As the Provincial Liberal Party's four-year implosion picks up speed, from the HST debacle through last week's leaked memo on targeting ethnic votes, many people are getting anxious to vote the bums out. That opportunity is now less than 10 weeks away. And as much as some may relish the occasion it leads inevitably to the next question: What does the NDP plan on doing if it wins the May 14 provincial election?
Reasonable question, but answers are hard to come by as NDP leader Adrian Dix has been carefully, strategically silent on that matter. "Change for the better. One practical step at a time," is the NDP's campaign slogan, but there's been precious little to indicate what those practical steps may be.
MLAs Carole James and Bruce Ralston are co-chairs of the NDP caucus platform committee. They, too, have been silent, guarding the planks in the NDP platform while the Liberals practice self-immolation.
What we know is the NDP is strongly opposed to Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. Whether a provincial government's opposition is enough to kill the pipeline is unclear. It would certainly further darken the already muddy waters the pipeline is treading. But the Northern Gateway pipeline may become something akin to B.C. Hydro's Site C dam proposal: a project that's always a possibility, even if it doesn't have political support at the moment.
We also know the B.C. Federation of Labour has been working with the NDP and has made it clear it wants an overhaul of the Labour Code.
"It's hardly a secret agenda," President Jim Sinclair told The Province in December. "We've been very open about the fact that we're lobbying the party."
At the B.C. Fed's convention last fall Dix said he was "proud, honoured and humbled" to receive the organization's pledge of "mass mobilization" on behalf of the NDP for the May election. But his only promise to the 450,000 members was that a NDP government would make significant improvements to employment standards and apprenticeship training.
Beyond the pipeline and working with labour there are only a few hints about NDP priorities. "Tackling inequality would be a major priority for a New Democrat government," according to the party's website, and James has mentioned a poverty reduction strategy with targets and timelines. Reducing exports of raw logs and increased funding for skills training are a couple of other promises.
But the crucial unanswered question is where increased funding for anything is going to come from. An NDP government can certainly shift funding around but there isn't going to be a lot more revenue to work with, even if taxes for high-income earners are increased and financial institutions are taxed on cash they are holding.
Indeed, the province's 2011 Financial & Economic Review, which compares actual numbers to budget projections, showed revenue from fuel tax, tobacco tax, natural gas royalties, mining, forestry and electricity sales all came in below budget. That may be attributed to over-optimistic budgeting by the Liberals in anticipation of an improving global economy, but the economy will not have substantially improved for the next government of B.C.
Most of British Columbia's resource-based products are sold outside the province, so changes in global economic conditions affect the demand for these products. And the signs aren't good. Unemployment in the 17-nation euro zone rose to a record 11.9 per cent in January. Japan continues to struggle with deflation. China is taking steps to curb its massive housing bubble and the U.S. government is cutting spending under its sequestration debacle.
Looking at things closer to home, the provincial budget is roughly $40 billion. There is certainly room to manoeuvre and emphasize priorities within a budget of that size. Undoubtedly greater efficiencies may be found within the services provided for by the budget. But there's unlikely to be any radical swings in spending by ministries under a NDP government. The top six ministry budgets under the Liberals in 2011, according to the Financial & Economic Review, were:
Health: $15.5 billion
Education: $5.26 billion
Social development: $2.4 billion
Advanced education: $1.98 billion
Children and family development: $1.3 billion
Justice: $1.17 billion
A NDP government might shift some money around but it's unlikely to change the order of the top six or reduce their budget allocation. So that's $27.61 billion out of about $40 billion, leaving approximately $13 billion to be shared among the other 10 ministries, agencies and offices.
Oh, and there's also the matter of repaying the $1.6 billion the federal government provided in HST transition funding. That payment is scheduled over five years.
Prior to winning the 2001 election the Liberals, under Gordon Campbell, made public a very detailed campaign platform and a number of specific promises. That platform and those promises came at the end of 10 years of NDP governance, when the party was deeply unpopular and the electorate anxious for change. The platform emphasized the differences between the Liberals and the NDP.
Everything about B.C. politics today suggests public sentiment is the same as in 2001 but the two parties have swapped positions: the Liberals are unpopular and the NDP is likely to receive an overwhelming mandate on May 14.
So why, less than 10 weeks before the election, hasn't Dix laid out his campaign platform? Maybe it's because in these difficult times the differences between the NDP's priorities and the Liberal's won't be substantial.