A B.C. election primer: Politics here is never dull and the upcoming campaign will prove it

B.C. has been on a fixed schedule of elections for 12 years. But still, nobody saw this coming.

Did anyone, after the last election, forecast that both major party leaders — Carole James and Gordon Campbell — would be gone before the end of the term?

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Did anyone expect that then-radio host Christy Clark would be premier, and running about 20 points back of the New Democratic Party?

Were there any guesses that Campbell lieutenant Martyn Brown would turn into a pundit sharply critical of the party he helped shape?

Or that an NDP leader named Adrian Dix would one day open the Toronto Stock Exchange on behalf of a B.C. paper company?

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The province has gone through some changes. The verdict on all those changes will be debated for the next month, then delivered on May 14, in B.C.’s 40th general election.

Four years ago, the Liberals won their third consecutive term with a 14-seat edge over the NDP, closer than in 2005, but still relatively comfortable.

The big issue of the day wasn’t a political one. It was the economic havoc being wreaked worldwide, as the U.S. mortgage crisis spread virally around the globe.

The uncertainty contributed to the Liberals’ win, and they were bending themselves out of shape trying to deal with it. They had to break their solemn vow never to run a deficit. They also made a snap judgment responding to the collapse that drove nearly all the subsequent change.

With government revenues evaporating daily, Campbell’s cabinet panicked and jumped at an option that had received almost no previous attention.

They decided just a few weeks after the election to sign up with Ottawa to mesh the provincial and federal tax systems into the harmonized sales tax.

The efficiencies were a selling point, but the $1.6-billion cash bonus from Ottawa was the bigger draw. Campbell’s government was arrogant enough to think it could explain all the benefits and sell it to voters after the fact, rather than consult beforehand.

It was the start of a bumbling series of misreads that undid all the advantages the party had enjoyed to that point. They pitched it as an advantage to business, as if that were a positive rather than a negative to most suspicious consumers.

They either forgot or ignored the fact that they’d promised there were no plans to do what they later did. When they set out to explain the tax, they fumbled it over and over again. And they completely misread the potential for a tax revolt, and the impact of Bill Vander Zalm, the man who started exactly that.

By the end of the often-told HST story, the Liberals were reeling. A referendum rejected the tax and for the first time in Canadian history, a government was ordered directly by the people to undo a major tax policy.

In November 2010, even before the votes were counted, Campbell announced plans to bail out. A subsequent leadership convention produced winner Christy Clark — the only candidate who could claim she had nothing to do with the HST.

Just three weeks after Campbell announced his intention to quit, the NDP caucus exploded in an ugly battle over James’s leadership. She quit soon after, and Dix won the leadership convention. To round out the changes, former Conservative MP John Cummins took over the B.C. Conservatives in May 2011 and began to gain some ground.

Also in the mix is the B.C. Green Party, which is upbeat, based on a strong showing in a Victoria federal byelection and the recruitment of high-profile candidate Andrew Weaver in Oak Bay-Gordon Head.

Leaders vie for an edge with voters

For everyone in politics, the two years since the big changeover have been about recalibrating, reconnecting and recalculating the angles.

Clark, a confident single mom never at a loss for words, enjoyed a warm welcome from voters when she took over. She put together a simple theme — Families First — and stressed economic development and jobs above all else.

But the goodwill eroded month by month and her personal popularity has been slumping along with that of her party. She’s had big staff turnover for questionable reasons, her government has fought constantly with the auditor general, and leaks about an aborted ethnic-outreach scheme prompted an investigation with critical findings.

Dix moved into the leader’s chair as a serious workaholic with a black mark on his record (the memo he backdated as chief of staff to protect his boss, then-premier Glen Clark). He was skeptically received at first. But he and his party have made steady gains in all the major opinion polls since then, while taking a minimalist approach to outlining their plans. One of the few problems they’ve weathered was the revelation, courtesy of the auditor general, that the party was quietly relieving each constituency budget of money every month to pay a party official for their own ethnic-outreach project.

The NDP platform will come into sharper focus this week. As it stands, Dix is committed to an overall theme of reducing inequality, but tackling the job bit by bit.

Their consistent stance in Opposition has been that people need more out of government on all fronts.

An NDP government will repeal the balanced-budget law — as so many previous governments have done — and run deficits in the first few years.

Dix has repeatedly stressed an all-out commitment to job and skills training. And the party has vowed to stop the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project in its tracks, although at the same time, the NDP wants to replace the federal review with a provincial one.

The B.C. Liberals are still circumspect on the oil pipeline. It could go ahead or it could not, depending on several conditions. Their overall vision is based on other mega-projects like the Kitimat liquefied natural gas plant, or a refinery project.

Clark wants to see tens of thousands of new jobs and has pitched a liquefied natural gas plant as the ultimate bonanza for B.C., to the point where billions in debt and even the sales tax could be eliminated with revenue from the projects.

But to execute those ideas, of course, they have to win.

The campaign strategies are polar opposites.

Dix will protect his perceived lead and engage directly with Clark only when he has to (he refused a one-on-one debate this week, insisting all four parties be invited). He wants to take the high road, avoid personal attacks and talk about issues, not Liberals. Aware of historic mistrust of NDP economic management, Dix has constantly downplayed any notion of radical changes.

Most importantly, the NDP will be reaching out to people who don’t vote. B.C.’s dismal 50 per cent turnout leaves a huge pool of voters who could change everything. Dix thinks more would vote NDP if they could be convinced to vote at all.

Clark has a much more rambunctious approach to the campaign. She wants to confront Dix and the NDP record head-on, and gives every appearance of spoiling for a fight. Liberals have also managed, in the face of low expectations, to put together a strong field of candidates to replace the two dozen caucus members who are leaving.

Both major parties are flush with cash and pumped with enthusiasm as the countdown begins.

The 39th Parliament was a long, bumpy ride for both sides. Voters will decide on May 14 who controls the 40th.

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