Economic Letter

David Bond is a retired bank economist who lives in Kelowna.

The recent election in British Columbia showed that the relative position of the two main political parties has shifted substantially. 

First the winners, the NDP, demonstrated a strategic shift toward the centre and away from more dogmatic socialist policies. They also seemed more aware and responsive to social issues than their major competition.

The NDP’s demonstrated competence in administration of the government with particular focus on their response to the COVID-19 pandemic won higher support from the urban centre in the Lower Mainland and up into the Fraser valley.

The resulting rout of the provincial Liberals was decisive and, if Premier John Horgan continues on his centre-left trajectory, the NDP may well form government for a third term.

The two re-elected MLAs from the Kelowna region, holders of two of the safest Liberal seats in the province, when asked what they thought should be done in the face of their loss of 12 seats said a name change might be a good thing.

The fact is that more than a name change is needed if the Liberals hope to make inroads into the urban NDP strongholds in the next election.

What can the new leader do? Andrew Wilkinson, for all his smarts, never succeeded in getting rid of the dead wood in his caucus so the next leader has to make that job one. As they cultivate and recruit likely candidates, they need to pay special attention to enhancing the diversity of their caucus. It will, however, be difficult to recruit the best and brightest if polling shows Horgan and Co. continue to enjoy a large degree of support among voters.

Job two will require restoring the party’s moral compass. The new leader must promise to be transparently honest with regards to information flowing from the government.

That means no more of the fictitious “balanced budgets” which borrowed from BC Hydro “profits” and transferred them to the general fund. The same goes for funds taken out of the policy reserves in ICBC to bolster provincial revenues. These machinations have reduced those two Crown corporations to dire financial straits. 

Finally, a revitalized Liberal party has to demonstrate an understanding of issues of importance to the Lower Mainland. Two such issues are public transit and affordable housing. 

When the mayors of the Lower Mainland agreed to a transit plan five years ago, the Liberal government of Christy Clark demanded a referendum and imposed a time limit that virtually assured it would fail. When the inevitable happened, they touted a ten-lane bridge to replace the Massey tunnel under the Fraser River. That, of course, did little for the north shore of Burrard Inlet and the burgeoning communities up the Fraser Valley. 

The absence of an effective transit network resulted in labour shortages on the North Shore since service sector wages were insufficient to afford nearby housing.

At the same time, Vancouver housing prices rocketed upwards while high-end realtors were donating tons of money to the provincial Liberal party coffers.

Neglecting the affordable housing problem so as to finance their campaign in the 2017 election was self-defeating and alienated many voters in the greater Vancouver region.

To be electable again, Liberals need to develop policies for dealing with transit issues in the Lower Mainland and in metropolitan Victoria as well. At the same time, affordable housing in B.C. cities and the increasing homeless population require thoughtful and balanced policies.

 Finally, the damage inflicted by short-sighted fiscal policies established by premier Gordon Campbell and perpetuated by Clark decimated the civil service, particularly in the ministries dealing with mental health and child welfare. Liberals need solid analysis and realistic proposals to address the needs of these vulnerable populations. 

Whether a party that has long assumed “what worked in the 20th century is still good strategy in the 21st” can finally acknowledge that things have changed fundamentally is by no means certain. 

The first indication of the degree of change they can handle will be who is selected to be the new leader.

David Bond is a retired bank economist who lives in Kelowna.