British Columbia's provincial election campaign officially kicks off on Tuesday and voters are already armed with some clear choices after both main parties issued substantial platform promises even before the Lieutenant-Governor dissolves the legislature.
The governing BC Liberals released their full platform on Monday, offering to keep B.C. on its current path of encouraging resource development and embracing fiscal restraint in government with modest new spending promises.
It is a package crafted for maximum contrast with that of the rival New Democratic Party, which hopes to unseat the four-term Liberal incumbents with promises of populist measures including Quebec-style daycare subsidies and a raft of tax and fee reductions.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark, using a downtown Vancouver technology firm's airy office space as the backdrop for her platform announcement, barely touched on her party's new spending commitments – $50-million in new money this year on top of the province's $50-billion budget – in her remarks.
"This election is about which party has a plan to do three things: Create jobs, control government spending, and control taxes for the middle class," she said. "Most important, though, is creating jobs."
The 28-day election campaign formally begins on Tuesday, when Ms. Clark goes to Government House in Victoria to drop the writ. The BC Liberals are seeking re-election after 16 years in power, and a central theme in the party's platform is a pledge to continue to balance the budget after posting five successive surpluses.
The New Democrats have not won an election in British Columbia since 1996, and were almost wiped off the political map in 2001. They were widely expected to regain power in 2013, and under then-leader Adrian Dix, ran a cautious "Liberal light" campaign that eschewed negative ads.
Ms. Clark, whose party did not hold back on sharp attacks on the NDP, won another comfortable majority after sticking relentlessly to her jobs-and-the-economy mantra. It is a strategy she intends to employ again, even as her party faces complaints about its rich cash-for-access fundraising, its watered-down climate-action plan and its refusal to raise welfare rates after 10 years.
The NDP, with John Horgan as its new leader, has vowed to "prosecute" the Liberals this time out and to give voters a clearer alternative.
The most expensive measure in the Liberal platform – one that takes aim at voters in key battleground ridings in the suburbs around Vancouver – is a promise to cap bridge-crossing tolls for drivers in Metro Vancouver starting next year.
The promise falls short of the NDP's pledge to eliminate tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges, but Ms. Clark said voters should appreciate the difference.
"We're doing what we can afford to do," she told reporters. The Liberals would cap tolls at $500 annually per driver, a measure that is expected to benefit 42,000 drivers, based on current use. "There's nothing reckless about it," she said.
Finance Minister Mike de Jong said the unspecified price tag of the NDP plan on tolls would cost the province the coveted triple-A credit rating that keeps its debt-servicing costs down. "It will guarantee a credit downgrade," he said.
Mr. Horgan is expected to release the NDP platform on Thursday, and said detailed costs of his party's promises will be provided then. The NDP has already committed to a $10-a-day daycare program modelled on Quebec's, to freeze BC Hydro rates, and to eliminate the province's Medical Services Premiums.
"I believe the role of government is to make life easier for people, not harder," Mr. Horgan told reporters at a campaign event in Delta.
Mr. Horgan also said his platform would deal with a question he declined to answer on Monday – whether an NDP government would run deficits to pay for its promises.
Mr. Horgan has adopted a populist tone in NDP messaging. "For too long, the people at the top have had their premier," he said. "I believe it's time there was a premier working for you, and that's what I intend to do."
Ms. Clark, who frequently campaigned in a hardhat in 2013, this time chose a sedate tech firm to unveil her platform. The technology sector is growing and Ms. Clark said her government's policies will fuel that expansion. But she also promised to continue to push for the liquefied natural gas sector that was a central – and as-yet unfulfilled – plank in her 2013 campaign.
B.C.'s natural gas sector has struggled due to low commodity prices that have delayed hoped-for investment in new LNG facilities. However, Ms. Clark called the sector a "sunrise industry" that is needed to help pay for public services.
"We will unlock the vast potential of the Montney [shale gas] formation and its reserves of natural gas and light oil." Her party also promises to continue to freeze its carbon tax until 2021.
With a report from Ian Bailey in Delta, B.C.