British Columbia·Analysis

Plenty at stake as 2017 B.C. election campaign begins

The main question, as it has been the last three elections, is whether B.C. residents want to re-elect the Liberal Party — but a majority this time would be historic in a way that none of the party's re-elections have been.

The issues in province may seem small globally, but there are real differences between main parties

The heads of B.C.'s main parties, from left, Liberal Party Leader Christy Clark, B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan and B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver. (Canadian Press)

For the next four weeks until the beginning of May, the political eyes of the world will be watching with interest an election 8,000 kilometres from British Columbia. 

Yes, in France, five significant contenders are debating weighty matters of pluralism and terrorism, globalism and nationalism, as they elect a new president on May 7.

In B.C., the two main parties spent the weekend before the campaign began arguing about — tolls.

Specifically, whether the tolls on two of Metro Vancouver's 14 major bridges should be removed, or capped annually at $500 a person.

"It's very Canadian in a sense that it's already broadly constrained. It's not particularly polarized," said University of British Columbia political scientist David Moscrop of the provincial election campaign that begins today and ends on May 9.    

"The parties, they disagree on things, and it matters who governs but in a very general sense, they're very broadly similar in a way that's not true of an election in France or in the United States."

Christy Clark a historic premier?

The main question, as it has been the last three elections, is whether people want to re-elect the B.C. Liberal Party — but a majority this time would be historic.

It would give the party 20 years in power, tying the Liberals with W.A.C. Bennett's Social Credit Party, which governed from 1952 to 1972, for the longest reign of one party in B.C. history.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark hopes to become only the eighth person in the province's history to win two elections. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

It would make Premier Christy Clark only the eighth person in the province's history to win two elections, and would put her in a position to surpass Gordon Campbell's nine years and nine months in power.

It would also be the first time outside Alberta since 1985 that a Canadian political party has won a fifth straight majority.

Against that backdrop — and an economy that has grown faster than any in Canada in recent years — are the controversies that have accumulated around the Clark government. 

"It's a more difficult row to hoe for [NDP Leader] John Horgan than it was in 1991 for the NDP, or frankly the Liberals in 2001. There isn't that same level of anger and antipathy towards the government that there was in those two elections," said Martyn Brown, former chief of staff to Campbell when he was premier and now a critic of Christy Clark's, referring to the only two times in the last four decades where there's been a change in B.C.'s government.

Still, he believes voters will reach a tipping point.
NDP Leader John Horgan waves to supporters before speaking during an election campaign kickoff rally in Surrey on Sunday. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"On so many social issues, they've fallen terribly short: on health, on education, on child protection, there isn't any area where they've terribly excelled," he said.

"I think voters will be looking at issues like that this time as opposed to simply the economy, which frankly governments in power don't have that much to do with anyways."

Megaprojects vs. new spending 

But elections are about people, not political legacies, and there are several projects and promises that will be affected by which party forms the government. 

The B.C. Liberals may have a cautious platform, but the construction of a 10-lane bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel, and the $9-billion Site C hydroelectric dam won't be guaranteed without another win. And the uncertainty clouding the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion would only rise if the Liberals lose. 

An NDP win would bring $10-a-day daycare, a $15/hour minimum wage, elimination of MSP premiums, elimination of tolls and freezing of hydro rates, and changes on environmental and political donation policies the party has long railed against — assuming they do as they say, their platforms are properly costed, and budgets properly projected. 

The Green Party, led by Andrew Weaver, is in a stronger place in polling, finances and candidate strength than it ever has been. If the party could win enough seats to hold the balance of power in B.C., what would that mean on economic, environmental, and democratic reform policies, where they've long held different beliefs from the NDP and Liberals?

The Conservative Party, which only received five per cent of the vote in 2013, looks to be even less of a factor in this election. 

So, the 2017 B.C. election is not a titanic clash of stark, era-defining ideologies, argued in pundit panels and Facebook threads across the globe.  

But it's about real people and real legacies, real proposals and real divisions.

And it officially starts today.