Baldrey: B.C. NDP opt to go big on major spending promises

The current election campaign marks the first time in a long time that the election platforms of B.C.’s major political parties have differed so much in terms of philosophy and direction.

In each of the past several election campaigns, the NDP offered a slightly inflated version of the B.C. Liberal platform. The party has taken the ruling party’s budget, added a few bells and whistles and sprinkled it with some fancy imagery and then has sat back only to watch the electorate emit a collective yawn and allow the status quo to carry the day on voting day.


Not so this time, and the party is hoping the dramatic change in direction will result in a much different election outcome.

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NDP leader John Horgan has opted to roll the dice and go big when it comes to making lavish spending promises. He has shucked off the constraints that come with relatively lower government spending and has instead embraced a position favoured by the NDP up until its electoral near-wipe out in 2001: big spending and tax hikes (albeit on corporations and high-income earners).

I suggested in this space some months ago that this is exactly the approach the NDP should adopt since it never wins when it simply copies the game plan of its chief political opponent. While I don’t think Horgan listened to me on this (there is no evidence he has ever cared a whit about any other ideas I have had) he has clearly decided to break with the recent past.

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The B.C. NDP unveils its platform on Day 3 of Decision BC


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In some ways, his approach is similar to the one used successfully by NDP leader Glen Clark in the 1996 election. Then, as now, the NDP targeted the leader of the B.C. Liberals (rather than the party itself) as being beholden to corporations and rich donors (one of the key NDP themes in 1996 was “they’re Howe Street and we’re Main Street”, which could easily fit into the current campaign).

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Then, as now, the party targeted corporations and singled out banks for special tax hikes. Then, as now, it promised to freeze B.C. Hydro and ICBC rates.

It’s a populist, class-warfare strategy that has worked for the party in the past (well, sort of: the party won in 1991 and 1996 only because of a significant “split” in the centre-right vote).

Now, you can drive a truck through Horgan’s claim that his plan to get rid of all bridge tolls, to offer a $1,000 grant to post-secondary graduates, to find hundreds of millions of dollars of “wasteful spending” (a page right of the 1991 NDP platform under leader Mike Harcourt) and a number of other spending promises will still result in a balanced budget.

But I don’t think the NDP particularly care whether anyone thinks their plan will result in balanced budgets or not. The party is philosophically going in a different direction than balancing the books.

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Horgan signalled he was headed this way in an interview last year with Rob Shaw of The Vancouver Sun. In it, he dismissed the idea that governments should take the “austerity” approach no matter what the economic situation and left a strong impression that he favoured a more activist approach by a B.C. government.

His party’s position on budgeting is now in stark contrast to that of the B.C. Liberals, which have made “controlling government spending” one of the three main planks of their own election platform (the other two being cutting taxes and creating jobs).

The B.C. Liberals have adopted a steady-as-she goes approach, one that plays it very safe and assumes the nearly 800,000 people who voted for them four years ago will feel comfortable with this kind of game plan.

On the other hand, Horgan needs to grow his party’s vote, which trailed the B.C. Liberals by about 80,000 votes in 2013 so presumably he has realized he had to do something different.

I have no idea whether Horgan’s play will work on May 9. But at least he’s changed the conversation from the one that has characterized the last three elections, all of which turned out badly for his party.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC