Adrian Dix and his B.C. New Democratic Party are about to start the big reveal – the release, in stages, of their election platform.
This week, Mr. Dix is expected to roll out the first stage. This will be a bid to tear down the B.C. Liberal budget plan. While the Liberal government says its proposed budget is balanced, the NDP calculates it is actually deeply in the red. By the NDP's estimates, there is about a $1.2-billion hole – a combination of unfounded revenue projections for asset sales and B.C. Hydro dividends, and unrealistically low expenditures, particularly around health care. The average rate of increase of government spending has been a little more than 3 per cent in recent years, and this budget calls for growth of just 0.8 per cent.
Once that message has had a chance to settle in, the NDP will move to stage two, likely next week, when it will say what it would do differently. Its fiscal framework will spell out spending priorities and tax policy for the coming four years.
For two years, Mr. Dix has talked about an increase in corporate tax rates, and more recently his party has signalled that it would hike taxes for high-income earners. But the Liberals raided those ideas in their February budget. The Liberals plan to raise business taxes by $290-million in the coming year, while those earning more than $150,000 face higher personal income taxes.
That leaves the NDP with one additional measure – a bank tax that would bring in an estimated $140-million – and the additional 1-per-cent increase in the corporate tax rate, which would bring in another $200-million. But there are NDP spending commitments – such as more money for public transit and student grants – that would chew up some of that. What they are left with, almost certainly, is a campaign that proposes a deficit budget against the Liberals' claims of balance.
Finally, the NDP's policies will be doled out in slices throughout the campaign that begins April 16. This is the typical fodder of campaigns, where the party leader stands in front of some thoughtfully arranged backdrop to make announcements designed to capture the daily news cycle.
Mr. Dix's B.C. Liberal opponents have made a big deal about the timing of the platform unveiling. What is the NDP's hidden agenda, they keep asking. It's all about framing Mr. Dix as a wolf in sheep's clothing.
In the normal order of election campaigns, the NDP wouldn't roll out the specifics of the platform before the campaign begins. And in the normal order of things, the Liberals wouldn't draw attention to their opponents' ideas.
"We really didn't want to elevate their platform, their ideas, or them, period," noted Martyn Brown, an architect of the Liberals' 2009 campaign.
In fact, the NDP in 2009 promised far more than Mr. Dix is likely to offer. The party vowed to scrap the carbon tax, create 3,000 new long-term care beds, hire more police, hire more prosecutors, shorten surgery waiting lists, pump more money into postsecondary education. … The list went on. But it was regarded as a typical NDP laundry list, rather than a blueprint for four years in government, and it garnered scant attention.
In this election, the NDP have very good odds of forming the next government and will face far more scrutiny. Mr. Brown argued the NDP would have done better to build up their platform elements well in advance of the election. Although he sees the strategic reasons for holding back, he thinks the Liberals have learned the hard way that winning an election is not the same as winning a mandate for change.
Mr. Dix has said his agenda is not hidden, it's about bringing about better equality in B.C. But Mr. Brown said it isn't clear just what that means.
"He's playing it safe, not providing details for the other guys to take shots at, or to steal. But the downside is he is not using the time he has to build public support, a social licence, for those ideas."
In a recent interview, Mr. Dix indicated he won't be rushed. The changes he wants to make will take time. "You have to prepare people for that. You have to stick to these policies over time," he said. "We need to get away from the culture of quick wins."