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BC Liberals’ policy reversal is one last grab for power

Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason.

For the better part of 16 years, the BC Liberal government has been fond of lecturing its NDP Opposition about the importance of operating on a foundation of discipline and principle.

It was the Liberals’ stringent focus on the bottom line that set them apart from the New Democrats, and latterly the Greens, they argued. Premier Christy Clark and her colleagues often enjoyed chastising the opposition parties in the legislature over their left-wing economics and focus on poverty reduction measures the Liberals insisted would bankrupt the province.

But as we learned from Thursday’s Throne Speech, the base upon which the Liberal government’s fabled “principles” was built wasn’t that solid after all. In fact, it appears to have been erected on nothing more than sand.

Read more: How B.C.’s Liberal minority government could fall, and what happens next

Even in a province known for its bizarre and often unexpected politics, the events of the past week are unprecedented. Never before has a sitting government abandoned its policy positions in such a widespread and flagrant manner, in such a short period of time, all in a desperate attempt to stay in office.

Premier Clark has admitted her government has essentially ripped off her party’s new initiatives from the policy playbooks of the NDP and the Greens. In many cases, they are ideas the Liberals once cheerily mocked and criticized as being too expensive.

But that was then and this is now.

After an election that left B.C. with a hung Parliament, the NDP and Greens are preparing to join forces to dump the governing Liberals from office. If that is to be the case, the Liberals are going to ensure their opponents defeat them on a vote on the Throne Speech, which includes many measures on which the two opposition parties campaigned.

You name it – $1-billion for daycare, campaign-finance reform, hikes in welfare rates, transit funding, a referendum on electoral reform, removal of bridge tolls – the Throne Speech was rife with announcements at odds with almost the entire Liberal election platform. It is the Oprah-ization of government: “You get a car, and you get a car, and you get a car…” But it is clear they are hoping the moves ingratiate them with the public.

The Liberals have said the Throne Speech will effectively form their campaign manifesto should there be an election in the near future. And there might well be.

Should the NDP take over in the coming weeks, there are concerns that the traditions of Parliament may be compromised by the 43-43 saw-off that would exist in the legislature. This would force a Speaker from the NDP, who is supposed to be neutral, to vote in favour of the government every time a piece of legislation needs to be passed into law.

There is some thought that Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon might force an election rather than risk harming the legislature’s reputation by the undermining the independence of the Speaker. That said, the prevailing view remains she will give the NDP a chance to govern.

But even if she does, that government may not last long. There could be an election in a few months, if the stalemate in the house makes governing untenable. This is where Ms. Clark is gambling her political makeover makes her and her party more attractive to voters this time around, but it is obviously risky on many levels.

Firstly, there is no accounting for where all the money is coming from to make their field of dreams come true. The fiscal picture for this year is going to be better than expected, apparently. But what about the years that follow? The Liberals are essentially telling the public: “Trust us, we’ll find the billions.” If the NDP ever tried that, Liberal heads would explode.

Abandoning their fiscal values and philosophy certainly makes the Liberals vulnerable to cracks in the right flank of their coalition. The BC Conservative Party is already inviting people “fed up with B.C.’s three tax-and-spend” parties to come and join them. You will hear more from them, I suspect.

But surely the biggest danger their strategy poses is to their credibility. Will voters trust a party that just reversed course on so many policy fronts? In many instances, the hypocrisy is breathtaking.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this strange political metamorphis is the fact Premier Clark and her caucus have been able to keep straight faces while defending it. It’s all about listening to voters, the Premier insists.

The reality is, it’s all about maintaining the one thing the BC Liberals believe is rightfully theirs – power. Only time will tell if this mind-boggling course of action is the right one.

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