With a British Columbia provincial election scheduled for May 14, the Liberals, lagging in voting intention, are looking to frame the campaign as a referendum on economic management. This is a strategy that worked wonderfully for the party in the last two provincial ballots, when the prospect of an NDP government that would raise taxes, mishandle projects and scare away investors was enough to guarantee the firmness of the centre-right vote for the incumbent government.
Four years later, the guidelines are decidedly different. The Liberals continue to pay the price for the atrocious implementation of the harmonized sales tax (HST). The governing party got no bounce from the Throne Speech and budget in February, and actually dropped further in voting intention after a month that brought the ethnic-vote scandal and renewed questions about leadership.
Despite these problems, the governing party will indubitably campaign on the promise of a balanced budget, and claim all along that an NDP victory would preclude them from keeping this commitment with taxpayers. Still, the credibility gap that has affected Liberal fortunes for the past two years on leadership and trust has now extended to an issue that they used to dominate: the economy.
This week, after British Columbians had a chance to explore two different points of view, it appears that the rosy picture of a province without a deficit is actually regarded as a mirage. Only one in four respondents to our poll (23 per cent) think that the Liberal forecast of a $197-million budget surplus in the 2013/14 fiscal year, and a $211-million surplus in 2014/15 – made possible by revenues from natural gas royalties and asset sales – is believable. In stark contrast, half of respondents (50 per cent) think the B.C. NDP is closer to reality on this file, after the party's financial specialists estimated a deficit of $790-million for the 2013/14 fiscal year and $847-million for 2014/15.
Even more troubling for the B.C. Liberals is the fact that many voters who supported Gordon Campbell in 2009, and consistently saw him as a better economic manager than then-rival Carole James, are not entirely sold on the numbers offered by the current government. The surplus forecast resonates with only 49 per cent of the people who voted for the Liberals in 2009. Simply put, half of the voter base that propelled Mr. Campbell to a third majority mandate, in an election held less than a year after the greatest financial crisis in generations, is looking at the current government's budget predictions with unease. Conversely, four in five NDP voters in 2009 think that their party's views on the budget, sombre as they may be, are in tune with reality.
Most British Columbians head to the 2013 election in a realistic mode. They do not believe that a surplus is attainable in the next fiscal year, and about half are willing to see a deficit for the first two years of the next mandate, under any premier. But while New Democrat supporters may be quick to suggest that raising taxes is the proper way to deal with a deficit, voters as a whole would prefer to have a second look at existing programs and implement cuts and restraint. The premier, whoever it is, will be obligated to observe the economy carefully and honestly. The last premier who misjudged the public's perceptions on taxation, Mr. Campbell, ended up leaving office with an approval rating of 9 per cent.
The sentiment for a change in Victoria may be shared by about 60 per cent of British Columbians before the campaign is about to begin, but things can go wrong very quickly if the public feels that the sitting government is not paying attention to their needs, particularly on the economic front. The last NDP provincial leader to win an election on a promise of change, Nova Scotia's Darrell Dexter, is currently supported by just three in 10 voters, a few months before an election that may make him a one-term premier.
Mario Canseco is vice-president of Angus Reid Public Opinion. He will be providing regular analysis of the firm's numbers throughout the 2013 B.C. election and writing a weekly column for Globe BC.