VICTORIA – Who would have thought a couple of months ago that the New Democratic Party would have a chance at being re-elected?
Haunted by the Nanaimo Commonwealth Holding Society scandal, the NDP found itself trailing the Liberals so badly that even party insiders were at the verge of throwing in the towel.
And when Mike Harcourt resigned as premier, few people expected his gesture would make the slightest bit of difference. The NDP’s goose, they predicted, was cooked. Gordon Campbell, they said, was a sure bet for premier.
That was before pitbull Glen Clark became premier. Starting with a promise to launch a public inquiry into the bingo scandal, a promise he has yet to make good on, and ending with the latest announcement that every high school student qualified to attend a university, college or technical school, is guaranteed admission, Premier Clark dragged the NDP out of its polling slump into a dead-heat with the Liberals.
In between he fired some public servants, although not as many as he claims, talked about a balanced budget, although the method by which he counts is debatable, froze university tuition fees, and generally behaved like a politician sure of re-election.
What a difference a leader makes. Harcourt knew he couldn’t pull off a victory at the polls, even though he personally wasn’t involved in the bingo scandal. His resignation, however, did more than just make room for another leader.
The leadership race, culminating in the convention, gave the party much-needed publicity. The spotlight was on the NDP, while the Liberals and the Reformers languished in limbo.
The Hydro affair was to turn all that around. The release material was originally to be released during the election campaign, but the Liberals got spooked by the NDP’s steady climb in the polls and jumped the gun.
Alas, the beast that was to devour the NDP didn’t have any legs. Clark moved as quickly as I have ever seen a politician move to minimize the damage.
Appointing Brian Smith, a former Socred cabinet minister as Hydro chief and instructing him to get to the bottom of the affair, was masterful move, and before the Liberals knew what was going on, the story was off the front page. And election promises seem to do the rest.
The major promise, one I predicted in a previous column, was Clark’s announcement that if he’s re-elected, he will order forest companies to create 21,000 new jobs in the next five years or lose timber cutting rights.
There are about 105,000 direct jobs in the forest industry today, and the premier said it wasn’t unreasonable to expect more.
"Simply maintaining jobs in the industry isn’t good enough for me. We want more jobs. I believe we can get a timber-and-jobs accord, but if we can’t, the government can start attaching strings to the access to the trees we own," Clark said. In other words, if the carrot doesn’t work, he’ll bring out the stick.
Clark’s most powerful ally in the upcoming election, however, is Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell, whose political image is in the dumps. Asked whom they preferred as premier, respondents in the latest poll chose Clark over Campbell.
The Campbell factor has Liberal party organizers so worried that some riding associations are planning to write the leader out of the campaign. The same happened to NDP leader Bob Skelly in the 1986 election.
A lot of people would like to vote Liberal but don’t like Campbell. Unfortunately for the Liberals, this late in the game, there isn’t enough time to reshape Campbell’s image. That should have been done two years ago.
As things stand, the election will be a political junkie’s dream. It will be hard-fought and close. And perhaps for the first time in decades, British Columbians will elect a minority government.