Written by Carling Dick, Principal, Earnscliffe Strategy Group
The legislature in Victoria looked a little different these days. On June 26, MLAs wrapped up the first week of the first-ever hybrid session of the legislature. Respecting physical distancing requirements, only 24 politicians could be present in the Chamber, with debates, votes and interviews conducted through Zoom so the other 63 MLAs could participate as well.
The B.C. Liberals are taking this summer session very seriously – hosting practice sessions last week with full caucus participation. They need to find a way to get some traction in the media and in the minds of British Columbians. When COVID-19 almost completely shut down British Columbia four months ago, we saw high levels of cooperation across the aisle. MLAs have been united in managing the impacts of the pandemic and keeping British Columbians as safe as possible. But that has begun to change.
Given the state of the economy and the possibility of a second wave of the coronavirus in the fall, we see a growing acceptance from all parties that all levels of government will need to run deficits for some time. This means the B.C. Liberals can’t revert to their long-standing critique of the NDP as the party of Big Debt incapable of managing the province’s finances. Instead, they have chosen to focus on economic recovery.
As early as May 5, the B.C. Liberals started positioning themselves as the best stewards of the province’s economic recovery, pushing out their “Comeback Plan for B.C.” The B.C. Liberal caucus has been firing off letters to the Premier on an almost weekly basis (10 and counting) laying out its ideas for how to get B.C. on a trajectory to restore economic activity and get British Columbians back to work.
All of this is unfolding in what everyone agrees is a pre-election period. While the next scheduled election isn’t until October 2021, political watchers are starting to speculate about an early election. No doubt the NDP is relishing the Premier’s surge in popularity: polling at the end of May put the Premier’s approval rating at 73 per cent. But those same analysts know those numbers aren’t necessarily “real” or sustainable. Historically, elected officials managing their constituencies through a crisis get high marks in the heat of the moment, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into votes. The B.C. Liberals know this. They also know that nearly 80 per cent of the province’s 87 ridings are already decided. They are laser-focused on those ridings that are up for grabs.
In a B.C. Chamber of Commerce Townhall on June 25, and in his weekly letters to the Premier, B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson talks about the vibrant small business sector and providing tax relief and financial supports for the safe re-opening of those businesses. He is courting those business owners in the Tri-Cities, Maple Ridge-Mission, Mid-Island and Surrey. He needs these voters to support him in the next election if he is going to have a shot at becoming Premier.
The NDP is doing the same. After weeks of pressure from the business community, the government abruptly changed its position this week and agreed to extend the temporary lay-off time limits under the Employment Standards Act. Thousands of small- and medium-sized businesses and not-for-profits were facing bankruptcy and insolvency from the payout of severance costs due to the circumstances brought on by the pandemic. This was a very strong signal that government is acutely aware they can’t afford a fight with the business community right now.
So, economic recovery is the battleground, and it will continue to be the focus of the B.C. Liberals’ talking points for some time. If the economy gets bad and the NDP falters, voters have historically turned to the centre-right party. That’s why the B.C. Liberals are so focused on economic recovery, pointing out the NDP’s lack of economic leadership, and why they are taking this summer session so seriously.