B.C.'s Liberal legacy
The Liberals have left behind a legacy of 16 years of successes and scandals
A look at the achievements and controversies that defined the BC Liberals'$2 16 years in power under premiers Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark.
The Liberals leave the province's economy with among the best numbers in the country for economic performance and employment. B.C. had the highest GDP and employment growth rates last year and the lowest unemployment rate. The province finished last year with its fourth consecutive surplus and is projected to have a fifth in 2017/18. A recent fiscal update from the Liberal finance minister revealed a $2.8-billion surplus for 2016/17, due in large part to increased tax revenue from better-than-expected growth, though the New Democrats have suggested they don't believe those numbers, which had not yet been audited.
But that performance has not been felt everywhere in the province, with unemployment rates currently much higher in resource-dependent areas outside the Vancouver region and Vancouver Island. Incomes for the top earners in B.C. have steadily increased during the Liberals' time in office, while middle- and lower-income wages have remained relatively stagnant.
The Liberals also triggered a revolt when, immediately after the 2009 election, the government announced a plan to switch to a harmonized sales tax. The announcement was condemned by critics as a post-election betrayal and sparked a populist revolt that eventually led to a referendum. The government lost the referendum, the old provincial sales tax was restored, and the affair was largely blamed for Mr. Campbell's resignation as premier.
The Liberals have helped to finalize treaties and pursued business relationships with First Nations.
Before sweeping to power in 2001, the party campaigned on the promise of holding a referendum on treaty negotiations. Indigenous groups across the province called for a boycott. The 2002 referendum, which cost $9-million, had a low turnout, with only about 35 per cent of registered voters mailing in a ballot. (A majority of those who responded backed government principles laid out in the referendum.)
But the results didn't have much impact. And by 2005, the government had moved on to an agreement with First Nations called the New Relationship.
That agreement, between the province and the First Nations Leadership Council, was based on three principles: respect, recognition and accommodation of aboriginal title and rights; respect for each other's laws and responsibilities and the reconciliation of aboriginal and Crown titles and jurisdictions.
In the most recent update on that initiative, covering 2012-2013, the province cited progress in treaty talks, revenue-sharing and strategic agreements, including mining and forestry deals.
During the Liberals' time in office, the federal and B.C. governments have reached final agreements with the Tsawwassen First Nation (2009), the Maa-Nulth First Nations (2011) and the Tla'amin Nation (2016).
The Liberals have left a legacy of controversy and unfinished business in the province's education system.
In 2002 – when Ms. Clark was education minister – the Liberals brought in legislation that stripped language related to class size and composition from teachers' contracts and took away their right to negotiate those issues in future bargaining. The B.C. Teachers' Federation challenged the legislation in court. The lawsuit went through several stages before winding up at the Supreme Court of Canada, which in a November, 2016 decision sided with the BCTF, setting the stage for hundreds of new teachers to be hired.
In 2004, Mr. Campbell announced a $1.5-billion program to upgrade schools by 2020. In an April update, the province said 228 projects are completed or in progress, with another 118 schools yet to be addressed.
At the same time, the Liberals have pointed to test scores that are among the best in the world, specifically the worldwide PISA test. In the 2015 edition of PISA, B.C. Grade 10 students ranked first among OECD countries in reading, second in science and sixth in math. In the preceding survey, for 2012, B.C. students ranked second in reading, third in science and 10th in math.
When Mr. Campbell introduced a revenue-neutral carbon tax in 2008, B.C. was hailed as a climate leader. The carbon tax was designed to increase slowly to push down greenhouse gas emissions over time. The rate has been flat for several years, though the province has signed up to a national plan to increase it in the coming years.
The tax is now firmly entrenched but critics say B.C. has faltered on the climate front with its focus on liquefied natural gas.
Ms. Clark, meanwhile, has pursued an ambitious LNG agenda and approved expansion of the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline from Alberta to the Vancouver region. In 2012, Ms. Clark announced five conditions for B.C. to consider heavy oil pipelines within its borders, including improved spill response and a "fair share" of the economic benefits – all of which Ms. Clark says Kinder Morgan has met.
The Liberals came under fire following the Mount Polley mine spill, which occurred in August, 2014, and sent more than 20 million cubic metres of mine waste and water into area waterways, near Quesnel Lake.
In the 2013 campaign, Ms. Clark campaigned on a commitment to having three LNG facilities operating by 2020. During this year's campaign, she revised that to three plants under construction by 2020. Development of the industry has largely stalled and there have so far been no new revenues coming in.
Energy and Site C
Mr. Campbell placed an early focus on shifting energy production from coal and natural gas, including shutting down the Burrard Thermal natural-gas plant near Vancouver, toward clean sources such as hydroelectricity, wind and solar. In 2007, Mr. Campbell created a plan to make the province energy self-sufficient within a decade. The plan included using independent power producers to create clean energy. But critics complained power from those producers, such as through run-of-the-river projects, was largely for export, meaning there was little benefit to B.C. to balance against the environment impact on the rivers.
The greatest potential legacy of the Liberal government's push toward clean energy could yet be derailed: the $8.8-billion Site C hydroelectric project along the Peace River in northern B.C. Site C had seen fits and starts for decades until Mr. Campbell officially launched it in 2010, the beginning of the largest public infrastructure project in the province's history. Site C has drawn fierce opponents due to its impact on First Nations and its potential to reshape the river valley, as well as doubts about whether B.C. even needs the electricity it would produce. Environmentalists who were once supporters of the project, such as Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver, have come to see it as an ecological catastrophe that cause irreversible damage with little actual benefit. The incoming NDP government plans a new review but has not yet committed to stopping the project, which employs about 2,200 people and has already cost nearly $2-billion.
Transparency and ethics
The Liberals faced repeated scandals over transparency and access to information; those problems were compounded in recent years by a debate about the party's fundraising practices and its refusal to consider campaign finance reform.
The province's information and privacy commissioner complained that the Liberal government had a culture of "oral government" in which decisions were not documented to shield them from access-to-information requests. In 2015, the commissioner released a scathing report that concluded the government routinely thwarted access-to-information requests by "triple-deleting" e-mails. As part of that investigation, a government employee was charged for lying about his role in deleting records; he eventually pleaded guilty.
On the issue of campaign finance, the Liberals rejected calls to impose limits on political donations, which allowed the party to raise more than $13-million last year, largely from large corporate donors and in some cases through private cash-for-access events. Ms. Clark responded to that criticism by promising an independent panel to review the laws after the election. In recent weeks, she adopted the New Democrats' pledge to ban corporate and union donations.
And the government faced heavy criticism, and a lawsuit, for its handling of the firing of eight health researchers, including one who later killed himself over an alleged data breach in 2012. A critical report released just before the spring election campaign concluded the government botched its investigation and the subsequent firings, and then mislead the public by suggesting, wrongly, that the RCMP was investigating.
Home prices in the Vancouver region skyrocketed during the Liberal government's time in office, with the benchmark price for detached homes hitting $1.8-million in May of this year, compared with about $370,000 when the party took office. The government has been accused of failing to step in as prices spiralled upward, and for ignoring the role of speculation in the market.
The Liberals responded by ending self-regulation of the real estate industry and implementing policies designed to cool prices, including a tax on foreign buyers introduced last year that appears to have significantly reduced foreign activity in the housing market; allowing Vancouver to tax vacant homes; and a loan program for first-time buyers. The New Democrats have proposed their own measures for the housing market, including a provincewide speculation tax, but the party has not committed to dismantling the Liberal policies.
Poverty and social assistance
The Liberal government went 10 years without increasing rates to social assistance and ignored calls to create a poverty-reduction plan for the province. Critics pointed to statistics they said showed one in five children in B.C. live in poverty.
The Liberals responded to such criticism by arguing that fostering a healthy economy – and creating jobs – was the best way to help people out of poverty. In 2015, the Liberals implemented a series of changes designed to improve the social safety net, doubling the income families with children can keep without it being clawed back from their income assistance benefits, ending the clawback of child-support payments from income assistance, and tying the minimum wage to inflation (though stopping short of adopting a $15-per-hour minimum wage). The Liberals' final Throne Speech included a pledge to increase social assistance rates, as the New Democrats had promised to do.
MORE FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL: