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Gary Mason

Fresh majority, new options

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Vancouver — Armed with a solid endorsement from B.C. voters, Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell awakens today with a fresh majority and decidedly different options than the ones he had four years ago.

For Carole James, the rookie Leader of the New Democratic Party, the landscape appears brighter after a stronger than expected showing, although the road ahead is littered with tough decisions that could make for a bumpy ride.

In 2001, Mr. Campbell arrived in Victoria determined to remake government in his image. In the process of streamlining institutions, cutting staff, playing hardball with public-sector unions and privatizing Crown corporations, he was widely criticized for moves many deemed as heartless.

Four years later and much has changed. Buoyed by the strongest economy in the country, he seems to have been forgiven (or applauded, depending on how you want to view last night's result) for the tough action he took early in his first mandate.

If the economy continues to roar along, as many analysts predict, the B.C. Premier should be able to continue the reconciliation with the electorate that began last year.

In a position to run balanced budgets, pay down debt and make nice to some of the groups the Liberals offended most -- like seniors -- Mr. Campbell is positioned comfortably for the immediate future. Of course, that precludes any unforeseen disasters such as party scandals or market crashes.

Ms. James, meantime, finds herself in a different position.

While there is no argument that she ran an extremely effective campaign, highlighted by a decisive win over Mr. Campbell in the leaders debate, the fact remains that the NDP lost even if it was by a smaller than expected margin.

Still, some senior officials in the party felt the election would be far closer when the final votes were counted.

Support might have slipped once the Liberals stepped up their attacks on the NDP after Ms. James's strong showing in the leaders debate.

Or maybe there were simply too many voters benefiting from a hot economy that --rightly or wrongly -- they were prepared to give the Liberals credit for.

While the NDP will no doubt today be expressing satisfaction with the outcome, it still has to be concerned with the notion that a majority of British Columbians refused to hand office over to a party seen to be beholden to organized labour.

But what about the Liberals, NDPers scream. Aren't they in the pockets of big business? The answer is maybe so, but it's obviously not an issue for the majority of the electorate who find less to be concerned about in that alliance.

Ms. James surely knows that if the NDP is to ever regain office in British Columbia, it will have to find a way to grab more votes from the middle of the political spectrum than the Liberals are currently grabbing.

And there seems to be little question that in order to do that the NDP is going to have to distance itself, in a transparent way, from some of the province's more powerful unions.

A good example of the potential fallout from that relationship was evident late in the campaign when a memo from an official from the B.C. Teachers' Federation fell into the hands of the media. The memo said the union's executive would be discussing a strike vote two days after the election.

The federation had run strong anti-Campbell ads in the lead-up to the election and throughout it as well. Mr. Campbell, not surprisingly, used the story of a potential strike vote to paint a picture of chaos in the schools. He also used the opportunity to decry Ms. James's announcement, prior to the campaign, that the NDP would give teachers the right to strike if it was elected.

There seems little doubt that the NDP lost thousands of votes as a result of the story about the strike vote (excessively alarmist as it may have been), again because of its close ties to the teachers' union.

The question now is: Does Ms. James have the personal strength and political will (not to mention support among power brokers in her party) to tackle this issue? Can she convince her party that it must represent the interests of business as fairly and equally as it does labour if it is to become viable again?

For the party, the question it must ask is whether Ms. James is the right person to lead the NDP into the next fight with the Liberals. Would she have as good a chance as, say, a more charismatic figure such as Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell? Then again, what about James supporters who believe she deserves the chance to fight that fight because of her strong showing in this campaign, and a better-than-expected final result?

It will be fascinating to see how many of these questions are answered.

As has been mentioned many times now, Mr. Campbell's re-election as Premier is something we haven't witnessed in B.C. in quite some time. The province is known for many things, but political stability is not one of them. And dare we say that a certain civility seems to have descended on B.C. politics as well, something else we're not used to in these parts.

We'll see if it lasts.

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