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Liberals, NDP suit up to joust over who owns economy issue

The bond rating firm Moody's lofted a small incendiary device into the B.C. political arena this week. That the agency has reduced its outlook on British Columbia's debt is unlikely to have a significant financial impact. But the resulting fire does draw the eye to the point where the two main parties will clash in the coming provincial election.

Premier Christy Clark said this week that she will ask voters for their support "because we've looked after the economy." Her B.C. Liberal Party has vowed to balance the budget in February, an objective driven by its battle plan for the May election. The NDP doesn't support that target, so this becomes a showcase for the Liberals' fiscal prudence in uncertain economic times.

It is similar to the tactic that the Liberals used in the last provincial election, but there was a difference.

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In 2009, the Liberals were free to campaign on the economy as they wished, because it was a one-sided argument against a silent foe.

This time out, the NDP intends to take the Liberals head-on. "We're going to fight this election on their turf," NDP Leader Adrian Dix vowed in an interview this week. "The economy is our issue."

In the last election, the economy was the primary issue for voters. They had just witnessed the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history, and the financial storm was heading B.C.'s way. But the New Democrats missed the chance to challenge Gordon Campbell on his claims about the B.C. deficit, which would prove to be wildly off the mark, because they were afraid to defend their own fiscal record.

The Liberals have long characterized the NDP government of the 1990s as the architects of the "dismal decade." For 12 years, the B.C. Liberals successfully painted their opponents as the tax-and-spend government that drove the economy into the tank.

Mr. Dix, who was a part of the NDP government of the 1990s, has been pushing back, heeding the advice of former NDP leader Carole James. Shortly after the 2009 election that saw the B.C. Liberals returned for a third term, Ms. James said it was a tactical mistake to have avoided the issue. "We didn't talk about the economy enough. That has to change," she said at the time.

And in recent polls, voters are pretty much evenly split on which party, the Liberals or the NDP, has the greatest credibility on the economy. (The NDP can't take all the credit for that change. The Liberals, with their botched introduction of the harmonized sales tax, bears some responsibility.)

Here is how Mr. Dix framed it this week in an interview: "What we have is a record of the present government, on key economic issues, that is extremely poor. The one single initiative they did was the HST which really disrupted the economy for four years. It's hard to imagine the government would run on its record on the economy. They've run four consecutive deficit budgets. They are missing their targets this year."

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The warning from Moody's seems to punctuate that point.

Deputy Premier Shirley Bond, in an interview Thursday, said the bond rating warning actually serves the opposite function. "In light of the cautionary note from Moody's, I think there is an enhanced risk if people are considering a change in government."

Who to believe? The B.C. Business Council has developed a timely analysis with a decade-by-decade review of the province's economic performance back to the 1980s. Published last month, the study found that during the so-called dismal decade B.C. posted its highest overall economic growth rate; by other measures, the decade of Liberal government was better. The study declared no clear winner.

"The overarching story is that British Columbia experienced positive economic growth and development in both decades, particularly compared to the 1980s," the report concludes. "On the other hand, exports and productivity stand out as areas where we have continued to lag for 20 years or longer."

Voters would be better served, surely, if the debate focused on how each party would do better now.

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