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As teachers talk up the NDP, Adrian Dix must learn serious math

If there is one group in B.C. that aptly reflects the broad hopes and aspirations that many left-leaning political and social institutions in the province have for a prospective NDP government, it's the teachers' union.

While officially non-partisan, the B.C. Teachers' Federation is clearly campaigning on behalf of the New Democratic Party. It has been at war with the incumbent Liberals for more than a decade. The union has sponsored expensive television ads urging voters in the May 14 election to end the reign of a government it insists has wreaked havoc on public education. A group of past union presidents spent time at a recent annual general meeting distributing a pamphlet urging teachers to vote New Democrat.

At the AGM, outgoing president Susan Lambert received a standing ovation when she suggested that while she might be a lame duck, B.C. Premier Christy Clark's "goose is cooked." Ms. Lambert said she is counting on the NDP to redress the many wrongs she insists have occurred at the hands of the Liberals since 2001, reparations she estimated would cost about $300-million a year.

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To some extent, the union comes by its enthusiasm for the NDP honestly. When you've been in Opposition as long as the New Democrats, a lot gets promised, expectations get raised. The teachers' union believes that a government led by NDP Leader Adrian Dix represents the pathway to free collective bargaining and more money to improve class size and composition, two areas at the heart of the union's often stormy struggle for better working conditions. While Mr. Dix has certainly spoken encouragingly on these subjects in the past, he did so in the absence of any substantive data on the financial situation he would inherit as the next premier of the province.

Today, he has a much better idea of just how grim the books look, how dreary the short-term economic horizon appears.

If the teachers' union honestly believes that the NDP is going to open the vault to give it everything it wants after May 14, it's incredibly naive. On the other hand, if the NDP were to do that, it would be an obvious signal that it has no intention of governing beyond a single term.

The teachers are just one group among many with whom a Premier Dix would need to have a difficult conversation. He is well aware of his party's political history and the fact it has sat in Opposition far, far longer than it has been instilled as government. He knows, too, that it's because his party has failed to make the most of those opportunities.

A broad swath of the B.C. populace doesn't trust the NDP not to give its union supporters everything they demand and destroy the province's finances in the process. It is, in many ways, a defining issue for the party. If the New Democrats do get elected this spring and begin racking up deficits because of what is perceived to be fiscally irresponsible contracts it is handing out to party-friendly union groups, it will be the death of their government. The broader public, most of which doesn't work in a unionized environment, will revolt. The NDP will be finished, a one-term wonder.

I don't see that happening. In the conversations I've had with him, Mr. Dix has not sounded like someone who intends to be premier for only four years. In fact, he's seemed more like a leader whose intended governing horizon stretches much further out. It's one of the reasons, I believe, that he has spent much of his two years as NDP leader tempering the rabid enthusiasm in many quarters about the relief and change his government would usher in.

The reality is that Mr. Dix is leading a party of Yes in an era of No. The NDP has been cast, fairly or not, as a group that has been unable to control urges to reward those friends who have waited patiently for its ascension to power. Conversely, the party is viewed to have been unable to stand resolute in the face of irrefutable economic facts.

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The NDP can complain about those assumptions all it wants, but it won't change anything. Only a performance in government that refutes those well-rooted notions will. And the B.C. Teachers' Federation needs to understand that.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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