British Columbia·Analysis

With spend-happy budget, Christy Clark aims to neutralize NDP election campaign

As Finance Minister Mike de Jong stood in the legislature to deliver his fifth straight balanced budget, he was putting the final touches on his party’s plan to win a fifth straight majority government.

On positions big and small, B.C. Liberals have changed their tune in the last year as they seek a 5th term

Finance Minister Mike de Jong presents the 2017/2018 British Columbia budget to reporters on Feb. 21, 2017. (Simon Charland/CBC)

It was technically a budget speech. 

But as Finance Minister Mike de Jong stood in the legislature to deliver his fifth straight balanced budget, he was putting some of the final touches on his party's plan to win a fifth straight majority government. 

Over the course of Christy Clark's first full term as premier, she has consistently heralded the strength of the economy as the main reason her B.C. Liberals should be re-elected.

In response, NDP leader John Horgan has regularly argued that, while the fundamentals of the economy may be strong and the wealthiest may be benefiting, the province has failed to help the most vulnerable.

Increases to mandatory payments like MSP premiums and BC Hydro rates, stagnating funding for social services and skyrocketing housing prices meant "ordinary" British Columbians were struggling to stay afloat — let alone get ahead, Horgan argued. 

Tuesday's budget brought MSP cuts, education spending and specific money for services long criticized by the NDP as underfunded.

An election budget? Perish the thought.

"The more direct question is what [we] couldn't have done but for the strength of our balance sheet and the strength of our economy," said de Jong, when asked what announcements would have been made if voters weren't heading to the polls in less than three months. 

"You'll characterize the budget as you will, but I know this: even from conversations in the last nine months, there's probably nine other provincial finance ministers that would love to table this budget."

Liberals shunning unpopular opinions

But MSP premiums doubled between 2001 and 2015 in B.C., and even in 2014, the Finance Ministry would regularly issue statements such as "MSP premiums are one of the important ways that we ... keep our publicly funded system sustainable."

It follows a familiar pattern with the Clark government over the last nine months, from housing affordability to education cuts to even the premier's personal stipend.

"On the one hand, it's encouraging. You want your government to be responsive. Part of the way you evaluate how a democracy is functioning is whether it adapts to what the people are asking for," said UBC political scientist David Moscrop.

"The question is, under what position do those things get adopted? The B.C. Liberals are good at a few things, and one of those things is being political. They know when it's time to respond [to] the public."

The Liberal party will say it's responding to the wishes of the public. The opposition will say it's too little, too late — and already has.

Attack the party, or the premier?

"Christy Clark made life worse for ordinary families. And now that an election is coming, she wants people to forget everything," said NDP leader John Horgan, an hour after de Jong introduced the budget.

"Sixteen years of neglect, 16 years of cutting budgets, of cutting services to people, and the B.C. Liberals want us to forget all that, because they've found some money to plug some holes," said Horgan.

Horgan said the words "Christy Clark" a lot less than "the last 16 years" in his scrum with reporters following the budget, and it might be a sign of things to come: a shift in focus from specific things Clark has done in the last year, to general changes since the B.C. Liberals were first elected in 2001.

"We're committed to making life more affordable for British Columbians. They're committed to trying to make people forget the neglect of the last 16 years."

The NDP won't be announcing its election platform until it has time to study the budget, in detail, said Horgan. 

But if Tuesday's rhetoric is any indication, the battle lines have already been drawn.


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