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The hidden question about the 2005 BC election
How could the Liberals get away with their outrageous negative framing of the NDP in government, ultimately tilting the balance in the 2005 election campaign? (This is the first in a backgrounder series on the campaign called “Surrender to the right-wing frame.” It deals with the actual record of the Harcourt and Clark NDP governments and the way they were demonized by right-wing media power.)
June 15, 2005

The television coverage given “star” Liberal candidate Carole Taylor on election night in BC last month uncannily demonstrated why the NDP lost the election.

Taylor, you’ll remember, had just resigned as chair of the CBC and was a darling of the pretentious, self-assuming downtown Vancouver Liberal crowd who assume they should be in charge because...well, just because. She was being interviewed after her victory in her own constituency, and was trying to explain the problems in health and education under the Campbell government that resulted in NDP gains. The Liberals, she said, had inherited a disastrous economic situation from the previous NDP government and had to make some tough decisions.

It wasn’t that Taylor, in saying this, was telling a hard truth. She was just talking gibberish or plain lying. But that’s the point. The interviewer didn’t blink. Taylor’s liberty with the truth was part of the frame, and it was this frame, largely created and reinforced by right-wing media power in British Columbia, that not only defeated the NDP May 17 but also, effectively, intimidated it into surrender before the election campaign began.

This is the untold story of the 2005 British Columbia election.

Contrary to the anti-NDP media framing, the NDP’s economic record in government wasn’t bad at all. Only by taking the time to understand this does one understand, in turn, how the power of the media works.

The film industry flourished in the NDP’s terms in office. So did natural gas in the northeast, in part because of NDP measures. The high-tech industry took root. The tourist industry did well. The fiction about the NDP’s oppressive tax regime and its punishing of business initiative was just that - fiction. Corporate taxes were within range and small-business taxes ended up among the lowest in the country. The much-vaunted high-tech sector, in particular, had nothing to complain about. A study by KPMG in 2000 comparing Vancouver with seven major high-tech centres in the U.S., including Seattle, San Jose, the Silicon Valley, Raleigh, Colorado Springs, Austin, Minneapolis and Portland, found that Vancouver was more cost-effective than any of those other jurisdictions for electronics, telecommunications and software firms. BC on top of that had the attraction of livability, Vancouver itself being one of the most livable cities in the world.

The statistical picture reflected this. Population grew by 20 per cent and employment by 24 per cent. GDP grew within the usual range, although real GDP per capita increases, averaged out over the period, were nominal. It was this one statistical feature that the Liberals kept harping on and misdescribing as if BC were poorer than Newfoundland and the sky was falling down. Slow GDP per capita growth isn’t glorious when one measures everything in GDP, and BC’s position relative to other provinces like Alberta and Ontario did decline, but it’s not disaster, either, least of all for BC at that particular, unique point in its economic history – a unique flux in the nature of its economy that has largely been ignored.

The pattern had become apparent in the 1980s, under right-wing government, and was inherited by Mike Harcourt when he became premier in 1991. It had underlying causes. The regional BC economy was undergoing a tectonic shift, with an historic adjustment in the coastal forest industry and, with it, the loss of well-paid, unionized blue-collar jobs. At the same time, the Harcourt and Clark governments between them also had to absorb the effects of the Asian crisis, cyclical commodity prices, a large influx of immigrants, and cuts in federal transfer payments, plus a mediocre corporate sector that hadn’t shown much flash in the prior decade under Social Credit, either. High interest rates in the early 1990s added to the difficulties. The relative decline in commodity prices, especially for copper and coal, had a disproportionate impact on the interior, with an impact in turn on province-wide economic statistics. All these factors were external to the government - not unusual, for the BC economy has traditionally been driven by external factors.

In other jurisdictions, with a different kind of government, this concatenation of forces might have produced a serious economic shock. Think of the decay of the US “rust belt” or the economic trauma suffered by Ontario following the FTA agreement and its blow to Ontario manufacturing. In retrospect, it’s impressive how well the BC economy did in the 1990s. At the same time, the NDP rebuilt the province’s education system (a new school every 19 days; three new universities), ended the “war in the woods,” made a genuine start in settling native land claims (including the signing of the Nishga Treaty) and had hundreds of other praiseworthy initiatives to their credit.

One shouldn’t forget, either, that one of BC’s largest industries, the production of BC bud, worth several billion dollars wholesale, was underground. If that sector were fully portrayed in the statistics rather than just being caught on the statistical rebound, what would the aggregate figures for the BC economy have shown?

The other factor in the downfall of the previous NDP government, the so-called government scandals, were largely manufactured by antagonistic media power. The one affair that did deserve to stick was the fast ferries, which proved to be a financial debacle – and the NDP did take a beating for it – but that in itself didn’t justify the sweeping negative generalizations about its performance in government. (By comparison, the Liberals’ tax giveaway, when fully implemented in 2002, cost the provincial treasury four or five times as much, and the cost is repeated every year.)

The anti-NDP generalizations would not have gone far had the media frame not first generated and then reinforced them. The power of the media to colour perceptions in this case – a virtual right-wing mass-media monopoly versus an ever so slightly left-wing government – was telling. It could make white seem black or vice-versa. A Burnaby friend of mine recounted, in this period, a visit by some relatives from Alberta. They were shocked by what they saw – all the signs of wealth and prosperity – the cars, the traffic congestion, the office buildings, the pedestrian crowds, the homes and the price of homes, the restaurants, the shops, the clothes. They couldn’t get over it. From what they had read in their newspapers, seen and been told on television, and heard on radio, they were expecting something so very different – if not a third-world region already, then something at least showing visible signs of decay. 

I used to marvel myself at the denunciations of the NDP for having destroyed the economy when, all around me, in my admittedly upscale neighbourhood (West Vancouver), the streets were full of Mercedes, BMWs, Audis, Volvos and assorted shiny new SUVs, and some extraordinarily grandiose homes were going up....and when it was the very prosperous upscale folks themselves who were most ready to agree with, and indulge in, the anti-NDP bombast.

This, however, only sets the stage for what happened in the rundown to the election and the election itself. Whatever the economic shift BC was undergoing in the 1990s and any debate around it, the germane part of Carole Taylor’s fabrication had to do specifically with the situation inherited by the Liberals when they came to power in 2001. On that one, the facts are fairly clear. In the last full year of NDP government, 2000, real GDP per capita increased by 3.9 per cent, the highest increase since the BC resource economy was in its heyday and the highest it’s been since. Real GDP overall increased by an extraordinary 4.6 per cent. Unemployment had fallen – in Greater Vancouver, at 5.9 per cent, to a record low, and province-wide to the lowest level in 20 years. Vancouver was booming. The results in 1999 had also been solid. The government, moreover, with improved commodity prices, had produced a surplus two years running – in the last year, 2000-2001, $1.4 billion, at the time the largest surplus in BC history.

On top of all that, it was the Liberals themselves who hammered the provincial treasury with their intemperate, and also highly skewed, slashing of tax revenue – the notorious tax cut, beginning in 2001, that favoured high-income individuals. The manoeuvre – in effect giving public money away to one’s own crowd - could hardly be called a tough but necessary decision made in a crisis situation. The ostensible excuse for the cut, moreover – that it would generate additional economic activity and hence taxes that would more than make up for the initial loss of revenue – was shot down by an internal government report on the subject. Even allowing for the Liberals’ dogma, it’s hard to imagine they believed in the excuse themselves.

The revenue loss plunged the province into a series of major deficit years, including the record $3.1 billion deficit in 2002-2003.

Which brings us to the first question at play here: How could Carole Taylor make her outrageous statement about the NDP, a statement she had been making, aping the BC Liberal Party line, from the moment she announced her candidacy? How could Gordon Campbell and the Liberals have said the same thing over and over again – it was their mantra – going back to the 2001 election campaign?

Go to Part 2 - A traumatized and weak-willed NDP doesn't fight back

Copyright © Herschel Hardin 2005
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