Will the B.C. election prove the naysayers wrong?

Simon Jackson on B.C.'s vote-worthy election

British Columbia has long claimed to be ignored by the rest of Canada, but these days that seems to be changing.

And no, I'm not referring simply to the fact that B.C. is gearing up to host the Olympics and is home to Canada's team: the Vancouver Canucks, our best hope of returning the Stanley Cup to its native soil for the first time since 1993.

B.C. is in the spotlight for another reason, as the testing ground for three important issues that will likely reverberate through our national discourse for years to come — the carbon tax, aboriginal self-government and electoral reform.

How long until we vote? B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Campbell checks his watch as NDP leader Carole James (middle) and Green leader Jane Sterk await the start of the televised leaders debate on May 3. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

It is just too bad that few here seem to be paying much attention.

In the context of our current provincial election, environment policy seems to have grabbed centre stage. (Though don't count out the impact of the lousy economy come the quiet of the polling booth.)

Most Canadians need no reminder of the last time a tax on carbon played such a central role in an election: just last fall when Stéphane Dion and his carbon tax-inspired Green Shift combined to produce the federal Liberal party's worst electoral showing in decades.

Usually when a politician spends so much political capital on one issue and loses in such spectacular fashion, that policy becomes a political third rail for years to come. Well, maybe not in B.C.

B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Campbell is arguing, in effect, that it was Dion, not the carbon tax, that was the electoral dud and he is hoping to even the score, running only the second established political party in North America to campaign on the controversial levy.

Blowing up the environmental movement

Should the incumbent B.C. Liberals, who hold the lead in most polls, nonetheless lose to the NDP and its "Axe the Tax" populist campaign, the carbon tax will almost assuredly be politically radioactive for the foreseeable future.

This has led traditionally NDP-friendly environmental advocates such as David Suzuki and Tzeporah Berman, of Ruckus Society and Greenpeace fame, to publicly call out the NDP for its position and all but endorse the business-friendly Campbell Liberals.

This creates a second possible fallout from the carbon-tax debate: a significant reshaping of Canada's environmental movement.

Despite the position taken by Suzuki and others, many environmentalists see the current carbon-tax fight as a red herring that portrays the B.C. Liberals, wrongly in their view, as environmentally friendly.

Issues like the Liberal government's support for fish farms and run-of-the-river power projects as well as its refusal to enact endangered species legislation and ban the hunting of grizzly bears has kept many environmental groups squarely on the side of the NDP and Green Party.

The result has been a very public and extraordinarily heated argument within the environmental community here around each group's cost-benefit analysis of what all is at stake.

The anger and resentment is so strong in places that it will likely linger long after the election on May 12 and has the potential to blow up the environmental movement and decades of hard-won coalitions, not only in B.C., but nationwide.


The environmental community's effectiveness has been called into question many times over the years but it is hard to imagine this dust-up not having far reaching consequences. The same can be said for that other issue underlying the B.C. campaign — native self-government.

After putting aboriginal self-government at the centre of almost all his government's policy-making during his second term in office, Campbell is promising more sweeping changes by legally recognizing aboriginal rights and title and, in the process, creating a framework for future, shared decision-making.

While commendable, the problem with the new policy is that it is largely taking shape behind the scenes without any public — aboriginal and non-aboriginal — debate on the fine print.

Some business leaders are concerned that the policy will give First Nations a permanent veto over all policy matters in the province, particularly land-use planning and economic development.

On the First Nation side, some aboriginal leaders are concerned that Campbell didn't just "find religion" on native self-government but is driven by a desire simply to provide certainty for investors — and that in the rush to do so First Nations will give up too much for too little.

When you factor in the environmental interest on this front, it is clearly one of the most critical issues facing B.C. and, indeed, Canada in the years ahead.

Finding a lasting solution that aids the economy and social concerns of Canada's aboriginal communities is imperative.

But given the far-reaching scope of this policy, and the national and generational ripple effect it will have, ramming an omnibus bill through the legislature (which the B.C. Liberals have tried once already) could well undermine the need for public trust that this issue in particular is so dependent on.

Democratic deficit

It is this type of policy-making-devoid-of-debate that has led to the massive democratic deficit our nation, B.C. especially, has created for itself.

After years of highly entertaining — even if bizarre, overwrought and obsessively negative election campaigns — this provincial election is viewed to be about nothing, spurred on by leaders largely talking about nothing.

The lingering feeling of being patronized by elected leaders, combined with popular votes that don't accurately reflect the makeup of a legislature, has led many — many young people especially — to give up casting their ballots.

If the trend holds and today's polls are accurate snapshots of the public mood, this B.C. election could produce the lowest voter turnout in provincial history.

The irony, though, is that this is an election in which voters have the opportunity to change the way our electoral system works. Also on the ballot is a referendum to decide between the current winner-takes-all system or proportional representation in the form of the so-called single transferable vote (STV).

This referendum is not new. During the last election campaign in 2005, the exact same question was asked and failed — just.

One can argue the pros and cons of the two electoral systems on the ballot — or some other version of PR if you like — but the reality is that for those who currently feel disenfranchised, this election is likely their one last shot to make their voice heard. 

If STV fails again, electoral reform, like the carbon tax, will likely be left for dead as no other political leader, in B.C. or elsewhere, will waste their political capital on something that shows no return.

No matter where one stands on these issues, it is clear that this is an election with high stakes. Hopefully, B.C. takes notice.