Following one of the most negative campaigns in recent times, British Columbians head to the polls Tuesday to make a choice between two distinctly different futures for the province.
Voters will also be rendering a verdict that could have immediate and profound implications for the economic future of the country.
Polls have consistently shown that the public is prepared to do something it has only done three times in more than 50 years – vote the B.C. New Democratic Party into power. However, both the NDP and the B.C. Liberals have resisted putting too much credence in opinion surveys, pointing to last year's Alberta election as an example of how forecasters can sometimes get it dramatically wrong.
Still, the New Democrats had to be buoyed by a fresh Globe and Mail/CTV poll from Angus Reid Public Opinion, done on the weekend and released Monday, which showed the long-time Opposition party with a nine-point lead over the Liberals and on the precipice of a massive majority government. That result was unchanged from a poll the company released Friday.
The B.C. Liberals have waged a tough, no-holds-barred campaign that has often been personal and vitriolic. Most of the mud in the last 28 days has been heaved by candidates representing the province's free-enterprise coalition. Liberal Leader Christy Clark, meantime, has taken to the hustings promising to protect jobs and promote economic growth, insisting that electing the New Democrats would mean fiscal ruin. It's been the kind of desperate, elbows-up fight you would expect a long-time governing party on the verge of losing power to wage.
Ms. Clark's platform is founded on aggressively exploiting the province's resource riches, especially around natural gas. But she has ruled out neither the Northern Gateway pipeline nor the Kinder Morgan expansion proposal, although she has placed strict conditions on their approval.
The crack she has left open on both projects gives Alberta and Ottawa at least some hope that a way can be found to get Alberta crude to Asian markets via the West Coast. The NDP has slammed the door shut on both plans, a decision that would create an immediate quandary for Albert Premier Alison Redford and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
NDP Leader Adrian Dix has also promised to at least slow the breakneck pace the Liberals have set around liquefied natural-gas production, vowing a scientific review of the controversial technique used to get the product out of the ground. Depending on what the study into "fracking" determines, it could also end up impacting the federal treasury. In general, the New Democrats represent a more cautious approach to resource development than the Liberals, and one undoubtedly at odds with the more ambitious, get-on-with-it style of the federal Conservatives.
Mr. Dix has offered voters a much more modest agenda than previous NDP leaders, one that was designed from the beginning to assure the electorate it would not be electing radical socialists intent on carrying out an ideological makeover of government. Instead, the NDP has offered little to many of its core constituents, such as public- and private-sector unions. The party has talked about the need for a strong economy and prudent fiscal management as much as the Liberals.
The Liberals, on the other hand, have made splashy, attention-seeking promises such as a debt-free B.C. in 15 years and $1,200 cheques to every child born in the province to go towards their education. Ms. Clark has campaigned on a budget she maintains will be balanced at the end of the current fiscal year but others say is already in deficit.
Mostly, the election comes down to a choice between a party that has been in power for 12 years and accumulated a significant amount of political baggage in the process, versus one battling performance demons from yesteryear.
Does the public give the Liberals another chance, despite the widespread anger they ignited over the HST and a host of other gaffes and miscues? Or do voters present Mr. Dix with the opportunity to govern, despite concerns many have about the way the NDP managed the province's affairs while in power in the 1990s?
Either way, there is an enormous amount at stake. The challenges facing the province – and consequently the winner – will not be for the faint of heart.