Editorial: Winning might not be enough

As our provincial election campaign nears its end, questions about strategy are beginning to emerge. Are the New Democrats under Adrian Dix really coasting to victory, or are they sleep-walking their way to defeat?

Are the B.C. Liberals dead in the water, victim of too many years in office and a hyperactive leader? Or is Premier Christy Clark’s undisputed energy finally an asset in the whirl and blaze of a campaign?

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When the election began, the NDP were 14 points ahead of the Liberals in opinion surveys. After last Monday’s TV debate, a Forum Research poll cut that gap to just four points.

Of course, it’s normal for the race to tighten as an election approaches. Yet leads much larger than this have been blown.

During last year’s provincial election in Alberta, the Wildrose party was 18 points ahead early in the contest, yet ended up losing heavily in the end.

Time will tell if that happens here. The odds are certainly against it. Yet there is a studied lack of drama in the NDP campaign.

The party’s election platform, now largely released, is cautious verging on humdrum. For the current year, it promises $2 million to promote women’s equality, $2 million for legal aid, $1 million to protect endangered species, $3 million for parks, $2 million for “community action initiatives” and so on. Set against provincial expenditures of $44 billion, these are drops in the ocean.

Education and health care do better. Yet even here the changes are marginal: The school budget would be bumped just over one per cent, the health budget somewhat less.

In years gone by, the meat of the platform would have been found in revenue policy. In 1991, when the NDP returned after 16 years in the wilderness, tax increases were enacted across a broad range. It was joked that the only commodity to escape being taxed was the rubber tips on walking canes for the disabled.

But this time around, there is little to distinguish the NDP package from February’s Liberal budget: One additional point on the corporate income tax, a slightly bigger hit on high-income individuals, a capital levy on financial institutions, a small extension of the carbon tax.

This has been the NDP strategy all along. Dix promised a modest campaign based on one small step at a time, and that’s what he has delivered. Given the comfortable lead he started with, that choice can be defended.

Yet elections have a life of their own. Momentum can shift overnight, if voters think they’re being taken for granted.

And on one side at least, winning is not all that’s at stake. The Liberals would certainly be happy with any kind of victory.

But the NDP is a faith-based movement. Members take their beliefs seriously. They view election campaigns as an opportunity to proclaim and fight for those beliefs.

So far, at least, Dix hasn’t found a way to do that. No one would accuse him of being a strong platform speaker. But is he a true believer?

Mike Harcourt, who led the NDP in 1991, was, like Dix, a decent and well-meaning man.

But his moderation and mild manner were used against him by party insiders. He was unceremoniously dumped before the next election.

Which is to say, there is more to this campaign than getting elected. There is also gaining the power to govern afterward.

If the Liberals pull this off, unlikely as that seems, Clark will have that power. She will have turned around an apparently hopeless situation.

Dix has more to do. Merely winning might not be enough. Small steps might satisfy the voters. But will it earn for him the loyalty of his party?

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