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Humming economy nettles NDP

Carole James has to concede the provincial economy is humming along quite nicely. But the provincial NDP Leader won't give B.C. Leader Gordon Campbell much credit for the positive economic indicators the Liberals will be trotting out in the coming election campaign.

"I'll give Gordon Campbell credit for having good timing, and that's about it," Ms. James said in an interview. "Commodity prices are at an all-time high and that's why we've seen a surplus in the budget and that's why we're seeing a boom in the oil-and-gas sector up north. And we also know mining is doing well right now because of international markets."

While Ms. James would prefer to talk about the promises the Liberals have broken since taking office in 2001, the state of the economy looms large over this election. As does the question of which party can best manage it and help it grow.

While issues like health care and education will be debated often and loudly during this campaign, the average British Columbian is still most likely to ask himself one question before marking his ballot: Am I better off now than I was four years ago when the Liberals took over from the NDP?

You can argue about what the NDP accomplished (or didn't) during its decade-long time in office from 1991 to 2001. But when it comes to assessing its handling of the economy, thumbs are down.

Some facts.

Between 1992 and 1999, B.C. was the only Canadian province to see a real reduction in per capita gross domestic product. Mining exploration investment fell from $200-million a year in the 1980s to about $25-million by 2000. B.C. lost about 175,000 people who moved to other provinces between 1996 and 2001.

This included investors and people running companies. The size of the provincial debt increased from $9.8-billion in 1991 to $21.2-billion in 1997.

We could go on. And we haven't even mentioned the hundreds of millions lost to the fast ferries debacle.

None of the above figures are new, of course. The dismal state of the B.C. economy was one of the reasons, if not the main reason, the NDP was all but wiped out in the 2001 election.

Given that, you would expect Ms. James to put some distance between herself and the economic record of her political forebears -- perhaps admit her party's economic record while in office for most of the '90s was not a good one, but voters could count on her not to repeat the sins of the past.

But Ms. James is having none of that. "The New Democrats did, in fact, handle the economy well," Ms. James said. "But I think, again, when we look at the direction we're heading now, people need to have the confidence to know we're going to balance the budget every year . . . that we recognize fiscal responsibility is important."

When I mentioned to Ms. James that her kind-hearted assessment of the NDP's performance on the economy would likely scare off potential voters, the NDP Leader was adamant.

"The economy wasn't in shambles when the NDP left office," Ms. James said. "We live in a global economy, and B.C. has benefited from up times and got hurt during down times. We [as a government] faced some challenging times."

Perhaps. But it's easy to see the Liberals getting lots of mileage out of Ms. James's statement that her party did a good job managing the economy. If that's her idea of doing a good job, you can hear Mr. Campbell saying, then taxpayers should start heading for the hills now.

Or Alberta.

Asking Ms. James to criticize the past actions of her party puts her in an uncomfortable position. But when you're heading into an election, and you know the economy is going to be one of the central issues (as it always is), then you do what you have to do.

That said, there are things to be impressed with about the NDP Leader. It took a lot of courage for her to present her views to the Vancouver Board of Trade this week. That's not a tent under which an NDP leader is usually comfortable. There's also reason to believe that Ms. James isn't nearly as ideologically entrenched as some of her predecessors when it comes to economic philosophy. Predecessors such as Glen Clark -- before, that is, he had his eyes opened to the wonders of capitalism.

Still, Ms. James faces a virtually unwinnable battle. Rare is a government that loses an election while presiding over a booming economy. (A recent poll puts the Liberals as much as eight points ahead of the NDP).

It will take more than a few colossal campaign blunders by Mr. Campbell and the Liberals for voters to put the province -- and its economy -- back in the hands of a party that mangled things so badly the last time around.

gmason@globeandmail.ca

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