. While I am sure that the NDP would like to keep the people distracted from the hard and more relevant issues by continuing to focus on so called "scandals" like the inappropriate memo relating to ethnic outreach, I am not sure that the electorate will allow that to happen.

In 2001 B.C. voters went to the polls and almost blindly tossed out the NDP without paying too much attention to what Gordon Campbell represented. Most British Columbians regretted that decision so much so that over time the approval ratings for Campbell fell to an all-time low and he left. In this election we have a clear choice of two options brought to us by two new leaders who face us for the first time with their teams of prospective MLAs. Let's not make the same mistake as 2001. In this election, let's take the time to really understand what those who seek to govern us plan to do and let's choose as wisely as possible.

This analysis first appeared on Gordon Wilson's blog.

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