Focus on economy pays off for Christy Clark in a comeback for the ages

The Globe and Mail

Premier Elect BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark election night in Vancouver May 14, 2013 after her party won in the BC provincial election. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

British Columbians awoke to a new government Wednesday, but not the one most were predicting.

The outcome left the B.C. NDP stunned and supporters no doubt questioning the very existence of the party. The Liberals made debt and the economy the two central issues – areas the broader electorate clearly did not have confidence the NDP could handle. It was a strategy that had served the Liberals well through three previous elections, but was not supposed to prevail this time. We can thank pollsters for raising that expectation, after they predicted margins that would have given the NDP a majority – and turned out to be spectacularly wrong.

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The Liberal tactics worked, notably the constant references by Ms. Clark and her candidates to what they called the Dismal Decade of the 1990s, when the NDP was in power and B.C. became a have-not province. It’s a political legacy that continues to haunt the left in its present form, and will prompt many to ask: If the New Democrats couldn’t grasp victory with the most winnable conditions they’ve had since 1991, how can they ever?

There will be plenty of soul-searching and second-guessing. For instance, many will ask why the NDP announced during the campaign that it would kill the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion proposal – after already coming out against Northern Gateway. It allowed the Liberals to frame the debate around their issues.

The NDP was about killing jobs and debilitating the economy; the Liberals were about creating employment and building strong economic growth.

Ms. Clark emerged as a far more skilled campaigner, with high telegenic appeal and an easy rapport with voters. Mr. Dix, on the other hand, often seemed uneasy in public, and more comfortable with his nose buried in the policy books he loves. Ms. Clark ran a traditional, attack-style campaign, while Mr. Dix ran a positive campaign that some suggested would not work in B.C.

The Liberals now face a daunting assortment of challenges that span the public-policy spectrum.

From attempting to stabilize a fragile economy to reining in the province’s accumulated debt, the decisions with which they must now grapple have generational consequences. And at least some of the moves are certain to have pan-national implications, as pipeline politics continue to dominate the enviro-economic debate in B.C.

Decisions must be made on new dams, transit infrastructure and skills training, which is tangentially tied to significant demographic hurdles. Add to the mix a slumping real-estate market in Greater Vancouver with a supply-chain impact on an array of housing-related businesses, and you have enough material for a planning-and-priorities briefing document that should make Ms. Clark wince a little.

All these matters will be questions for a new cabinet, which is expected to be named soon.

Of course, the No. 1 concern is the economy, which is the basis for all that government does. The Business Council of B.C. forecasts growth at a tepid 1.7 per cent this year. Business investment is off, as is consumer spending. This will have an impact on provincial tax revenue. There are no signs of a robust rebound in the short term.

One area the government is sure to focus on is the liquefied natural-gas industry, which many analysts believe could be worth billions to the province in royalty revenues. But B.C. is in a dogfight with several other countries to get LNG to market, adding urgency to the many decisions that have to be made around the development of the resource.

Those companies intent on capitalizing on the LNG opportunity require more energy than B.C. Hydro is in a position to offer. In that regard, Hydro will be waiting for the government to decide on whether to proceed with the contentious $8-billion Site C dam project on the Peace River. The file has been on the planning books for decades.

The backdrop to all of this economic activity is a skills shortage that all the parties talked about during the campaign. A dearth of qualified workers – a deficit believed to be in the thousands – has been the No. 1 complaint of companies operating in the province for some time; it was the subtext to last year’s foreign-workers controversy involving HD Mining.

Complicating all this is the fact that B.C.’s population is getting older. People who make up the bulk of the workforce – those aged 16 to 64 – will peak in a couple of years at 70 per cent of the population. Then it falls off to 55 per cent by 2036, which means Ms. Clark’s government will need a vision that extends beyond the terms of its four-year mandate.

For now, however, those are decisions for another time. The next few days will be about recuperating from one of the wildest elections the province has ever seen.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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