Premier Christy Clark implored the B.C. Liberal Party faithful to prepare themselves for a tough, acrimonious election fight next spring. But a losing campaign waged 16 years ago continues to haunt the party and remind it of the unmerciful political calculus that governs its fate.
As much as Ms. Clark wanted delegates at a weekend convention to leave with a new-found sense of hope, she also needed them to depart with a clear understanding of the critical dilemma facing the party. Any time there is a fracture in the so-called free enterprise coalition in B.C., the NDP wins – and it could happen again.
The last time it occurred was 1996, when the Liberals lost a bitterly fought campaign thanks largely to the slight, but deadly, presence of the right-wing Reform Party. Reform sucked away enough votes from the Liberals to allow the NDP, against all expectations, to form government.
"The next election will be the toughest election we've seen in B.C. since 1996," the Premier told The Globe and Mail. "But I have to tell you, I like our odds. There is nothing the matter with going into the election as the underdog. And there's certainly nothing the matter with being underestimated. I'm used to that."
The Reform Party is no longer a factor. But the B.C. Conservative Party is. Until recently, many polls had the Conservatives virtually tied with the Liberals in support. But an ugly internecine dispute that became public has severely damaged the party's credibility.
The latest polls have shown the Conservatives down to 13-per-cent support, from surveys that had them as high as 23 per cent.
But even if the party steals 9 or 10 per cent of the popular vote in May's election, it will lead to another NDP win. That is just a political fact of life in B.C.
In a bid to remind delegates of the unpleasant consequences of vote splitting, the party played a video recording from former Social Credit and Reform Party MLA Jack Weisgerber.
Mr. Weisgerber left the Social Credit Party – the free enterprise standard bearer in the province before the B.C. Liberals – in 1994 to join the fledgling Reform Party of B.C. In the May, 1996, election, Reform won 9 per cent of the vote, which was enough of a tear in the centre-right vote to allow the NDP to win.
"The economy paid the price," Mr. Weisgerber said in his brief, on-screen appearance. "We can't afford to make the same mistake again."
Embedded in his words was the clear, if unstated, message: get out and beseech your conservative-minded friends to think twice before turning their back on the Liberals, no matter how unhappy they might be with the governing party.
Ms. Clark made it clear on the weekend that she plans to run a fairly classic Liberal campaign, one in which the party tries to scare voters off supporting the NDP by conjuring up frightening images of what might happen to the economy if the left-wing party wins. Demonizing the NDP has been a tried and true Liberal election strategy. The question is can it work again.
The Premier is hoping positive job numbers provide the foundation of an election platform. Ms. Clark has recently boasted that her B.C. Jobs Plan is responsible for creating 57,000 new jobs – No. 1 in the country – even though many dispute that claim. In fact, there are numbers around economic measures such as the unemployment rate that would seem to show that things have become worse in B.C. in the past year, not better.
Ms. Clark has bet the economic house on expansion of the liquefied natural gas industry, a proposition that looks shakier by the day. On that front, her promises of three new LNG terminals are seven years on the horizon. Saying you will do something in 2020 is hubris at a minimum, NDP House Leader John Horgan told reporters at the Liberal convention.
"And it's unrealistic for most people who are going from cheque to cheque wondering how they are going to pay for things they need for their families now," he said.
If Ms. Clark succeeded in doing anything on the weekend, it was persuading party delegates they have reason to hope in the next election – despite polls that suggest she's dreaming. The Premier believes that if the Liberals can close the gap to within 10 points of the NDP before the election campaign begins, then victory is possible.
But to win, she also needs to hope that lessons of the past have been learned. Otherwise, it could be 1996 all over again.