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The politics of the circus may be a thing of the past in B.C.

VANCOUVER

e's no way for Premier Gordon Campbell to go but down in today's B.C. election. The only question is how far.

Mr. Campbell's Liberals, after all, took 77 of 79 seats in the last election four years ago, shattering the New Democratic Party.

But the NDP is as much a part of British Columbia's landscape as mountains and water. The party has a core vote of a third to two-fifths of the electorate, and it's back together this time. By definition, the NDP has to do better in 2005 than in 2001.

The 2001 Liberal landslide was a fluke, but today's election should better reflect the political forces of the province: Liberals winning, obviously with a reduced majority; the NDP second; and the Greens third.

Polls showing Mr. Campbell's team rolling to victory are a mixed blessing, as he implicitly recognized while barnstorming around the Lower Mainland on the last day of campaigning.

You're voting for the next government, not the opposition, he warned supporters. It's a message reinforced by the party's paid advertising. The reason? A certain number of swing voters might vote NDP to ensure a strong opposition, and some Liberals might stay home, overconfident of the outcome. Vote, vote, vote, said the Premier to his troops, a campaign's classic last-day message.

It was said by various observers that this campaign lacked passion and was, well, dull. Good. The politics of the circus -- right-wing populism against union-inspired ideology -- might be a thing of the past in British Columbia, and the province will be the better for it.

The difference between the Liberals and the NDP has shrunk to a fraction of what it was four years ago. Of course, the rhetorical divide remains wide, with the New Democrats reminding voters of heartless measures taken by the Campbell government in its first two years, and Mr. Campbell warning voters about the NDP mistakes that so soured the province on the party.

Leave the rhetoric aside. Look at the party's platforms. Suddenly, the differences shrink. Mr. Campbell, the "tough" decisions behind him, now pledges much more spending for the hardy provincial perennials of health care and education.

The NDP pledges to keep all the Liberal tax cuts that the NDP once denounced. Without admitting it, perhaps the NDP learned that B.C.'s previous tax rates were an economic liability for a province surrounded by lower-tax jurisdictions such as Washington state, Oregon and Alberta. Ideology is great, except when it crashes against

geography.

Should the Liberals win, it's conceivable, although unlikely, that this might be B.C.'s last majority government: On today's ballot is a question asking voters if they wish to adopt a new electoral system called Single Transferable Vote.

STV was recommended by a constituency assembly of citizens drawn from each of the province's 79 electoral districts. They laboured earnestly for more than a year, debated various reform proposals, and settled on STV, a system used sparingly around the world.

Whatever its virtues of enhanced representativeness, STV almost guarantees minority or coalition governments, because it closely matches seats to share of the popular vote. And in a multiparty system, seldom, if ever, does one party gain more than half the popular vote.

The ballot question almost encourages a Yes vote. It asks whether people want the recommendation of the Citizens' Assembly -- and who in this age of cynicism would not prefer the wisdom of citizens to the existing system run by grubby politicians?

That two-thirds of the voters, according to Ipsos-Reid, know "little" or "nothing" about the proposed new system won't stop people from voting. Just how the ignorant will vote cannot be predicted.

To become law, the new system must be accepted by 60 per cent of the electors, and with at least a majority in 60 per cent of the province's 79 electoral districts -- two really huge hurdles.

The Ipsos-Reid poll of a week ago showed supporters leading opponents 55 per cent to 45 per cent, enough to claim a significant moral victory if sustained today but not enough to change the system. At least for now.

A government re-elected but faced with a renewed opposition. The end, however temporary, of circus politics. A debate about a new electoral system. This isn't the stuff of headlines, but rather of political maturity. Dull, maybe; progress, yes.

jsimpson@globeandmail.ca

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