The year before an election is always a pivotal one for a government. It's often about setting the groundwork for a successful defence of your title, making sure you've delivered on those campaign pledges that helped pave the way to power.
For the Liberal government of B.C. Premier Christy Clark, no campaign promise in 2013 was bigger than her vow to transform the provincial economy with billions from a liquefied natural gas industry she said would be up and running by the time the next date with voters arrived. She talked about raking in enough money from her LNG gambit to eventually write off the provincial debt and fill a wealth fund for future generations to overflowing.
As we now know, it hasn't quite worked out that way. The future of LNG remains at best uncertain, at worst dead, thanks to nasty turbulence in the global energy sector. There will not be a single major LNG venture up and running by the time voters head to the polls in the spring of 2017. The best the Premier can hope for is that some time this year Petronas, the Malaysian energy giant that is closest to making a final call on LNG in the province, announces it is going ahead.
Even if it means that there won't be any revenue from the operation for a few years, it would still be enough to give Ms. Clark a needed win ahead of her scheduled date with voters in 16 months' time. The more apt question, perhaps, is what happens to the Premier's electoral fortunes if Petronas and others decide to back off the interest they've shown in LNG in B.C. Would that spell doom for the Liberals?
We know the provincial New Democrats will try to make this something the Liberals should be worried about. That is given. And, to be fair, when you make the kind of grandiose campaign promises that Ms. Clark did a few years ago, you should expect to take some heat when you fail to deliver on them. So, she will be waiting for NDP Leader John Horgan to have some fun at her expense in the lead-up to next year's election.
That said, I doubt Ms. Clark is overly worried that her re-election prospects might be dimming because of LNG. The fact is, she has the No. 1 economy in the country, a privileged position B.C. is expected to hang on to for at least a couple of years, according to the Conference Board of Canada. Her government has tabled three consecutive balanced budgets, driven in part by a real estate and construction boom, making it the envy of the country. It would take an unforeseen global meltdown of 2008 proportions for Ms. Clark not to continue along that road heading into the next election.
It also helps (weirdly) that B.C.'s next-door neighbour, Alberta, is hurting so badly economically. Of course, that is primarily because the bottom fell out of the oil market. But the province's fiscal woes have been exacerbated by the fact that previous governments spent like roughnecks on payday when times were good, instead of taking the kind of prudent, disciplined approach that Ms. Clark's government has exhibited. And that its economy is not nearly as diversified as B.C.'s either.
Quibble with her priorities all you want, what is not in dispute is that Ms. Clark has demonstrated a singular tough-mindedness when it's come to managing the treasury. And in the kind of perilous, uncertain economic times in which we live, that is likely be a compelling and attractive feature for voters.
At the very least, it could set the stage for two very different economic visions come the next campaign: Ms. Clark the fiscal tightwad versus John Horgan, who might well seize on the strategy employed by Justin Trudeau in the recent federal election and roll out an economic plan that calls for a series of deficits before returning to balance.
Either way, the spring session of the B.C. Legislature should be livelier than normal. It usually is when those involved can smell a battle ahead. One can expect the economy to be at the heart of much of what we see and hear in the coming months.