Premier Christy Clark and the voters of B.C. left the pundits hanging their heads in shame on Tuesday night. Despite a stream of polls and commentaries that predicted a New Democrat victory in the provincial election, Clark and the B.C. Liberals delivered one of the biggest upsets in Canadian politics.
After a shaky two years as premier, Clark went into the campaign as the underdog. The prevailing wisdom was that she had not done enough to wipe away the stain of Gordon Campbell and the harmonized sales tax. The prevailing wisdom turned out to be wrong.
Known for her love of politics, Clark threw herself into the campaign with unflagging optimism. She attacked Adrian Dix and the NDP relentlessly.
She made the economy the focus of the campaign, and successfully put it front and centre for everyone else.
Clark hammered at the notion that everything we expect from government — health care, education, jobs, paying off the debt — can be paid for only if government can help the economy grow. She pinned her hopes on her long-term plan to promote liquefied natural-gas plants to ship energy to Asia.
Dix promised not to run a negative campaign, and produced one that was so low-key, it left Clark to set the agenda.
This is the third election in a row where the NDP has played it safe. In 2005 and 2009, they took a similar strategy. This time, Dix and the party believed that the election was the Liberals’ to lose; all the NDP had to do was play it safe again and coast to victory.
They — and many other observers — were wrong.
Why they were wrong is a question that will keep the pundits, political scientists and pollsters busy for weeks and months to come. The polls consistently showed the NDP ahead in the popular vote by margins that guaranteed a majority government.
After the failure of polls to predict the Conservative victory in Alberta over the upstart Wildrose party last year, this new upset gives us reason to take a look at the value of polling. Is the methodology flawed? Are significant groups being missed by the pollsters? Did a lot of people get into the polling booth and decide they couldn’t vote the way they had planned to?
Whatever the cause, the stunning result has opened a new era of turmoil in both of B.C.’s major parties.
In the NDP, the knives will be out soon. The party that forced out previous leader Carole James in a bitter internal battle will hear calls to give the same treatment to Dix after he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
They might be the victors, but the Liberals are not a big, happy family. Before election day, the so-called “801 group” wanted to oust Clark (whose seat was still in doubt at press time) from the leadership starting one minute after the polls closed. Those people, and others who wanted Clark out, are scurrying for cover, but they are not gone.
With those machinations going on behind the scenes, Clark and the Liberals must now turn from campaigning to governing.
Given Clark’s emphasis during the campaign, one obvious priority is the provincial economy. The Liberals must live up to their promise to make the economy grow and cut the debt.
The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal has wracked B.C. for months. Clark has promised to defend B.C.’s interests, and that is likely to mean a fight with the federal government. Health and education got little airtime in the campaign, but they will occupy most of the government’s waking moments.
Clark has pulled off a political miracle. That was the easy part.