The reason both sports and politics attract so many junkies is that both activities are so often wildly unpredictable. Anything can happen in either, and, just often enough to keep us titillated, anything does. Can you say “They really blew a 4-1 lead?” Can you say British Columbia?
Of course sometimes both are boringly predictable. The likely winner often enough does win. That’s what happened early in the week when former Conservative cabinet minister Peter Penashue was soundly whupped in the Labrador by-election. That’s really all there is to say about it since the easy Liberal victory tells us nothing about the larger fortunes of the three parties.
Like most of the Atlantic provinces, Labrador has long been a Liberal stronghold, slipping away in the last election by a mere 79 votes. It’s the riding with the smallest population in the country. Exactly 10,832 people voted. Mr. Penashue admitted to financial hanky-panky in the last election campaign and had no choice but to resign. So those who argue that it was a good day for Justin Trudeau and a serious setback for the Conservatives and NDP are making a mountain out of a molehill.
It was on the opposite coast that politics demonstrated why it’s an addiction for so many otherwise sensible people. It takes Mel Lastman and his cornball Bad Boy adds to capture what happened in B.C. on Tuesday: Noooobody but no-body saw the Liberal victory coming.
How did it happen? Already a new B.C. Liberal mythology is being invented. Here’s the spin: Unlike the NDP’s Adrian Dix, Christie Clark’s campaign focused on the issues that really mattered to most British Columbians: the economy and jobs. This may be partially true. But her pitch was full of gaping holes. She became a one-trick pony, basing the province’s future on a speculative liquefied natural gas project that would drive the economy, give rise to countless jobs, and produce all the cash needed pay off the debt. Unless it didn’t, and then what? There was no Plan B. Now B.C. will watch and pray.
How did she get away with this near-fantasy? Why didn’t the Liberals’ deplorable economic record become the battleground of the campaign? Why wasn’t the huge increase in the debt and the phony claim of a balanced budget thrown at the Premier every day? Why didn’t the NDP respond to the flood of tough, negative ads that the Liberals were running?
For a very good reason. The NDP under Adrian Dix had chosen to run a positive, high-road campaign that was not only ethically satisfying, it actually appeared to be working. According to every poll in the land, it was even working well. The NDP was way ahead. Only now in hindsight does it seem to have been an egregious mistake not to adapt their campaign to take on Ms. Clark and her economic record and her anti-NDP ads more frontally.
As well, other Liberal strategies were roiling the waters of the province. Not until the end did the media start talking about how nasty it was. Globe and Mail reporter Gary Mason, for example, called it "one of the most negative campaign in recent times." The Liberal party, Mason reported, ran a "tough, no-holds barred campaign that has often been personal and vitriolic." Other media belatedly told us that the Liberals and their allies played the "red menace" card, one Clark minister ranting about the NDP "politburo" and comparing NDP leader Adrian Dix's plans to those of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. Everywhere New Democrats reported being besieged by a calculated attempt to spread fear, that seems to have done its work to perfection.
Unlike the Leafs’ collapse and the Labrador by-election, the B.C. results matter. They have major national implications. The B.C. Liberals are really a coalition of Harper Conservatives and right-wing Liberals. Their triumph must be delighting the Harper strategists and giving nightmares to both the Mulcair and Trudeau teams.
Policy implications are also ominous. Expect Premier Clark to start making pro-pipeline noises, reviving a key Harper project that seemed dead and buried. And on another crucial front, as the Globe’s John Ibbitson pointed out, Dix had serious and legitimate reservations “about the patent protection provisions for pharmaceuticals in the forthcoming European Union free-trade agreement…That’s another bullet that the Conservatives have dodged.” For both these reasons, if not more, all Canadians will pay a heavy price for the Dix defeat.
B.C. is likely to have a further political impact right in the centre of the country. In Ontario, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath should immediately end its toying with the Wynne government about supporting its budget. B.C. shows how easy it is to red-bait the NDP into stunning defeat, or at the very least demonize the party as mindlessly anti-business and anti-growth (a formula sure it be thrown at Thomas Mulcair as well).
Horwath has pushed her luck for many weeks now, adding one new demand after another, increasingly trying the Liberals’ patience while alienating her own support, as the most recent polls show. It’s enough. It’s time she announced her support for a budget that’s almost as much her handiwork as the government’s. Any more politicking and she’s looking for big trouble. We’ve had quite enough elections for a while.