Analysis

'16 years': the phrase you'll be hearing from the NDP as long as they're in power

Government MLAs have used the phrase over 480 times while the house has been in session.

It could become what 'the 1990s' were to the B.C. Liberals: a Pavlovian phrase repeated ad nauseam

The B.C. Legislature has sat 15 weeks so far with the NDP in power, during which time the government has said "16 years" 484 times. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

If there was a bingo game for watching the antics at the B.C. Legislature, there's an easy answer for what would be the free centre square: a phrase so overused, so ubiquitous, that it would be unfair to give any one player an advantage in having it.

Sixteen years. Meaning, how long the B.C. Liberals were in power.

But since they took power, NDP MLAs have become quite fond of saying it.

They say it to justify not following through on a promise to freeze Hydro rates. "After 16 years of B.C. Liberal government, it unfortunately wasn't that surprising," said Michelle Mungall on March 5.. 

They say it to remind people of new programs. "The establishment of the Human Rights Commission. That was missing for the last 16 years," said Harry Bains on Feb. 19. 

They even say it to remind themselves not to say it. "I'm not going to talk about the last 16 years," said Adrian Dix on Oct. 17. 

In total, NDP MLAs have said "16 years" a grand total of 484 times in the Legislature since forming government, according to Hansard, the official record of proceedings. It averages out to around eight times a day — during question period, debates, and members' statements.

Of the NDP's 41 MLAs, 39 have said it at least once.

And according to Maple-Ridge Mission NDP MLA Bob D'Eith (who has only used the phrase a relatively sparse eight times), it's not stopping anytime soon.

"[We'll stop] if the B.C. Liberals start taking responsibility for what they've done," said D'Eith. 

"For all the things they left our government to deal with, then I imagine you're going to be hearing it a lot more, to be honest."

Diminishing returns?

Of course, repeating a line ad nauseam to discredit the opposition is nothing new for a government in B.C.

"Branding is about repetition. It's about saying the same thing in the same way many times over until it sticks. And it works. You say something often enough, and people begin to believe it," said Martyn Brown, who was former premier Gordon Campbell's chief of staff and the B.C. Liberal campaign director in 2001, 2005 and 2009. 

Back then — and even during Christy Clark's reign as premier — the government would rebut virtually any NDP attack by bringing up the last time it held power in the 1990s as a "decade of darkness," or other lines referencing the decade.

It became so pervasive that the NDP tried turning the tables during the 2013 election with a satirical ad about how often it was used. 

But Brown said the public tends to care less about overuse of slogans.

"You can go too far in branding for sure, but most people aren't the press gallery or political insiders who are watching every word. They just hear without trying to scrutinize too much what it is the government is saying."

Liberals still bringing up the 90s

And indeed, the B.C. Liberals, now in opposition, still enjoy the phrase. ("Now usually in the House, we're the ones who bring up the 1990s. That's kind of the way of things here," said B.C. Liberal house leader Mary Polak on Sept. 21). 

In total, they've said "1990s" derisively 59 times in the Legislature since becoming opposition. To which Polak has no regrets. 

"They're now in government. They are now accountable. Remember, it certainly applies when they are doing things now that are reflective of what occurred in the 1990s," said Polak. 

In the meantime, the Liberals will continue to voice frustration when the NDP respond to their questions with immediate rejoinders to "the last 16 years." 

And chances are, it will influence the NDP as much as it did when they complained about continual references to the 1990s.

"This will work for a year or two," said Brown — though he cautioned that "16 years from now, it might not work as much."

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is a reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering political stories throughout British Columbia.