Beginning next week, B.C. Premier Christy Clark will try to author one of the greatest political comebacks in Canadian history.
Ms. Clark's Liberals are badly trailing the New Democrats in the polls – by as much as 20 points in the estimation of some opinion surveyors. Parties have been deemed dead and buried before and lived to govern another day, but the odds of that happening this time are long.
While the campaign for the May 14 election officially kicks off Tuesday, it has already been under way for a couple of weeks. The Liberals have been showering the province with election goodies – in many cases, regifting old announcements.
Ms. Clark was handed a present of her own this week when she was cleared of conflict-of-interest allegations in the sale of B.C. Rail more than a decade ago. It's one less piece of ammunition the NDP will have at its disposal in what many expect to be one of the nastiest political battles the province has witnessed.
So far, the NDP is promising a clean fight. It's a high-road strategy deliberately conceived to make the Liberals' low blows seem, well, unseemly. In other words, it's designed to weaken the effectiveness of some of the shots that NDP Leader Adrian Dix will be taking and, in fact, has been receiving for almost a year now.
The Liberals are acting like a party that has held power for a long time and doesn't fancy the idea of giving it up. Seats on the opposition benches aren't as comfortable. The pay isn't as good, either. Once you've been the person making the decisions, you don't relish the idea of giving up that influence, least of all to people ideologically opposed to everything you stand for.
The governing party, through proxy organizations such as Concerned Citizens for B.C., have been running ads effectively labelling Mr. Dix a liar and a cheat. The focus of the campaign stems from an incident that Mr. Dix was involved in 14 years ago when, as chief of staff to NDP premier Glen Clark, he backdated a memo to try to protect his boss against conflict-of-interest charges.
While Mr. Dix has maintained that the contents of the memo were authentic, he admits that backdating it to give Mr. Clark protection was wrong and a mistake for which he paid a high price: He was fired and politically exiled. Many thought his career in public life was over. Should Mr. Dix win this election, he will have masterminded a pretty remarkable comeback of his own.
For decades now, B.C.'s free-enterprise coalition – under the banner of the Liberals today, under Social Credit before them – has made the economy and managing the province's books the foundation of its election campaigns. For the most part, casting the NDP as the high-tax, big-spending party of the left has been a tactic that has worked.
The problem for the Liberals now, however, is that they've lost the case they were once able to make on this front. The public hasn't forgiven them for trying to ram through the HST that would have hurt consumers at the benefit of corporations. At one time, the Liberals associated deficits with the worst fiscal evilness imaginable. That is, until they eschewed their own balanced budget legislation and began tabling annual financial documents that were in the red.
The NDP insists the balanced budget the Liberals tabled in February is nothing of the sort and relies on voodoo accounting. A new poll by Angus Reid shows that most British Columbians don't believe the Liberals, either.
On Thursday, the New Democrats unveiled their fiscal plan, which calls for three years of deficits before returning the province's books to balance. The Liberals will try to make hay out of this, but, because of their performance in recent years, are unlikely to have the same success they previously enjoyed pounding the message of fiscal responsibility. They've forfeited the advantage they once held over the NDP in this area and, if they do lose this election, it may be the single greatest reason why.
Meantime, Ms. Clark is content to play the role of scrappy underdog. For someone whose party appears destined for the political scrap heap, she remains relentlessly upbeat, the Unsinkable Molly Brown of B.C. politics. Only time will tell if she's still smiling in a month's time.