BC's NDP Exhales, Ready Now to Argue the Economy

Leadership candidates say their party has strong case to make, was too timid on economic issues last election.

By Andrew MacLeod 5 Apr 2011 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's legislative bureau chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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NDP dumped economic talk from past campaign, but not next one.

In the 2009 provincial election, even though British Columbians told pollsters that the economy was by far their top concern, the Carole James-led NDP largely avoided the issue.

The three frontrunners to replace James now each say that was a major mistake and they are determined to make sure it doesn't happen again. NDP members will pick a new leader April 17.

"I think we should have talked more about the economy," said Adrian Dix, Vancouver-Kingsway MLA. "But I take responsibility for that as much as anyone else... The Liberals, as it turned out, were staggeringly vulnerable on the economy. Their performance was terrible."

John Horgan, who represents the Juan de Fuca constituency on southern Vancouver Island, said he "absolutely" agrees that the NDP gave the economy "short shrift" in the last election. "We were in uncharted waters. Everyone, all citizens, all political parties."

At the time it seemed the global financial system appeared to be collapsing and the government had access to updates that the opposition did not, he said.

"With all the uncertainty that was surrounding the economy in B.C., the Canadian economy, the international economy, we were ill-equipped to respond to it and I think the public ended up voting Liberal because they thought better the devil we know then the devil we don't."

"I think that's been a problem for New Democrats in elections, this reluctance to talk about the economy," said Port Coquitlam MLA Mike Farnworth, who has promised his door will always be open to ideas that create jobs and wealth. "The people who run the campaigns insist we shouldn't talk about the economy... I think we need to talk about all the issues that are important to people."

Crocodile vs. water buffalo

The political strategy, as explained to The Tyee in 2009 by commentator and former NDP MLA David Schreck, is to avoid talking about issues that are seen as your opponent's strengths.

He compared the dynamic to a drinking hole fight between a water buffalo and a crocodile. The crocodile tries to pull the buffalo into the water where it can drown it, and the buffalo tries to get the crocodile out on land where it can stomp it to death.

You go into your opponent's area only when you absolutely have to, Schreck said, then you get out as fast as possible.

But what happens if the water buffalo is too scared of the crocodile to get close enough to the water to drink? Or if the crocodile's overestimated the water buffalo's strength?

There was plenty of room to criticize the Liberals on economic issues, said Farnworth. As the global recession reached B.C., Campbell's "slap dash" response included popular but unsubstantial things like dropping ferry fares for two months, he said. "It was devoid of any sense of reality."

And on his way out the door Premier Gordon Campbell announced a 15 per cent income tax cut, only to have has cabinet reverse it two weeks later when it didn't give the government the bounce in the polls they hoped for, Farnworth said. It was the kind of move that showed there was no comprehensive plan, he said.

After the 2009 election, Campbell surprised the province by bringing in the HST, which has created a lot of uncertainty, Dix said.

2009 polls said economy was top issue

Even if you only look at overall economic growth, the Liberals have done poorly, said Dix. "The government has dramatically underperformed on the economy on its own terms," he said. "Economic growth is two per cent, compared to three per cent under the NDP, which is 50 per cent less."

(Doubters should review Tyee contributing editor Will McMartin's analysis here.)

An Angus Reid Strategies poll released on April 29, 2009, two weeks before the election, shows the NDP strategists did have some reason to worry about addressing the economy. 

When asked what they thought was the most important issue facing the province, 34 per cent of respondents named the economy. That put it well ahead of the next choice, crime and public safety at 13 per cent. Health care (10 per cent), the environment (10 per cent) and poverty (six per cent) followed. The poll surveyed 822 randomly selected B.C. adults online and was considered accurate to plus or minus 3.4 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

And when the question was which leader was best suited to deal with the economy, 48 per cent picked Gordon Campbell, three times as many as the 16 per cent who picked Carole James. There was some solace for the NDP on the question in that 36 per cent weren't sure who would be best. But rather than be seen talking about the issue, perhaps even demonstrating some competence on it, the NDP ceded the issue to the Liberals.

'Next campaign about economy': Dix

When the NDP talk about the economy from here on, they'll likely place more emphasis than the Liberals on how the fruits of the economy have been shared in the province. The Liberals cut income and corporate taxes, but raised medical services premiums and hydro rates, Dix said. "They're for raising taxes on middle income people."

Inequality has grown dramatically, and the minimum wage has dropped to the lowest in Canada, he said. They've allowed 190 schools to be closed in the province, he added, closures that have hurt rural B.C. in particular.

The majority of British Columbians already agree with the NDP on health care and education issues, Dix said.

"On the economy, if we lay out the record and lay out our approach compared to their approach, we'll have a majority there too," he said. "The next campaign will be about the economy. It will be about their failed record and our alternatives on issues that are largely economic issues."

"To me a healthy economy is where there aren't so many children who are so poor and there aren't seniors that have to pay so much to be cared for in long term care," said Powell River MLA Nicholas Simons.

Despite going through an economic boom, the province has little to show for it, he said. When the recession hit, the government cut services that had already been cut during the core review after 2001.

'Ecological and economic marriage': Horgan

Taking the Liberals on over the economy doesn't have to mean doing so on the governing party's own terms, said Horgan.

"I believe we have to ensure we are prepared in the coming campaign, whenever it may start, to talk about the economy in a meaningful way and give people confidence that we are going to be able to protect their jobs and grow the economy," he said.

There's a need to invest in education and skills training to make sure the province has a work force that is skilled, flexible and ready to compete, he said.

"We should be making the case for an ecological and economic marriage," Horgan added, where resources are used to create wealth and opportunities in communities throughout the province.

"Communities need to have some benefit from the resources that are extracted from them," he said. "Rural communities are being depopulated because people are not able to sustain their families, but yet the activity on the land base is quite significant."

Despite lots of mineral exploration and intensive forestry, communities are left poor, he said. "The Liberal approach is to just create the wealth and the assumption is that shareholders will redistribute that wealth through their buying power from profits. It doesn't happen."

Nor is the government making the best of existing opportunities, Farnworth said. "I think there's a real reluctance by this government to acknowledge the role communities can play in economic development, that co-operatives can play in economic development."

Building confidence necessary

While endorsing Horgan, Paul Summerville, an economist who has worked for RBC Dominion Securities and other financial institutions, gave another indication of how the NDP can talk about the economy in a way that plays to the party's strengths.

A prosperous economy is needed if the province is going to have the best outcomes possible for health and for communities, Summerville said. "John speaks very eloquently about how a strong economy and social justice are two sides of the same coin."

Summerville said he's a supporter of carbon taxes and consumption taxes like the HST, though he argues the Liberals created uncertainty by delivering it the way they did.

Addressing the economy is important for a larger reason for a party that hopes to form a government.

"I think people want to hear from us on a whole range of issues," said Dix. That includes topics like the economy that are seen as weaknesses for the party, he said. "In a sense, in presenting on those questions, you're building a broader sense of confidence."

"At the end of the day we have to talk about the things that are important to British Columbians," said Farnworth. "That means jobs. We have to be talking about jobs and we have to be talking about the economy."

In other words, the party doesn't necessarily need to rule the watering hole, but it does have to show it's comfortable there.  [Tyee]

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