BALDREY: Can the NDP take Clark down?

A sneak preview of what to expect in the next provincial election campaign was on full public display at the legislature last week and both the Opposition and the government came away feeling pretty good about their respective performances.

I’m referring to the first question period in months that featured the NDP trying to square off against Premier Christy Clark. The NDP still seems to have some pent-up rage about unexpectedly losing the last election and can’t seem to come to grips with the fact that Clark — who they belittled, scorned and dismissed out of hand, and for whom they continue to lack respect– actually beat them with the voters.

Given their first opportunity to fire questions at the premier, the NDP opted to focus on the very issues that likely propelled Clark to her win: LNG, mining, forestry and job creation.

NDP leader John Horgan and top lieutenants Bruce Ralston, Carole James, and Shane Simpson all hammered away at her government’s record in these areas. They quoted — correctly — statistics and figures to back up their assertions that Clark has not delivered on her promises in any of these sectors.

Clark’s lofty promise to use LNG revenues to get rid of the sales tax and the provincial debt were ridiculed by the NDP (and the media, including this commentator) before the election and that promise was hurled back at her last week.

So, too, was her government’s sorry job creation record. And they derided Clark for her "photo-op politics."

Again, pretty much everything that was said before the last election.

This may explain why Clark, as the questions kept coming, seemed to start relishing the encounter. She realized she could use the NDP’s attacks as ammunition to make the main point of what will surely be her party’s campaign theme in 2017: her side does indeed promise economic miracles, and the other side does not.

The NDP’s attacks allowed her, again, to frame that party as "the party that says no" to natural resource projects, which her side vociferously support. Of course, her take on the NDP’s position is a gross generalization, but that is beside the point.

When it comes to effectively communicating a message, Clark is starting to remind me of another politician with a pretty good track record in this regard: former U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

A brilliant new book (by a left-leaning historian) on the political ascendency of Reagan ("The Invisible Bridge", by Rick Perlstein) provides plenty of evidence of how Reagan essentially talked "over" the heads of the media and his political opponents.

He was given to making wild exaggerations, simplistic solutions or just plain error-studded pronouncements. But he also continually delivered a hopeful message (no matter how ridiculous it sometimes seemed) that Americans clung to.

There are huge differences between Clark and someone like Reagan of course, but their communication techniques seem similar in certain ways.

For example, during the recent teachers’ dispute, Clark referred in a seemingly off-hand remark about the teachers wanting "unlimited massages" as part of their benefits package. Her assertion was flat-out wrong (which I and pretty much every other media commentator quickly noted) but I was amazed by how many people subsequently wanted to talk to me about why teachers thought they deserved unlimited massages.

The NDP left that question period last Wednesday seemingly thinking they had just strafed Clark and left her badly wounded from their criticism. But, if anything, Clark seemed quite pleased by the showdown and her advisers told me they’d be quite happy to constantly argue about the economy with the NDP.

Both sides think their respective "messaging" will win out with the voters.

The last election result showed, of course, that when it comes to the economy the Clark and the B.C. Liberals have more credibility than their opponents. New Democrats will have to establish their own credibility, while at the same time convincing enough people that Clark’s promises don’t add up.

But that may prove to be a difficult challenge. They can quote all the statistics and studies they want, but the vast majority of voters don’t listen to them.

Instead, they appear to listen to lofty, hopeful rhetoric. The NDP can dismiss that notion — as they did during that revealing question period — but unless they can find a way to burst Clark’s bubble when it comes to making promises versus the reality of things (and they haven’t come close to doing that yet), the next election result may be a mirror of the last one.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC

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