British Columbia·Analysis

Winds of change blowing hard as B.C. goes to the polls

British Columbians vote four weeks from now and Liberal Premier Christy Clark has a lot of catching up to do if the recent tide of opinion polls are correct. The CBC's Stephen Smart looks at her chances, and the likelihood of an NDP government.

Can Liberal Premier Christy Clark break the NDP's momentum?

Just follow me. Liberal leader Christy Clark has a lot of ground to cover over the next four weeks. Polls have continuously shown her governing party trailing the opposition NDP.

Like an approaching tide, the seas of political change appear to be surging once more against the shores of British Columbia. There's a provincial election in four weeks and, along with it, a very good chance of a new party in power.

According to all the polls, Adrian Dix and his NDP opposition are enjoying a mammoth lead, in some cases by 20 points, and seem well positioned to defeat Christy Clark and her B.C. Liberals come voting day, May 14.

For her part, Clark is adamant that she can turn things around by dint of her own energetic personality.

She told a party gathering recently that she was confident in her ability to prove the polls and the media wrong and climb back up that steep hill to victory.

But there seems to be something else driving this desire for change, an almost tangible "anybody but this crew" mentality that seems to have set in among a wide range of British Columbians.

You can see it nearly every day in the reporting on this government. The Liberals could come out with an announcement heralding the sky for being blue and a good portion of the electorate would respond by criticizing them for ignoring the clouds.

That's an exaggeration, of course, but you get the idea.

On the other hand, this is B.C., a province that has become used to wild left-right swings between the parties in power, sometimes in short order.

In the often wacky world of B.C. politics, nothing is certain until it is actually certain.

Political purgatory

B.C. is a fixed-date province, which is why the election is taking place now when the governing party is in such rough straits.

The B.C. Liberals have been in charge since their own tide of change came slamming ashore back in May 2001.

They replaced a controversy-riddled NDP government (in power for the previous decade) with a 77–2 seat majority in the legislature.

Since then, they've held on through three terms in office with that majority dwindling each time they went to the polls.

Now with nearly 12 years of their own controversial decisions under their belt, capped off by a successful voter revolt over the harmonized sales tax (imposed immediately after the last election despite a pledge that it wouldn't be), Liberal MLAs are bracing for defeat.

For many of them, the only question is how bad will it be.

The money is still there. The party is boasting a formidable war chest, having brought in $10 million in donations last year alone. At a recent fundraiser, 1,800 members of Vancouver's business elite shelled out nearly $400 a seat for the event.

But even among that crowd, the Liberals' most ardent supporters, there seemed to be little enthusiasm for what lay ahead.

Chatting with those in attendance, I found many seemed more focused on predicting how many seats they'd be able to salvage to maintain a healthy opposition. Some suggested the low 20s, while others felt that was still too optimistic.

Even one of Clark's most loyal MLAs told me he had lost hope. Only a select few were still confident they'd be able to claw their way back from the depths of political purgatory by election day.

Managing expectations

The New Democrats, on the other hand, are trying to ignore the polls and not to treat this election as a foregone conclusion. (Although some of their candidates do occasionally slip and are forced to belatedly add an "if" we form a government as opposed to a "when.")

For the most part, party organizers seem to recognize that mistakes do happen and that a four-week campaign can be a near eternity when it comes to giving B.C. voters the opportunity to change their minds.

So the party has amassed an impressive roster of NDP heavyweights to lead its efforts. The war room brass includes Brian Topp, the federal strategist who ran for the party's national leadership a year ago, as well as Brad Lavigne, considered the mastermind behind Jack Layton's 2011 election push.

They've also done a strategic job of trying to manage expectations. Only a handful of promises have been made, each being carefully crafted and costed.

And to avoid embarrassing skeletons rattling around in candidates' closets, the party has also asked those running to temporarily shut down their personal Facebook and social media pages, and use only the special candidate sites that are carefully crafted with party-approved material.

Then there's leader Adrian Dix himself. Once considered one of the more left-wing members of the party, he's managed to ingratiate himself with the typically Liberal-friendly business crowd in Vancouver, raking in hundreds of thousands in corporate donations through a recent series of fundraising dinners.

Reports from Elections BC show the NDP doubling then tripling its corporate donations over just the past three years. Though still well behind the Liberals, the NDP is now bringing in as much in one night from business donors as it would have over an entire year previously.

In this campaign, there will also be the B.C. Conservative Party, fronted by former Conservative MP John Cummins, to take account of, as well as the B.C. Greens.

Both are hoping to capitalize on the tumultuous political climate to make inroads into the legislature. Both have a chance, but getting more than a seat or two would be seen as a huge victory.

Who can say for sure, of course. When B.C. voters get their wind up, you never know what will come in with the tide.