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provincial politics

B.C. Premier Christy Clark was expected to visit Government House Tuesday to kick off a 28-day election campaign many say began the day she was elected Liberal Party Leader two years ago.

Like most provincial votes in B.C., this one will not be for the faint of heart. Behind in the polls and at risk of forfeiting their more than decade-long grip on power, the Liberals are expected to conduct an unrelenting, no-holds-barred assault on the NDP and its Leader, Adrian Dix, who is a neophyte in this situation. For his part, Mr. Dix has committed to a high-road campaign that focuses on policy over personal invective, placing a risky bet that the public is tired of attack politics.

The two parties will present voters with two contrasting visions of tomorrow, but ones that aren't as distinct as they have been in the past. The Liberals have staked their future around job creation and fiscal management – a tried-and-true formula that free-enterprise parties in B.C. have forever used at election time. The New Democrats, meantime, are campaigning on the need for change and a promise to look after society's most vulnerable – both bread-and-butter themes for them.

This time around, however, both parties have promised tax increases on corporations and the rich, and the New Democrats have spent as much time talking about debt and the need for stringent spending controls as the Liberals. That's a big change from the past. And after years of running deficits and ignoring their own balanced budget legislation, the Liberals have lost much of the moral authority they once had on this front – an undeniable political fact that could become key in this campaign.

Barriers that Ms. Clark has erected in front of the Northern Gateway pipeline notwithstanding, the Liberals would seem to be the more palatable option for the current federal government. Ms. Clark has placed five conditions on her support for Northern Gateway, but seems generally supportive of the project. Mr. Dix is against it and is much more aligned with the interests of the environmental movement. Perhaps not surprisingly, he takes a much more cautious approach to resource development generally than the Premier – a fact which could have implications for Alberta and the rest of the country.

In a poll released by Angus Reid on Monday, the New Democrats will be starting the month-long battle with a 17-point lead over the Liberals. According to the survey, the New Democrats are at 45 per cent support, the Liberals 28, the Greens 13 and the Conservatives 12. Ms. Clark also trails Mr. Dix on the key question of who would make the best premier: 27 per cent said the NDP Leader, while only 18 per cent said the Premier.

Perhaps most distressing of all for the Liberals, according to the poll 61 per cent said they felt it was time for a change in government.

On Monday, meanwhile, the Liberals released their full election platform, which contained few surprises other than a proposed five-year income-tax freeze. It mostly focuses on balanced budgets and debt reduction. It reconfirms the party's plan to try to reach consensus on a 10-year labour agreement with B.C. teachers, something that was widely criticized as being unachievable when it was first announced a couple of months ago. Most of the other measures in the document, such as the $1,200 Registered Education Savings Plan grants that would be available to parents of children born after 2007, were announced in the February budget.

For Ms. Clark, the electorate will be evaluating her two years in power as much as it is the Liberals' future plans for governing.

While Ms. Clark will certainly have some achievements to point to on the campaign trail – the opportunities she has opened up for liquefied natural gas exploration in the province and the balanced budget her government tabled in February chief among them – she will also be weighed down by the debilitating baggage a political party accumulates after more than a decade in office. The most burdensome of which will likely be the failed introduction of the HST – something Ms. Clark's predecessor was responsible for but for which she will likely pay a price.

The Premier's own popularity continued to decline during her time on the job, thanks to what seemed like a neverending series of gaffes, miscues and the occasional scandal. Ms. Clark was often criticized for campaigning too much and governing too little. In fact, many have suggested the Premier commenced an election-style agenda right after she won the leadership of the Liberal Party in February, 2011.

Mr. Dix, meantime, has mostly spent the last two years trying to burnish an image as a moderate who can be trusted not to yank the province hard left under his premiership. He has also spent considerable time lowering expectations among the NDP's core constituencies, such as public- and private-sector unions, which are likely expecting some sort of political payback should the party form government again.

It would wrong, as well, to dismiss the impact a surging Green Party under Jane Sterk could have in many ridings, as well as the role the B.C. Conservative Party could play in rural parts of the province.

We could be in store for one of the most compelling and surprising elections B.C. has witnessed in some time.

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