Even though Gordon Campbell's B.C. Liberal government has been one of the most right wing in Canada -- and despite significant economic decline -- Campbell's Liberals have been re-elected for a third majority term. At only 48%, the voter turnout was the worst ever. Both those discouraging results merit serious reflection.
Campbell's Liberals secured 46% of the popular vote and 49 seats, versus 42% of the vote and 36 seats for the NDP. The NDP picked up three more seats than they had in 2005 and their popular vote was up slightly from 41% in 2005. The Greens only drew 8% of votes. As in the 2005 election, the Green vote declined and the Green campaign seemed less relevant than ever.
There has been much handwringing in the commercial media about the poor turnout, but none of the commentary has noted the media's own role. Throughout the one month campaign, there was steady reinforcement of the idea that the election didn't matter much or that the results were a foregone conclusion. The worst in that regard was Global TV Legislative Bureau Chief Keith Baldrey, who seemed overwhelmed by a sense of ennui and boredom. During the month, Baldrey seldom left Victoria. But he was not alone. Most media reports focused on "the horse race" and polling results, rather than the harder work of covering issues.
While NDP Leader Carole James once again handily won the televised Leader's debate and ran an energetic and progresive campaign, Campbell was more successful at defining a "ballot question". He repeatedly asked voters who was best suited to manage the province's economy. Incredibly, he got away with this despite so much objective evidence of steep economic decline under his watch. During the campaign period, it was revealed that: B.C. job losses were the worst in the country; that in 2008 economic growth declined for the first time since 1982; and that B.C. suffered the worst decline in average weekly earnings of any province.
All this bad economic news means projections in the spring provincial budget are mostly fiction. Big cutbacks to social programs and the public service are doubtless imminent. In retrospect, the NDP may have done better if it had focused more on issues like health care or homelessness and had defined a "ballot question" along the lines of "who is best suited to protect health care and other needed programs during a period of economic decline?"
Other election reflections:
--the environmental movement split over issues like carbon pricing and privatisation of electricity. Prominent environmentalists Will Horter of the Dogwood Initiative and Tzeporah Berman of Power Up played a big role in Gordon Campbell's victory. On behalf of the Conservation Voters of B.C., Horter went on TV to urge voters to endorse Liberal Environment Minister Barry Penner and to choose "anyone but Carole James". Campbell's support for environmental disasters like the Enbridge Gateway tar sands pipeline, oil tankers off the north coast, offshore oil drilling, massive freeway expansion, fish farms that are destroying wild salmon and "run of the river" private power projects were all reinforced by Horter and Berman's activism. Watch for Berman to be appointed to a senior government post in the coming months.
--the NDP did a good job of tapping into strong grassroots opposition to private electricity projects. Though Campbell has a renewed mandate, the private electricity agenda took a big hit. Activists should push hard now for BC Hydro to be liberated so it is permitted to generate "green" energy itself directly.
--even though it was predictably thrown out by the courts just before the election call, Bill 42, the so-called "gag law" had the desired effect of supressing third party advertising and political discussion in the months leading up to the election. Trade unions and other advocates were unable to pay to get a message into the media in the crucial pre-election period. Unfortunately, once the gag came off, some of the trade union advertising that did get produced was arguably counterproductive. In particular, the COPE 378 viral ads called "Gordon Campbell hates you" and "Gordo 5-0" were seen as too harshly personal and were not well received by pundits. Worse, they weren't all that funny.
--the solid defeat of the confusing, complex and less representative Single Transferrable Vote proposal means space has opened up for electoral reform options like Mixed Member Proportional Representation. The citizen's campaign for electoral reform in B.C. can hopefully now be directed to achieving MMP.
--it's great news that Mable Elmore and Kathy Corrigan are both newly elected NDP MLAs. These strong trade union women will definitely make a difference in Victoria.
With big budget deficits in the offing, Gordon Campbell will be greatly tempted to make sweeping cuts to public sector services and to privatise even further. The B.C. trade union movement and social allies are going to have a big job on their hands to protect health care, education and social support systems. Discussions should start now on strengthening social/labour coalitions and alliances. It's going to be rough ride in B.C. over the next four years.
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