Drawing the battle lines in B.C.'s election

As Adrian Dix looks to return B.C. to the NDP, all eyes are on the most important provincial election in years

Drawing the battle lines

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Two days define Adrian Dix. They shattered the careful world the B.C. politico had built around himself, shone a light on his imperfections, leaving him bruised, but also humbled, more disciplined. For better or worse, the person he is today—B.C.’s next premier, if polls translate to votes on May 14—was shaped in their aftermath.

The first, Nov. 25, 1992, came four days before the Seattle Marathon. Dix, then a 28-year-old top aide to former premier Glen Clark was planning to run it for the first time. He’d “never been fitter in his life,” he says. But something was amiss. He couldn’t keep weight on, no matter what he did. After skipping his afternoon run, Clark asked what was up. “I drank too much,” Dix replied, something Clark found even stranger. His shy, geekish, young staffer—known around Victoria as a workhorse with razor-sharp intelligence—was basically a teetotaller. But Dix was talking about apple juice, not booze.

Doctors, the next day, told him why he was suddenly so lethargic, and thirsty. He’d developed Type 1 diabetes, known as juvenile diabetes.

The diagnosis forced some immediate changes—“not all bad,” concedes Dix, now 48, seemingly poised to return B.C. to the New Democrats after more than a decade of Liberal rule. His erratic eating habits and hard-charged schedule had to go as he learned to manage the disease with four daily injections. Still, his hands shake when he speaks, which is sometimes mistaken for shyness. His weakest point of the day, the early afternoon, coincides with question period, precisely when he needs to be at his sharpest.

“It’s a chronic disease that always reminds you of its power,” says Dix. To his credit, he is equally forthright about the darkest day of his career. On March 24, 1999, he walked out of his office in the west annex of the B.C. legislature to announce that he’d been fired. Then Clark’s chief of staff, Dix had backdated a memo in an attempt to protect the premier from conflict-of-interest charges. Clark, it was alleged, had traded a renovation to his East Vancouver home with a neighbour, an applicant for a successful casino licence.

It was an ignominious end; Dix was then B.C.’s most powerful non-elected official. He and the premier were so close, they shared a Victoria condo. Dix readily admits the decision was “stupid” and “wrong.” “I’m not trying to hide my mistake,” he said recently. “I’ve admitted it and people will judge.”

A victory next month would mark a remarkable comeback, not just for Dix, who was exiled from politics for a decade in the wake of the ugly scandal. Clark, who remains one of Dix’s most trusted friends, also went down in flames. Now president of Jimmy Pattison’s $7-billion empire, Clark could soon have a direct line to Victoria.

But this is much more than a redemption story. B.C.’s vote is setting up to be the most important provincial election in recent history.

The federal NDP, which picked up three new seats in B.C. in 2011, is using this as a training ground for the 2015 federal vote, both to fine-tune ideas and techniques and to sway popular opinion in the key region. With six new seats coming in the House of Commons, the province could play a deciding role in 2015. And although the NDP heads provincial governments in Manitoba and Nova Scotia, it lacks a major province. From B.C., the party could build a base of progressive opposition to the Harper government.

To this end, the party is dispatching “everyone and everything they’ve got” to the race, says Alberta strategist Stephen Carter, who orchestrated the improbable victories of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Alberta Premier Alison Redford. The brain trust behind the party’s so-called Orange Crush electoral breakthrough in 2011 was reconstituted in Vancouver this spring. NDP president Brian Topp is managing Dix’s campaign. Anne McGrath, former NDP leader Jack Layton’s chief of staff, is travelling with Dix, playing the same role with Dix as she did with Layton in 2011. Brad Lavigne, Layton’s principal secretary, is another key war-room figure.

With the BC Federation of Labour pledging the “mass mobilization” of its 450,000-strong membership on Dix’s behalf, this could also be the most polarizing election in a generation. Even the BC Teachers’ Federation, which has long prided itself on being non-partisan, is clearly campaigning for the NDP this time around, with a pricey TV ad calling on British Columbians to dump a government it insists has laid waste to the education system.

Former forestry executive Jim Shepard is leading a $1-million private-sector counter-offensive: the Concerned Citizens for British Columbia. Premier Christy Clark can also count on financial support from neighbouring Alberta. The prospect of an NDP premier who has said “over my dead body” to the Enbridge Northern pipeline, which would take Alberta bitumen to the Pacific coast—Dix even has a legal team preparing to halt it—has spurred key oil-patch figures into action. In January, N. Murray Edwards, chairman of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., a major oil-sands player, and key Conservative insiders Rod Love, Morten Paulsen and Allan Hallman, organized a Clark fundraiser in Calgary.

The party has also imported legendary Queen’s Park operative Don Guy, who is credited with engineering Dalton McGuinty’s victories in Ontario, and Guy’s second-in-command, Laura Miller, to match the NDP’s strategic might. Michele Cadario, a top Paul Martin Liberal adviser, is Clark’s deputy campaign director.

There is, however, one telling omission from the B.C. Liberal camp: its Conservative wing, which has been key to keeping the so-called free-enterprise alliance in government since 2001. Former Reformer Stockwell Day is publicly supporting the B.C. premier. But other high-profile figures on the party’s right flank, such as Martyn Brown, former premier Gordon Campbell’s chief of staff, are sitting on their hands this spring. “People tend to run for the hills when they know the room is burning,” says Brown.

Though Clark continues to radiate positivity, the winds of change are blowing hard in B.C. With a month to go, the picture could still change. “Photos of Dix arm-in-arm with Osama bin Laden could emerge,” quips Angus Reid vice-president Mario Canseco. The Liberals, mired in scandals of their own doing, are polling almost 20 points behind the NDP. Clark, named the country’s least popular premier last week, can’t seem to connect with women (female voters are twice as likely to vote NDP in May, according to polls). Her disarming smile is backfiring, connoting, to some, a lack of seriousness, says veteran local analyst Norman Ruff. At this point, it’s not even clear Clark will retain her seat in Point Grey. She’ll face Vancouver poverty lawyer David Eby, whom she barely edged out in a 2011 by-election.

Dix, though he calls Clark “an easy target,” is pledging a clean fight, and refusing to go negative. That game plan—which netted Layton major electoral gains—has two further advantages for Dix: it makes the Liberals seem like bullies for attacking his character—TV ads by their private-sector proxy portray him as a frightening “risky Dix”—and it removes the focus from Dix’s personality.

The bookish NDP leader has what one analyst has dubbed a “charisma deficit.” Indeed, says the University of the Fraser Valley’s Hamish Telford, the Liberals’ best chance is making this a personality contest: “Clark’s best asset is her personality, her optimism, her attitude. She’s weak on policy.” Dix, her polar opposite, is strong on policy, weak on the rest.

Dix knows it, too. He acknowledges that his wife, Renée Saklikar, a poet and writer, is the more extroverted of the two. Even Glen Clark admits he was bowled over when Dix announced, in 2005, that he was running for office in Vancouver-Kingsway, the ethnically diverse downtown riding. “He’s a shy guy,” he says. “He works hard at it.”

But he’s proved a quick study. After the NDP leader spoke to the Vancouver board of trade, one former Liberal cabinet minister, noting that Dix spoke for 26 minutes without notes and inhales “five books a week,” said he could easily be of the best politicians B.C. has ever seen.

Unlike Clark, his former boss, he did not rise up through the NDP’s union ranks. And he’s gone to lengths to dampen organized labour’s heady expectations, at least over the short term. NDP radicals—remember, this is a party that has actually discussed capping private-sector wages in B.C.—have been silenced. Dix, in fact, appears more like Stephen Harper—plodding, introspective and methodical in his approach. He didn’t marry until he was in his 40s. His approach to politics is equally deliberative. Just as Harper has slowly moved the country to the right, a Premier Dix could eventually push B.C. several clicks to the left. That’s the plan, anyway.