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Squeaky clean campaign made flat election, panel says

It was a powder-puff campaign, according to The Globe and Mail's election panel. All of the political leaders emerged from the campaign trail in the 2005 British Columbia election looking good.

After closely monitoring the campaigns since the start of the election, panel members commended Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell, New Democratic Party Leader Carole James and Green Party Leader Adriane Carr for improving their personal profiles and the image of their parties.

They marvelled at the uncharacteristic civility in the province's political arena. They questioned whether the campaign reflected a genuine shift in the province's character.

Panelist Bill Vander Zalm served as premier from 1986 to 1991.

Ian Waddell was a federal New Democratic Party member in Parliament from 1979 to 1993 and cabinet minister in the Glen Clark's B.C. government.

Herb Dhaliwal, first elected to Parliament in 1993, served five years as a federal cabinet minister.

Here are their comments:

Bill Vander Zalm said the candidates and political parties were exceptionally well-behaved. "There was no mud slinging, no dirt, no negative advertising," he said.

He felt that the quiet campaign helped the incumbent Liberals' bid for re-election but that they got their biggest boost from the media.

"I feel that, without doubt, the media played a very, very major role in the Liberal victory. It was so unusual; I have never seen anything like this in all my time in politics," said Mr. Vander Zalm, who was first elected to public office in a 1965 municipal race.

"All the major newspapers were in support of one political party -- The Globe and Mail, which is a bit left-leaning, The Vancouver Sun, The Province, the Victoria Times-Colonist, which is also left-leaning."

"They all backed the Liberals," said the former politician who was attacked in the media as his political career fell apart in 1991.

Mr. Vander Zalm, who led the now-defunct right-wing Social Credit Party, said he detected a Liberal Party bias even on all-news radio. He cited a report during the campaign of a well-attended NDP rally -- a report that ended with an interview of a strong Liberal backer.

"Even much of the reporting during the campaign was subtle, supporting the Liberals. The media was Liberal," he said. "The media certainly helped the Liberal Party a great deal -- and good for the Liberals."

He added: "Mr. Campbell did quite well during the campaign. I do not have anything to be too critical of there. Certainly he carried out his campaign very well. But it's nice to have some help."

He was also impressed with Ms. James's performance. "The leader of the NDP did an excellent job. I was quite impressed," Mr. Vander Zalm said. "She presented herself and the issues extremely well. She made the NDP more palatable, taking the NDP from nowhere to, tonight, there is a more substantial opposition.

"If I have to be a little critical, I would say I have not heard too much about policies.

"The NDP has been saying we are going to carry on with this and not change that and this will stay pretty much the same. They were in no way nearly as aggressive [in setting out their policies] during the campaign as they were in their rhetoric before the campaign began."

He also thought Ms. Carr presented herself well.

Ian Waddell gave credit to both the Liberals and the New Democrats for trying to attract voters beyond their traditional base. Wrestler Daniel Igali ran for the Liberals in Surrey-Newton and businessman Gregor Robertson ran for the NDP in Vancouver-Fairview. "Whether they are elected or not, those candidates changed the image [of their parties]," he said.

Mr. Igali's candidacy indicated the Liberals were more than "a bunch of right-wing businessmen," he said. For the NDP, Mr. Robertson signalled the beginning of a new generation. "We'll be hearing more from those people in the future."

Mr. Waddell agreed with Mr. Vander Zalm's assessment of the campaign as unusually civil. The NDP may have missed an opportunity by running a quiet campaign, he said. "It was a small-c conservative campaign on all sides. Everyone underplayed it."

Mr. Waddell thought Ms. James, in her first provincial campaign, "did what she had to do, which was to establish herself." She effectively raised her profile, establishing her credibility for the next provincial election, he said. "The party was quite happy with her performance."

But Mr. Waddell was not. "She was never striking out, like Glen Clark did," he said.

"I think to win, you have to do that. You have to polarize the electorate for the NDP to win. You have to come out swinging. She should have tackled some of the more difficult issues, perhaps raise the spectre of future privatization and what the Liberals would do in their second term. I would have talked about their hidden agenda and what they are going to do to working people," he said.

"That's how you win an election, as opposed to doing very well in an election, as opposed to just holding your own."

Mr. Waddell also said that without a sharp focus to the campaign, Mr. Campbell would be free to interpret a second mandate however he wanted. "He has staked out very little during the campaign, saying very little about what he is going to be doing. The vision has not been set out."

Mr. Waddell also thought the Liberals reaped the benefits of a booming economy. "We're in a bit of a strange world here now. We're in a real-estate boom and an oil-and-gas boom. But things could change pretty rapidly."

He noted that the Liberals resorted to attack ads a week before election day when polls indicated their support was dropping.

The current campaign is probably the last chance for the Campbell Liberals to blame earlier incarnations of the NDP, he added. "How often can you slag the previous government?"

Herb Dhaliwal was hesitant to be quoted speaking so frankly. But he said the campaign was boring.

"The tone was not as hard-hitting as in the past," he said. "B.C.'s imagination was not captured by any one issue."

Elections are often highly volatile, he said. But not this time. "There was no excitement in the air. I think the people were not really engaged in the campaign."

Mr. Dhaliwal was critical of Mr. Campbell for running a quiet campaign and not trying to engage the electorate.

Mr. Campbell tried to protect his lead, rather than set out his agenda for the future, he said.

"He's talked mostly just about the economy, but it's not clear what his strategies are for the future, where he wants to move."

The Liberals attracted some attention -- and support -- by running Carole Taylor in Vancouver Langara and Wally Oppal in Vancouver Fraserview, Mr. Dhaliwal said, adding that the party improved its standing among women and ethnic communities with those candidates.

Meanwhile, the NDP failed to expand its base of support, lacking a high-profile environmentalist. It did not have a lot of strong new candidates, he said.

However, Mr. Dhaliwal said, the NDP received a boost from its leader's campaign, adding he was impressed with Ms. James's performance. "She did much better than everyone expected, taking moderate positions and clearly stating her agenda."

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