There may be no province with more to celebrate right now than British Columbia. Its universities, in Vancouver and Victoria, have become world leaders in their specialized fields. The school dropout rate is half what it was in the early 1990s, and the best of any province. The budget is balanced, unemployment is below the national average, and the economy has fared better than most, thanks to a boom in oil-and-gas exploration, coal exports to China, a resurgent forestry sector and Vancouver’s thriving life as a creative centre.
So why are so many people determined to throw out the ruling Liberals?
The question clearly irks Premier Christy Clark, who two years ago took over a fatigued regime left to her by Gordon Campbell. This brash Liberal is fighting for her political life in Tuesday’s election; until this week she seemed destined for a rout. The public wants to flog the Liberals for many things, above all the harmonized sales tax, which they snuck in after the 2009 election, then put to a referendum when anger boiled over, and finally this year cancelled it.
Yet the latest polls show a tight race between the right-of-centre Liberals and left-leaning New Democrats, and for good reason. While voters have cause to want to send the Liberals to the penalty box of opposition, a very good number seem to feel the NDP is too risky an option. We agree.
Under the leadership of Adrian Dix, the NDP has presented a moderate face. Mr. Dix is a policy-savvy, business-minded socialist, the kind of NDPer who might find himself comfortable in another version of the Liberals. He wants to focus on skills development, and is cognizant of high youth unemployment and the competitive challenges that his resource-rich province faces in an increasingly service-and-technology-driven economy. He also expresses a deep appreciation of First Nations and their essential place in the province. In B.C., this is not a sentimental view; it’s part of the best way to go about business and government.
As for resource development, however, he wants to slow things down, which is not always a bad thing. The controversial Northern Gateway pipeline almost certainly would stand no chance with a Dix government. He also opposes any proposal to twin an oil line with the TransMountain pipeline that runs from Alberta and ends in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby. The reason? He doesn’t want Vancouver harbour and the passages out to the Pacific packed with what he says will be a nine-fold increase in tanker traffic.
Around parts of Vancouver, where people enjoy their views of sea and mountain, it’s smart retail politics. But it also threatens to cost the province revenue, construction jobs and the confidence of outside investors. Small wonder the Liberals call him Dr. No.
We’re equally concerned about Mr. Dix’s fiscal views. He likes to pillory Ms. Clark for playing fast and loose with her claims of a balanced budget, and says the real deficit, using proper accounting, may be $800-million. The ballooning debt is a still greater worry, he claims – though it hasn’t cost B.C. its AAA credit rating.
He’s vague about his own plans, saying he would try to balance the budget over the course of a term in office – but offers no guarantees.
And Mr. Dix would not be governing alone; left-wingers such as Jenny Kwan and George Heyman would wield influence, as would the unions. There would be pressure for changes to environmental reviews, taxation and labour agreements. The measured labour agreements achieved by the Liberals, especially in health care and education, would be up for grabs.
If the NDP does not help Mr. Dix’s case, Ms. Clark does not help the Liberals. While charming, energetic and passionate about her province, she is seen widely as a bull in a china shop. Her predecessor, Mr. Campbell, saw himself as a partner in Confederation with other first ministers. Ms. Clark is a my-way provincialist, whether she’s telling Alberta it can keep its bitumen or lecturing Maritimers on health-care costs. She is not as much respected as B.C. expects of its premiers. Once a supporter of pipelines to the coast, Ms. Clark is now a vocal skeptic, concerned by coastal safety. What does she really think? We don’t know.
To replace pipeline revenue, Ms. Clark has formed a made-in-B.C. plan to develop one of the world’s largest natural-gas projects in the province’s north, which she claims will bring $1-trillion to the economy. It would also require one of the world’s largest fracking efforts, with environmental issues beside which the pipeline worries pale.
Such grand visions echo an earlier charismatic premier, W.A.C. Bennett, a comparison Ms. Clark seems to fancy. She wants to be seen as a builder. We hope that, if re-elected, she also focuses on the management of government. While there may be no going back on the HST, the province needs more predictable revenue sources than the blockbuster bet of a gas bonanza. That said, Ms. Clark has shown a will to contain public-sector spending, and to push performance-driven goals in social services, especially in the health sector, where B.C. has a heavy burden because it attracts so many retirees.
If the Liberals win on Tuesday, it will be one of the greatest comebacks in recent history, assisted by the collapse of the seatless Conservatives’ support. The party started the campaign down by nearly 20 points, and Ms. Clark may yet lose her Vancouver seat, partly because of her equivocation on the TransMountain pipeline idea. She should never forget that conservative voters are coming to her in order to stop the NDP.
Win or lose, Ms. Clark wants to rename her party. “Liberal” is tarnished by the Campbell era and is often confused with the Trudeau party. But what options are there? How about “Humbled and Wiser”? If there’s a message from the campaign for Ms. Clark, it would be that.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article, which has been corrected, described a proposal to add an oil pipeline to an existing TransMountain gas pipeline. In fact, the proposal is to twin the oil pipeline with another. In addition George Heyman's name was misspelled.