Adrian Dix’s big problem, as he heads into this final year before the next election campaign comfortably ahead in the polls, is keeping a leash on his own party.
If the New Democrats form the government next spring, it will have been a dozen years since they held the reins of power. There is a lot of pent-up demand from the party’s supporters – a collective wish list that he acknowledges no government can afford right now.
So Mr. Dix is busy trying to dampen those expectations. Anything that sounds like a commitment paints a large target on his back for his critics to take aim at. B.C. can’t afford the NDP, is the BC Liberal theme.
The demands of the BC Teachers’ Federation likely top his list of issues to be managed. The union is entrenched in a battle with the BC Liberals and have vowed to actively campaign in the next election against the current government.
Mr. Dix says the teachers can’t expect him to turn back the clock. “We have to live within the constraints we inherit, and clearly nobody can have any illusions,” he said in an interview this week. “Whoever wins the next election is going to inherit a mess.”
For all the BC Liberals’ efforts to paint Mr. Dix as a threat to the economy, the business community is not uniformly treating the prospect of a Dix-led government as the coming of the apocalypse.
Some sectors, like the wine industry, have come to see him as a champion of their interests. More generally, Mr. Dix has been reaching out to CEOs and other business leaders to address their concerns, and lay out what an NDP government would do – and wouldn’t do.
There are some indications that his message is getting through. Last November, at the NDP Leader’s levee, about 45 per cent of the tables were purchased by businesses.
More telling, however, is the response from one sector of the economy that has provided the BC Liberals with staunch support over the years. Last month, Colin Russell, president of the Kamloops Exploration Group, hosted a trade show and convention for the mining sector. After rubbing shoulders with over 500 delegates, he sensed a thaw toward the NDP.
“I’m a Liberal and I’ll probably end up voting Liberal again. But I wouldn’t say no to a sit-down with Adrian Dix,” he said. “With the mining industry the way it is, it’s one of the things that is going to keep the province going – I can’t see the NDP shutting that down.”
A change in government always brings a shift in direction and priorities. One of the more dramatic changes came in 2001, when the newly minted BC Liberal government sought to undo a decade of NDP rule. In its first three months in office, the government slashed taxes and red tape, overhauled labour laws, imposed settlements in labour disputes and more.
BC Liberal MLA Colin Hansen was part of the inner circle in cabinet bringing about those changes. “The objective was to send a message that B.C. was under new management, friendly to job creators,” he said in an interview. He has no regrets about the pace.
Mr. Dix says he is not interested in another pendulum swing, if he becomes premier.
“The key to running an effective government – to bring change to the issues I want to change – is not to try to redo the last 12 years, but to do the next four.”
Mr. Hansen is skeptical, naturally: “It’s easy to make promises, another thing to pay for them. The NDP have created significant expectations among their constituencies.” He then listed off NDP promises which his party has been carefully tracking and costing out.
“At one point Dix was lamenting that B.C. wasn’t the highest per capita funder in Canada,” Mr. Hansen noted. To get to that level would cost $3.5-billion a year, he said. Mr. Dix would use the carbon tax revenues to pay for public transit. “That would mean they’d have to significantly increase taxes,” Mr. Hansen said. “All the carbon tax goes to reducing other taxes. That’s another $1.5-billion a year.”
Some of those promises are stale, however. Mr. Dix did, in 2007 when he was the NDP health critic, call for higher health-care spending. Now with the leaner federal health-care transfer plan on the horizon, the NDP Leader is taking a different approach. “We have got to achieve efficiencies in health care so we can invest in other areas of health care,” he said.
Mr. Dix played a key role in the previous NDP government, but he says it was too ambitious.
“I want to do bold things,” he said, “but I don’t want to do too many things.”