Monday, February 25, 2013

How Christy Could Have Won

{This was submitted as a column to the Anahim-Nimpo Messenger last month.--MC}

Christy Clark could have won the May 2013 B.C. provincial election. I know that sounds strange—both because it refers to a future event as if it has already happened, and because it is hard to imagine her ever winning.  Either way, the “past unreal conditional” is the only grammatical tense in which a Liberal victory can be imagined.

The Liberals’ demise was chiefly because of the HST.  When Gordon  Campbell saw that the deficit looked much bigger than expected, he began to panic. He looked at the money that the federal government was putting on the table for the conversion to the HST, and he went for it.  This was suspiciously soon after the 2009 election, and was bound to produce a strong public reaction, but Campbell figured that he could weather the storm.  But the HST was different:  small business-owners saw the HST repel customers and hated the costs of repeated conversion; British Columbians didn’t have an appetite for another big, regressive tax.  By 2011, Campbell could see the writing on the wall, and got out.

It is always difficult for a new leader of a party that has been in power for a decade or more to convincingly portray himself or herself as “the change”.  In Clark’s case, she could have done so first and foremost by cancelling the HST and the referendum. Such a move likely would have produced a bump in the polls. She could then have consolidated this lead by announcing a wide-ranging policy renewal process, and perhaps even have recruited a couple of star candidates . Instead, she merely tinkered with the HST, and  pussy-footed the Gateway pipeline while the NDP was given full latitude to identify itself with popular resistance to both of those issues.  Environmental  and First Nations constituencies that Campbell had masterfully pried away from the NDP have been alienated from the government by issues like Gateway and Taseko Lake.  Otherwise, the main impression Clark has given has been one of vacillation and drift, a politics of personality rather than policy.

To be sure, the recent budget goes some distance to remedy this impression: it is balanced, sensible (apart from its neglect of forestry funding), and praiseworthy.  The corporate tax rate increase from 10 to 11 percent and a two-year increase in personal tax rates on incomes over $150,000 represents a long-overdue fiscal correction to Gordon Campbell’s regressive policies. 

But all of this strikes me as too little, too late.  In order for  Christy Clark to win the May 2013 election, she needed to bravely jettison the HST,  and to follow that first master-stroke with  a comprehensive policy review to reinforce the impression of genuine change.  That did not happen, and it is too late to do it now.

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