B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix, his party and his approval ratings pointing to an electoral breakthrough next spring, will reach out to the business community next week with a keynote speech to a sold-out elite business crowd.
His message to business is crafted to soothe concerns about what another New Democratic Party government would mean for the B.C. economy. Mr. Dix says his party is not planning seismic change. "Every time I look at the [election] platform, it gets smaller," he said in an interview.
His promise of a "modest" agenda, if the NDP forms government after the provincial election next May, has been repeated at hundreds of small, private meetings with business since he won the party leadership last year. There are signs that the work is paying off, even as business still holds out hope for a revival of the B.C. Liberals' fortunes.
The Vancouver Board of Trade sold 450 tickets to Mr. Dix's Sept. 18 speech, and the NDP is expecting a record number of business leaders to attend his Oct. 25 leader's levee, an important party fundraiser.
The climate is reminiscent of 1989, when the long-reigning Social Credit government was in trouble and then-NDP leader Mike Harcourt met with members of the Vancouver Board of Trade to announce that his party would embrace the wealth-creation policies.
But after 10 years of NDP government that saw taxes raised and labour laws overhauled, the goodwill Mr. Harcourt initially earned was wiped out. Today, Mr. Dix has to overcome a high degree of skepticism. He concedes now that the last time the NDP was in power – under Mr. Harcourt and then his successor Glen Clark – it tried to do too much, a mistake he is determined not to make again: "We're not going back," he said Tuesday.
Iain Black, president of the Board of Trade, said the mood in the business community is less anxious than when Mr. Dix first became party leader. "The drama has given way to a more measured tone," he said in an interview. Mr. Black said there is a "high curiosity" to hear from the political leader who currently looks on track to become B.C.'s next premier. "He has the opportunity to keep the anxiety low."
Greg D'Avignon, president of the Business Council of B.C., said the NDP Leader could appeal to his members if he steers clear of the typical partisanship that marks B.C. politics.
"There is so much low-hanging fruit, if we just started to work in a collaborative way to elevate the level of discussion about what can be," he said. "There is an opportunity for Mr. Dix, if he were to be elected, to change the tenor of the conversation in B.C. and to move away from the adversarial, polarized debate that I've witnessed over the 40 years I've lived here."
His comments echo Mr. Dix's frequent pledge to avoid personal attacks and to advance a positive, job-creating agenda. But Mr. D'Avignon cautioned that the NDP's recent stand on the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline proposal may undermine that message.
"Gateway is a bit of a bellwether for investment in B.C.," Mr. D'Avignon said. "So it was concerning when he came out promising a separate environmental assessment review for the Gateway project. We've worked for a decade to try to streamline that review process."
Mr. Dix was unapologetic and said it is a more appropriate process than threatening to block the pipeline by smothering it in red tape – a tactic the B.C. government has raised as an option if it decides to block the pipeline.
The B.C. Liberals are still largely the party of choice for business. The party's convention in October is devoted to rebuilding its so-called free-enterprise coalition, and if the rival B.C. Conservatives continue to falter amid leadership squabbling, the Christy Clark government could regain some traction.
As well, the Premier is set to launch the second round of her jobs plan as early as Friday, fresh on the heels of her latest Asian trade mission. With seven months until the election campaign formally begins, the business community is keeping its options open.
"There is no denial of the current polls," said Mr. Black, a former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister. "We see the numbers, but we don't know how it is going to turn out."