VANCOUVER - NDP Leader Adrian Dix faced some of his most ardent critics Tuesday, delivering his first speech ever to the business crowd at the Vancouver Board of Trade even as one business group released a survey that found the majority of its members fear a New Democrat government.
Dix defended his stance on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline and reiterated his plan to increase corporate taxes, reinstate a minimum tax on banks and tackle inequality.
But the priority of a government under his mantle, Dix said, would be education and skills training.
"It's not easy to say that we're going to raise taxes, but I would make one point: since we showed leadership on that question, the minister of finance has said he's going to raise corporate taxes by one point, from 10 to 11 per cent," Dix told a sold-out crowd of about 450 people.
"This is a reality of the times."
Dix said he would not implement a capital tax, but would return corporate taxation to the levels they were in 2008, before the most recent cuts under the Liberal government.
In a room where the smiling face of former premier Gordon Campbell was still in rotation across the giant screens at the front of the room until just before Dix's speech began, there was an awkward moment at the end of his address when those in attendance had to decide whether to join in a standing ovation that began with the union leaders who sponsored the event — another first for the board of trade.
More than half decided they would not.
After listening to Dix, Philip Hochstein, of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C., predicted personal income taxes will go up and regulatory burden will increase under an NDP government.
"It's going to be harder to do business and create jobs in British Columbia if he gets elected," Hochstein said.
Dix tried to make light of the divide, but winning business votes will be a hurdle for the NDP in the election scheduled for May 14, 2013.
The Coalition of BC Business released a survey of more than 600 small business that found 68 per cent believed a New Democrat government would increase challenges and barriers to doing business.
Mark von Schellwitz, chairman of the coalition, said three-quarters of the businesses surveyed are concerned about their ability to hire and invest if the NDP wins the election.
"I think Mr. Dix is a great speaker off the cuff and I think he gave a great handle on some broad perspectives on what he's looking to do and some of his priorities," von Schellwitz said. "However, in light of our release ... I don't really think he answered any of those questions."
Von Schellwitz said he hopes an NDP government wouldn't scrap all of the labour code changes brought in by the Liberals since the last NDP government was in power, and Dix himself suggested he's not interested in turning back the labour clock.
But Dix said the coalition has a particular view that includes lifting the ban on the use of replacement workers during a labour dispute.
"You're not going to convince everybody, every day. This is a democracy, people are going to disagree," he told reporters after his speech.
But the MLA for Vancouver-Kingsway, to the chagrin of some of his audience, didn't completely distance himself from the last NDP government, either.
"I think one of the fundamental mistakes that the NDP government did in the 1990s, for example, was not that they didn't do an extraordinary number of good things, but that they often did too many things and the quality of the implementation suffered as a result," Dix told the business audience.
"Regardless of the quality of those bills... the capacity of government and the capacity of business and the community to sustain that change and to withstand all of the implications of that change made the changes less effective than they should be."
Hours before Dix addressed the business crowd, the B.C. Liberals launched a political attack on the website "Same Dix Same Tricks."
The campaign-style attack website — the latest in a series that take aim at Dix — compares Dix's promises to promises made by the NDP in 1990 and 1996, when they were last in power. As the site points out, from 1992 to 1999, Dix was a top aide to former premier Glen Clark, who was forced to step down over a casino licensing scandal involving a friend.
Dix responded Tuesday with a warning that provincial voters are losing out because of the toxic turn the political debate has taken in the province.