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BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark during a tour of the Spectra natural gas facility in Fort Nelson May 7, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark during a tour of the Spectra natural gas facility in Fort Nelson May 7, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Opinion

How the ‘accidental’ hard-hat strategy paid off for B.C. Liberals Add to ...

One year ago, the B.C. Liberals pulled off a miracle with an election victory that few saw coming. Premier Christy Clark’s disciplined message around job creation, delivered in her signature hard hat throughout the 28-day campaign, was a strategic coup that caught the overconfident New Democrats off guard.

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But as much as the Liberals ran a strong campaign, Ms. Clark should take a moment as she marks the anniversary of that win on Tuesday to say thanks for small details.

“It really was an accidental strategy on the hard hats,” the Liberals’ 2013 campaign director, Mike McDonald, said in a recent interview.

The Liberals planned to launch their campaign by sending Ms. Clark to tour natural gas plants in the northeast corner of the province. The concept was for her to deliver a message – mostly to urban voters – about her ambitions for a liquefied natural gas industry.

“We were lining up tour events and it became apparent to us it would be easier for the Premier to go to those events with her own [safety] gear. … We went as far as getting a little ‘Christy’ patch sewn on her full-length coveralls, we got them sized up properly so she was completely comfortable in them.

“After the first week of the campaign, it seemed so natural, we kept going with it.”

The result was a memorable image that stuck with voters: Ms. Clark had an upbeat message about jobs. In contrast, New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix spent the campaign in a suit and tie, laying out a detailed and cautious platform that studiously avoided overpromising anything to anyone.

Mr. McDonald says he always believed his party could win despite the huge lead that the New Democrats appeared to have going into the campaign. “I didn’t think we were dead. We had the wind in our sails.”

In the days before the vote, however, many still doubted him. “I was getting supportive calls from people saying, ‘Don’t worry – no matter what happens, we still love you.’ ” He often had to play the role of cheerleader for Liberals who were convinced their cause was doomed.

Just hours before the polls closed, he sent out an e-mail to party members begging them not to give up. “Dig deep. Phone and visit potential voters. It’s full-on battle stations,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, the New Democrats were rehearsing for what they thought was a certain victory, with a lavish stage erected in the centre of a large Vancouver hotel ballroom.

John Horgan, who took over as NDP leader this month, remained in his Vancouver Island riding of Juan de Fuca, as confident as the rest of his team. “For 12 months, it appeared we were going to be the next government of B.C. There wasn’t a day that didn’t go by without bad news for the B.C. Liberals,” he recounted last week. He expected to wake up the day after the vote to a packed calendar.

“Instead, rather than a 7:30 a.m. meeting to be briefed on transition documents, I was doing radio shows where people were asking me what happened.”

Since that day, New Democrats have struggled with that question, while Ms. Clark has worked on trying to deliver on her promised election agenda. “It has been a 12-month void,” Mr. Horgan said candidly. “We haven’t collectively sat down as a group and figured out where we go now.”

That started to change last week, he said, when he conducted his first caucus meeting as the party leader. The NDP MLAs met for three hours, “and for the first time in a year, there was a sense that we have turned the page.”

But they can no longer count on a weak opponent. Ms. Clark will go into her party’s convention later this month in triumph. She is indisputably in control of her party, has regained the attention of the business community, and has even built alliances with traditional NDP supporters in the labour movement.

While the New Democrats finally pick themselves up and start aiming for the next election, Mr. McDonald is certain they won’t get another chance like the one they missed in 2013. “This is a new generation within the B.C. Liberals with a premier who is young herself. This could go on a while, if they govern well.”

Follow on Twitter: @justine_hunter

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