Reading the tea leaves of a (largely) unpredicted election victory for the B.C. Liberals will provide idle entertainment for armchair political quarterbacks of all stripes for years to come.
What are the lessons learned about pollsters and pundits, about attack ads, or debates and leaderly moments? (The leader question is always, always in play during any election). Mostly, was there a political equivalent of a TSN Turning Point – a moment in time when everything changed, when momentum shifted and the game was won or lost?
In some elections it seems obvious. The Wildrose Party had a series of problems during the Alberta campaign, but intemperate candidate remarks decidedly shifted momentum. There’s the famous “you had a choice, sir” moment in the 1984 Brian Mulroney/John Turner debate, and even the Jack Layton/Michael Ignatieff “you need to show up for work” comment in 2011. But in the B.C. election debates there wasn’t a knockout punch. Instead it was the potential Kinder Morgan pipeline that turned the tide.
Perhaps that’s overstating it, but I don’t think so. Christy Clark and the B.C. Liberals had already pounded the NDP and the electorate repeatedly with the message that they were the party of jobs and the economy. They accused the NDP of not caring about your kid’s future, while saddling voters with debt and threatening them with a jobless abyss. Rhetoric was in full bloom on all sides. Then “suddenly” the Kinder Morgan pipeline was a pivotal election issues, because it fit like a glove into the Liberal’s main message.
In one way, this wasn’t immediately obvious. The Premier had already laid out a five-point point plan for any oil pipelines crossing B.C., including both the Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan proposals. Oil pipelines raise a lot of concerns in B.C., but issues like aboriginal rights, marine safety and the environment are juxtaposed with the potential for a B.C. refinery, respect for due process, tax revenues and jobs. So when the NDP decided to oppose outright the Kinder Morgan pipeline – which is an expansion of a pipeline using (mostly) an existing right-of-way, the Liberals pounced. It was the TSN Turning Point.
I doubt the Liberals started this campaign thinking that an oil pipeline project that has yet to have a public hearing would be pivotal to the election outcome. Sure, they had chastised NDP leader Adrian Dix for not being clear about the party’s position on the project, quickly pointing out policy inconsistencies between NDP members. But mostly, the Liberals were busy talking up LNG and resource development more generally. So when Mr. Dix made K-M an issue by stating it would not be built under an NDP government, the Liberals quickly used it as an example of how Mr. Dix doesn’t understand the economy. And, for the umpteenth election, we watched an ageless campaign message harden. To quote a somewhat shopworn phrase, “it’s the economy, stupid”! People from outside the province probably wonder why a federal Conservative like Stockwell Day would work so passionately for the B.C. Liberals. Or why the former leader of the B.C. Reform Party would support Ms. Clark. Why did the B.C. Conservative Party collapse, and the Green Party fall to 3 per cent of the vote (though they did win 1 seat)? The answer: The Liberals refused to talk about much more than jobs and the economy – relentlessly. And the coalition that is the B.C. Liberals rallied around that clarion call. It was the economy that mattered, not “Change for the Better.”
The election wasn’t a referendum on oil pipelines, and certainly British Columbians will rightfully demand answers to Ms. Clark’s five key demands for future pipelines. They may or may not get approved in the end. But the the turning point in the election was when Ms. Clark crystallized the connection between her party and jobs and the economy. The momentum shifted. Just ask TSN.
Chuck Strahl was a federal MP from British Columbia from 1993 to 2011. He is currently chairman of the Security Intelligence Review Committee