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Mean, arrogant and fact free: Notes from Christy Clark's B.C.

As expected, Christy Clark easily won a by-election in Kelowna last week. She now has her seat in the B.C. legislature. I wrote this at the beginning of July, and it was originally published in The Source, where I have a regular B.C. politics column. 

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As summer sets in, it's business and patronage as usual in B.C. politics.

The new B.C. Liberal government moved quickly to reward its insiders and friends -- a little too quickly in fact. Whopping pay raises for top political staffers resulted in a sharp public backlash, forcing Christy Clark to retract big salary increases for political aides and her own staffers.

Here's how Clark explained the reversal: "I said during the election we're going to control spending, we're going to make government smaller if we can, and that's going to mean tightening our belts. I don't think the raises struck the right note and I don’t think it was consistent for people."

In other words, too many people were ticked off by this opportunistic move, so they had to take a step back. But B.C. Liberal patronage kept moving forward nonetheless. Last week, the Victoria Times-Colonist reported that no less than nine failed B.C. Liberal candidates have been given jobs with the government. As Kurt Vonnegut liked to say, so it goes…

Christy Clark hopes her clumsy attempted pay raise will be soon forgotten, and it would appear she has little reason to worry. There’s always been a kind of lightness about Clark. To her supporters, she comes off brash and confident, folksy yet authoritative. To opponents and critics, she comes off arrogant, glib and vacuous; her pronouncements, at times, seem little more than a series of almost randomly strung together talking points and platitudes. Le mot juste for this kind of politician, to my mind, is nul(le) -- a short French word that captures her emptiness and incompetence.

This assessment is harsh, and may strike some as sour grapes given the Liberals' recent come-from-behind election win, and the fact that Clark will almost certainly pick up her seat in the legislature this week in the West Kelowna by-election. The by-election campaign has received little media attention or public interest. The NDP campaign has put on a brave face, but they know they have little to no chance; the Greens didn’t even bother to contest the race. Green leader Jane Sterk explained away her party's decision not to contest the Kelowna seat with bromides about Clark's party having won a mandate to govern.

But why be polite, after Clark ran one of the most vicious, gutter-level and untruthful campaigns in recent memory?

There has been much hand-wringing, second-guessing and analysis in the NDP camp and in the broader left in this province over the past month and a half, all trying to figure out what went wrong. And justifiably so. But there have been too few voices pointing out the biggest reason Clark and the Liberals won: they lied -- repeatedly -- and they dished out relentless cheap shots through negative saturation ads backed by big corporate money. They won by appealing to the worst in people -- fear of the unknown, fear of the ghosts of NDP governments' past -- and by running a simplistic, mean, fact free, one-note campaign.

Notwithstanding the fact the NDP campaign did make a number of serious missteps, Clark and the Liberals could only win using such gutter tactics in a depoliticized society. Her win is an indictment of the public sphere in B.C. as a whole.

The Liberals’ victory stunned and confused not just the left in B.C., but many long-time pundits and political journalists in the province. Take Keith Baldrey, for instance, Global TV’s veteran legislative reporter. Throughout the campaign, you could sense he had a certain contempt for Clark and her fact-free statements, and, equally, a certain respect for the obvious competence of the NDP leader, Adrian Dix.

Last month Baldrey wrote a provocative post-mortem on the election, suggesting it was time for the NDP to ‘re-brand,’ and that this latest electoral failure showed the party has passed its “best before” date. He also asserted: “As socialist and even social democratic governments around the world get tossed to the curb, the NDP has never really been able to redefine itself as a party that is not about raising taxes, making government larger and addressing income equality through redistribution of wealth.”

Baldrey’s argument, however, showed once again the, well, provincial nature of our province’s pundits. There is a world economic crisis underway, and since 2008 it is the foundations of neoliberalism that have been called into question. Social democratic and socialist ideas are returning, more relevant than ever. An entire continent, South America, has shifted significantly to the left, electing a number of explicitly socialist governments committed to lessening the chasm of economic inequality. Even in North America and Europe, tax increases on the rich are again part of the discussion, after decades of wildly growing inequality.

The best candidate doesn’t always win elections in our corporate dominated, unequal society. Money and concentrated power are not easily defeated. The BC NDP, and its precursor the CCF, lost many elections when they were more committed to a vision of real social change, and they’ve now lost a string of elections with a watered down, extremely tepid social democratic program. The odds are stacked against the left in our system – whether the left stands strong and proud, and even if that left bows and reassures the rich and powerful.

The best premier B.C. ever had, Dave Barrett, won a total of one election and then suffered a series of defeats at the polls, despite an impressive record of accomplishments in office.

So let us not bow to the punditocracy of B.C. Let us not bow to unjust power. Let us take the long view, and the global view. From Brazil to Turkey and Egypt, people are standing up for real change, looking to toss unjust systems and arrogant politicians to the curb.

Even in these tough times for B.C., we can dare to imagine and work for something much more than politics and business as usual.

 

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