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Rural-urban divide in B.C. produces an election tale of two provinces

BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark and NDP Leader Adrian Dix pose for a pre-debate photo in Vancouver, April 29, 2013.


Since 1986, B.C.'s top political office has been held by leaders based in urban British Columbia. But victory does not come without motivating rural voters, who often view politics through a different lens. Finding a consistent campaign message that can bridge both urban and rural voters requires a delicate balancing act, as Ian Bailey and Justine Hunter report.


B.C. New Democrats did not skimp on platform policy proposals to catch the attention of rural voters. For example, they made commitments to "healthy" forests, sustainable mining and exploration, and support for rural economic development.

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But the co-chair of the party's platform committee says there's no real divide in messaging to rural and urban British Columbians because the party is finding that big ideas such as a need for a change in government, skills development and health care resonate across city and country ahead of the May 14 election.

"There's no question there are common messages," says Carole James, former party leader and co-chair of a platform that has been in the works since Mr. Dix was elected party leader in early 2011.

"Concerns we're hearing are concerns that go across rural and urban. There isn't a rural and urban divide. There are specifics that people will see reflected [in the platform], but those issues are just as important in rural areas or urban areas."

Ms. James said she had just returned from Prince George, where she was mainstreeting and helping out campaigns, and talking to voters in both rural and urban settings: "The messages are pretty consistent."

To further highlight the point, she referred to her experiences in Victoria, where she's seeking re-election in Victoria-Beacon Hill. "Victoria is an urban setting, but at almost every all-candidates meeting, we've had somebody ask about resources and how we can get more out of [them]."

In campaigning this week, NDP Leader Adrian Dix dropped a reference to raw logs into a speech at an evening rally in Kamloops – something new in a trip that took him across the Okanagan.

The opposition leader mentioned his party's aversion to raw log exports unless they are surplus to domestic demand – a line sure to resonate in a community where primary resources are a notable part of the employment pie.

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But much of his commentary that day, whether in rally speeches or responses to reporters, was big-picture references to issues that would have been as relevant to downtown Vancouver as in Armstrong. (Mr. Dix did pointedly talk about hospital issues in Vernon and Kamloops – a necessity for an opposition politician seeking a shot at government.)

Mr. Dix has campaigned heavily in the Lower Mainland, but travelled to the Okanagan at least three times, as well as Prince George, Cranbrook and Vancouver Island.

Matt Toner, a New Democrat running in Vancouver-False Creek, says the Dix-led campaign is pitching broad "universal themes" that connect across the province.

But the digital media executive said any candidate's challenge is connecting relevant themes to voters. In the condo towers and café-dotted streets of much of the riding, he said basic affordability is an issue and touches on policy areas from skills training to education.

"That's the job of a politician in some ways – to look at their community and translate that macro message in a way that makes sense locally," he said. – Ian Bailey


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Christy Clark is standing on the back of a flatbed tractor-trailer, 60-tonne cranes and beefy excavators towering in the background. Amid the equipment, about 300 supporters have gathered under the hot sun to cheer the B.C. Liberal Leader, who came with no promises for new hospitals or roads, just a government that would "get off your back."

Rosalind Thorn didn't come for anything more. As president of the Prince George Construction Association, she said her members are happy with the status quo. "We have $70-billion of work on the books, just on major projects," she crowed in an interview. These are private-sector projects in resource extraction. In the north, Ms. Clark does not need to explain why industry just wants government to get out of the way. But that is only 7 per cent of the population. In the rest of the province, the Liberal message has to be spelled out.

Much of the campaign for the B.C. Liberals has been an attempt to sell urban voters on a plan to build B.C. by attracting investment in liquefied natural gas. Rural communities, more often than not, are simply the backdrop. The big machinery around Ms. Clark on Thursday night was intended to persuade voters she wants to build big.

Ms. Clark has spent two-thirds of the campaign in rural B.C. Some of it is about trying to shore up Liberal strongholds – her party's momentum has come more from the interior than Metro Vancouver. But Ms. Clark still has work to do in sewing up the right-of-centre coalition she needs to win: Rural voters are more likely to say they are unhappy with the options, notes pollster Mario Canseco of Angus Reid Public Opinion.

As the Liberal leader criss-crossed the province's north this week, it was all about "connecting the dots." The central theme is that her leadership is needed to establish a new LNG industry that will pay off the province's debt in 15 years – and much more.

A visit to Fort Nelson in the farthest corner of the province took the better part of a day, but the Liberals want voters in the south to see a massive infrastructure here is being built up in anticipation of bigger markets.

There are subtle differences between Ms. Clark's urban message and her rural pitch. In Kitimat, Ms. Clark does not spend time bashing dirty Alberta oil, as she has in Vancouver. "When I look around at the people here and I see how well you are doing, I feel so proud of what you've built," she said. A New Democrat government would take that away, is how she connects the dots: "The NDP's no-growth agenda for our economy will kill jobs and hurt families."

The vote-rich suburbs of Metro Vancouver have their place – but the lines connect in different ways. In Kitimat, it's about the jobs that would flow from LNG. In Burnaby, it's how the benefits of LNG would bring lower taxes.

At a rally in Maple Ridge, Ms. Clark talked of lifting the tolls on the new Port Mann bridge with the riches LNG will bring. But that speech in a campaign office was for the converted. The images of those gas plants and asphalt spreaders is what she wants voters to see. – Justine Hunter

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About the Authors
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More


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