British Columbia came into 2020 in good shape. Its economy was forecast to lead the country in growth, the provincial budget was in surplus, and the debt was small. It’s no wonder there were already rumours of the New Democratic Party government calling an early election, aiming to turn its minority into a majority.
Then the pandemic hit. The first COVID-19 death in Canada was in North Vancouver, but the government took steps that contained outbreaks. The province, with a third of the population of Ontario, has recorded one-12th the number of virus deaths. And unlike many other provincial and federal politicians, B.C. Premier John Horgan never commandeered the microphone. He stepped back and let the experts do the talking. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry has been the voice of B.C.'s pandemic response, supported, rather than upstaged, by Health Minister Adrian Dix.
Riding a wave of popularity, Mr. Horgan seized the moment in September and called an early vote, a year ahead of schedule. Oct. 24 is the official election day, but seven days of advance voting are already under way.
The script of this pandemic election features an interesting role reversal: The incumbent NDP are running as the province’s prudent stewards of the status quo, while the BC Liberals are trying to get noticed with immodest promises.
Mr. Horgan is running above all on his government’s record. The centre-left NDP platform mostly promises a steady hand on the wheel. The centre-right BC Liberals, who have long billed themselves as fiscally conservative and the NDP as spendthrifts, have as their signature platform promise a plan to gut provincial revenues by temporarily axing the provincial sales tax.
It’s an irresponsible proposal, and badly targeted to boot. The PST is budgeted to bring in $6.8-billion in 2020-21 – 12 per cent of the province’s total revenue. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson, desperate to gain traction with voters, has promised to scrap the PST for a year, and then peg at 3 per cent the following year rather than the current 7 per cent. The pitch definitely got attention. That doesn’t change the fact it’s the wrong idea at the wrong time.
Mr. Wilkinson bills it as pandemic economic recovery medicine, but too many beneficiaries will be people who don’t need government help. A targeted plan to support low-income or jobless British Columbians makes sense; borrowing more than $10-billion to finance a tax cut, whose benefits will flow to anyone and everyone regardless of income, makes no sense at all.
The political appeal of this deficit-boosting tax cut is obvious. Who doesn’t want a tax cut? But in the face of a pandemic recession that has caused government spending to rise and revenues to fall, it’s hard to see the economic or fiscal logic.
The NDP’s competing proposal, worth $1.5-billion, is a one-time grant of $1,000 to lower- and middle-income households, or $500 to individuals. It should also raise eyebrows, but at least it’s far less costly and more targeted than the Liberal scheme, and it fits in the NDP’s overall plan of only modest increases in spending over the next few years. Beyond that, the NDP’s main spending plan is for continued investments in child care, building on their $10 a day program. The Liberals, seeing the success of the policy, have copied it.
One stark divide between the parties is B.C.'s other epidemic, the opioids overdose crisis. The NDP promise more work on harm reduction, policies this page endorses, while the Liberals instead promise to focus on addiction treatment. There is no perfect plan to address this tragedy, but the NDP’s is better and more complete.
The biggest immediate issue that faces the winner, outside the pandemic, is in neither main party’s platform: the cash bonfire at the Site C hydroelectric dam. The Liberals recklessly pushed the megaproject ahead in the mid-2010s and the NDP reluctantly kept it going. The unfinished dam abuts a geotechnical morass and is in danger of becoming an ever more expensive liability.
On the unusually quiet pandemic campaign trail, Mr. Wilkinson’s leadership has at times been unsteady, from ill-conceived promises to poor handling of issues with some candidates. Incumbency can sometimes be a disadvantage in politics, but not this time around for the NDP. On the whole, they have governed well and in particular during the pandemic. That’s why Mr. Horgan’s main pitch to voters is a promise of more of the same.
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