May 13, 2009

Reading the entrails of BC’s election


Three-peat. Hat trick. The media is full of jubilation for the re-election of the Campbell Liberals.

But looking at the numbers, it was actually quite close: the BC Liberals got 45.7% of the popular vote, compared to 42.2% for the NDP. This slim margin validates the Angus Reid polling camp, which came closest on estimating the popular vote, compared to a handful of others that put the Liberals ahead by 9-10% (I was leaning towards the Angus Reid polls mostly because they had much larger sample sizes of over 1,000 compared to just over 600 for the others, even though according to theory the gap should not change that much).

The Greens had 8.2% of the vote, enough for them to split the vote in enough ridings to make the difference (although it is not obvious that the second choice of Green voters is the NDP). Unlike the federal election, there was no talk of strategic voting in BC, perhaps because the NDP made the carbon tax its wedge issue. That backfired on them badly, with big swaths of the BC Interior and suburbs of Vancouver (those most opposed to the carbon tax) sticking Liberal. Just as Campbell did not know that after announcing the carbon tax, gas prices would shoot up by 40 cents a litre, James and the NDP did not know that those prices would fall so much when they chose to vigorously oppose the carbon tax last summer.

The election, like all Canadian elections that produce majority governments, is a winner-take-all for the Liberals, even though more than half of British Columbians voted against his party. Within the Liberals it is a winner-take-all for Campbell, due to the overly centralized power in the Premier’s office Many of the smiling faces we saw elected will not be seen again except as a backbench backdrop for cameras in the Legislature.

All of which underlines the irony that another opportunity to change the electoral system (to the Single Transferable Vote) went down in flames. Unlike the 2005 referendum, which came close to the 60% approval required to pass, this time it was not even close with 60% supporting the existing system. As several commentators have pointed out, the new Legislature looks a whole lot like the old Legislature, BC basically went for the status quo.

Attention will now turn back to the economy, with the Liberal narrative that they were the best managers through hard economic times. It is surprising that the NDP did not pick up on the string of economic bad news that flowed out of Statscan during the lead up and the campaign. They might have felt that doing so would only reinforce the Liberals’ economic manager frame.

Instead, the NDP ran an opposition campaign that offered no vision for the province other than ridding ourselves of Campbell. They hit the Liberals effectively by playing on a “crony capitalism” theme, manifested in the scandal over BC Rail privatization, and other privatization of new run-of-the-river electricity generation and certain public services. But ultimately their anti-Campbell yang lacked a yin that offered up some concrete changes that would improve the lives of British Columbians. Hopefully, this will provoke some soul searching within the party that leads to renewal.

Both parties were guilty of not being forthcoming about the impact of economic developments on the state of the BC budget. A small deficit tabled in February is surely much much larger, and it was not clear what either party would do if elected. So we will have to wait and see if the Liberals will let the deficit grow, or if they will attempt to cut spending to keep the lid on an ostensible half-billion dollar deficit. They seemed to leaning toward the latter during the election campaign but that was, well, the election campaign. If they wait until September before tabling a budget update, much of this will be easier to spin.

Another big question is where the Liberals now go on climate policy. They have received much praise for the first steps on climate action, including the carbon tax, but there was nothing in the platform that spoke of making the next steps. I seem to have been the only one in the campaign to have pointed out that the Liberals do not have a plan to meet their legislated 33% reduction in GHG emissions by 2020. So getting that done would be a good start, but I’m doubtful that we will see much, although more oil and gas extraction is definitely in the works and that will be a huge hurdle to meeting the legislated target.

Most of the attention on climate policy is likely to turn to the international stage in the lead up to Copenhagen in December, which will attempt to carve out a new global deal on climate change (with a helpful US government, we can only hope). And BC will not want to move ahead too much with a North American cap-and-trade system in the works.

So looking foward to the next four years, it is not obvious at all what we are going to get from the third Campbell administration.

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