After a government-inspired, eight-month sojourn, politicians returned to the B.C. capital this week for a final round of jousting before a general election.
Normally after an absence of that length, MLAs of opposing stripes are itching to noisily proclaim their ideological distaste for one another. The fact that we're in the run-up to an election should have made the atmosphere even more fraught. And while it got noisy at times, it wasn't nearly as feisty and malicious as one might have expected.
Some of that has to do with the more respectful tone that NDP Leader Adrian Dix is trying to establish in the legislative chamber. A couple of times during Question Period, he could be seen urging his MLAs not to respond to shots being fired by Liberals across the floor.
There was one moment when Mr. Dix showed remarkable restraint himself. It happened when colleague and former leadership challenger Mike Farnworth rose to query Premier Christy Clark on the taxpayer-funded and highly partisan advertising campaign the government has commenced. Mr. Farnworth is one of the NDP's best Question Period performers, one whose voice can thunder with indignation when calling out the government. After he asked a question to loud applause from his colleagues, a scrappy Ms. Clark yelled out from across the aisle: "That's why you would have been a better leader, Mike."
Such a spiteful remark might have prompted another opposition leader to seek revenge, to look for the first opportunity to put the Premier in her place. Given Ms. Clark's leadership challenges, goodness knows Mr. Dix had plenty of material with which to work had he so desired. But he bit his tongue. (There were, however, several NDP MLAs incensed by Ms. Clark's jab and the small-mindedness and lack of professionalism they felt it showed).
It's difficult not to admire Mr. Dix's efforts to establish a new kind of civility in Victoria, even if you believe it's ultimately pointless. Fact is, from time to time, even members of his own caucus fail to live up to the higher standard of decorum to which he aspires. When you're being tongue-lashed by a competitor, a person's natural instinct is to respond. Mr. Dix believes that some sparring is inevitable and even healthy. He just wants it to be respectful – leave the personal and mean-spirited stuff to them.
Mr. Dix is trying to take this approach to all areas of his political life, which has some in his party concerned. Specifically, there is worry about the NDP Leader's pledge to run a clean election campaign with no attack ads. He believes the public is sick of this kind of politics. Polling surveys indicate the same. And yet, sadly, negative advertising has a successful track record in politics, which is why the Liberals, with the help of proxies such as the organization Concerned Citizens for B.C. (CC4BC), plan to launch one of the most negative, nasty ad wars the province has ever seen.
In fact, it's already begun.
CC4BC has started airing spots that focus, in part, on Mr. Dix's "memo to file" imbroglio of well more than a decade ago. This is the document that Mr. Dix, in a moment of misguided loyalty, created and backdated in a bid to help out then NDP premier Glen Clark, the man to whom he was serving as chief of staff at the time.
The communiqué was designed to build a wall between Mr. Clark and the growing scandal arising from the government approval of a casino licence for a friend of the premier's. The whole affair eventually cost both Mr. Clark and Mr. Dix their jobs. Mr. Dix has said on numerous occasions that while the content of the memo was true, his decision to make it look like it had been written months earlier was a mistake for which he apologizes.
So far, it doesn't appear the assault on Mr. Dix's character has had much of an impact. The Liberals are still anywhere from 10 to 18 points back of the NDP depending on the poll. So Mr. Dix's serious-minded, stay-positive approach seems unassailable at the moment. But what happens if the polls begin to tighten? Will Mr. Dix's high road seem as attractive if the lower one on which the Liberals are travelling is paying dividends?
That is when Mr. Dix's leadership will be tested. To change course at that point would signal defeat, be a sign that he realizes he can't win with his more affirmative messaging. A major course reversal in the middle of an election campaign would be disastrous. Mr. Dix knows that.
But he's just as aware that if he wins with his more constructive brand of politics, it could open up a whole new world of possibilities for his party and government. To him, that's a gamble worth taking.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly named an organization British Columbians for Christy Clark. The correct name of the organization is Concerned Citizens for B.C. This version has been corrected.