VANCOUVER – Voters in British Columbia go to the polls today in what was the provincial New Democrats’ election to lose.
It was the Liberals’ to survive — early polls suggested the best they could hope for was to save their party and prevent a rout in a province known for not just voting governments out of power, but sending them into political purgatory.
If that was the case, then both of the province’s main political parties appear to have succeeded in a hard-fought four-week election campaign.
New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix ran a populist campaign, appealing to voters’ desire for change after 12 years of Liberal rule. There was a lot of water under the government bridge, a fact Dix reminded the electorate of as doggedly as he avoided missteps.
“They didn’t have to run a great campaign. As long as they didn’t screw up then the election was probably going to be theirs all along,” says Hamish Telford, a professor of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley.
“They have run a very cautious campaign. They didn’t take any risks at all.”
For her part, Premier Christy Clark inherited a fractured party when she was sworn in as the premier two years ago to the day that British Columbians cast their ballots.
Her predecessor, Gordon Campbell, jumped just before he was pushed over his introduction of the much-hated Harmonized Sales Tax, which Clark repealed following a provincial referendum.
There was a lot of baggage after more than a decade in office, including a surprise deficit following the 2009 provincial election that returned Campbell’s Liberals to power, and a $6-million bill for the defence of two former Liberal aides convicted of breach of trust linked to the controversial sale of Crown-owned BC Rail.
“For the NDP the challenge was always to just keep voters focused on the past; how long the Liberals had been in power, how they screwed up the HST business, and anything else you can think of, the B.C. Rail business, Basi-Virk…,” says Richard Johnston, a professor of political science at UBC.
“That’s the strongest card that the NDP has to play. It’s not that the NDP is riding some wave of pent-up demand for new policies the way it may have say in 1991 or 1972.”
A provincial Conservative party, revived under the leadership of former federal Tory cabinet minister John Cummins, appeared at the outset an added a threat to the free-enterprise coalition united under the Liberal banner in B.C.
But repeated candidate scandals left that threat in doubt by election day.
“The Liberals have saved themselves and given themselves the opportunity to fight another day, and going into this campaign that was not certain, so I think that’s a pretty good accomplishment on their part,” Telford says.
Clark conducted a hardhat tour of the province, opting for campaign photo-ops at sawmills and natural gas plants over political rallies. She donned safety glasses and overalls as she relentlessly branded Dix and his New Democrats as the “tax-and-spend” end of economic growth for the province.
The Liberals successfully kept the focus on economics in a campaign unexpectedly devoid of the touchstone issues that normally dominate public life. Education and health care were scarcely mentioned by either camp.
The Liberals’ chief tactic was to argue against the NDP, Johnston says.
“The point of that has been not so much to have a real debate about what is the appropriate path for development, but rather to raise fears that the NDP will be bad for development,” he says.
The Liberals appeared to gain traction with that tack, and the striking lead the NDP enjoyed at the start of the campaign was whittled down by the end. Still, they remained the odds-on favourites to win at least the 43 seats needed to form a majority government.
Dix, a bookish policy wonk, embraced the party’s populist appeal. Appearing increasingly at ease as the campaign wore on, Dix ran a high-road campaign, going so far as to forego the opportunity to join in blasting Clark for a gaffe that saw her proceed through a red light with her son — and a reporter — in her car.
The Liberals resurrected almost daily, at every stop, a 15-year-old scandal that cost Dix his job when he backdated a memo to try and exonerate his boss, then-premier Glen Clark, in a casino-licensing scandal. But it didn’t seem to sway voters.
In the final days, Dix warned supporters not to become complacent.
“In a short 32 hours from now, a change is going to come to British Columbia,” Dix told supporters in Prince George. “Change is possible in British Columbia, that’s what we’ve demonstrated in this campaign. There is hope in British Columbia.”
The indefatiguable Clark maintained in the waning days that her Liberals could yet cause an upset.
“The momentum has been really good. My sense is that British Columbians are really focused on the economic questions that are there, and I think increasingly feeling a deep sense of concern about the NDP’s plan to grow government.”