VICTORIA – It’s the most shopworn cliché of the B.C. Liberal government, one that for years has induced eye-rolling in the legislature press gallery.
The dark decade, the dismal decade, the decade of destruction, cabinet ministers have chanted since 2001. The 1990s, when investment, jobs and people packed up and headed for the B.C. border in response to the NDP governments of Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark.
As the NDP leadership candidates near the end of their marathon run of debates around the province, the front-runners are fighting hard to turn that conventional wisdom around.
Vancouver-Kingsway MLA Adrian Dix makes a statistical case with his usual intensity: B.C.’s economic growth averaged around three per cent per year during the 1990s, and only two per cent during the supposedly prosperous decade of Gordon Campbell.
This mainly demonstrates what former premier Bill Bennett observed: B.C. is a small resource economy whose prosperity is largely at the mercy of world markets. Those northeast coal mines that Bennett’s government nurtured are up and running again, with new ones held back only by a lack of port capacity.
All a B.C. government can do is create conditions that help or hinder economic growth. And there is little doubt that NDP governments of the 1990s hindered it, with taxes that caused miners to flee, choking forest regulations to appease urban environmentalists, and infantile tantrums aimed at both the Canadian and U.S. governments.
Dix’s Vancouver Island rival John Horgan also wants to take back the 1990s. He claims a list of NDP accomplishments: the Agricultural Land Reserve, B.C. Transit, the Columbia Basin Trust, the B.C. Ambulance Service.
Alas, B.C. Transit dates back to B.C.’s greatest-ever socialist, W.A.C. Bennett. The ALR and ambulance service were hurried projects of the Dave Barrett regime of the early 1970s, and the ambulance service stands today as a symbol of the hazards of unionized government monopolies.
The Columbia Basin Trust was a Harcourt-era accomplishment, and it’s a worthwhile effort to share the benefits of the dams on the Columbia River with the region.
But the important question for B.C. voters today is, what would the next NDP government do? Would there be a Peace Basin Trust along with the Site C dam? Not that I’ve heard of.
Today’s NDP has no coherent energy policy, just pandering to knee-jerk opposition to Site C, recanted opposition to the carbon tax and some neo-Marxist claptrap that all power projects are evil unless they’re shackled to a unionized government monopoly.
The NDP candidates’ recent health care debate featured promises to roll back the contracted-out health care support jobs, reconstructing the small portion of the unionized health monopoly broken up by the Campbell government.
NDP front-runner Mike Farnworth also scorned the “rethermed” hospital food that is part of the desperate effort to rein in health care costs. Candidates mused about bringing in fresh local food for hospital patients, which sounds nice but can only add costs.
The health care crisis is bad and getting worse. If all the NDP can do is whine about “Tim Hortons medicine” and wave an organic carrot, I suspect Tommy Douglas wouldn’t be impressed.
As this column noted in January, the B.C. NDP constitution remains explicitly opposed to profit and explicitly in favour of a state-controlled command economy. Harcourt and Carole James both tried to ease the party out of that rut, as Tony Blair did with the UK Labour Party.
Both were dumped. Now the NDP strains to look ahead, but sees only the past.
Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com.