SURREY, B.C. - As polls suggest the B.C. election race is tightening, New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix is becoming more strident in his criticism of the Liberals.
While Dix called Christy Clark's campaign tactics offensive and misleading on Monday, Clark was welcoming some support from Gordon Wilson, a former Liberal leader who jumped ship to the NDP in 1999 before leaving politics.
Dix made his comments while meeting with education workers at a park in suburban Surrey, a valuable region where the NDP and Liberals each hold four seats.
He said the Liberals have turned public education into a wedge issue that has hurt children during the party's 12 years in government.
"This is the discussion we want to have," said Dix, adding the NDP's plans for education include spending $265 million over three years to hire more teachers, education assistants, librarians and counsellors.
He sat at a park bench with Surrey school support workers Claire MacKenzie and Janice Meehan, president of CUPE Local 728. Both say services for special needs children and in classrooms have been cut by at least 18 per cent under the Liberals.
"We need an opportunity society," Dix said. "They only get to go to Grade 3 once. Leadership is not misleading people. Leadership is addressing the problems of today."
At a news conference following his park meeting, Dix said the Liberals have done nothing during their dozen years in office to help suffering children.
"Eight years leading the country in child poverty and the Liberal party is offering nothing except misleading comments and attacks," he said of the province's child-poverty rate.
Dix said his plans for education involve providing more opportunities for school-age children.
"Here's what I find offensive," Dix said. "I say Yes to LNG. I say yes to mining. I say Yes to forestry. I say Yes to film and television. I say Yes to tourism. But here's what I say No to. I say No to doing nothing when children suffer."
But Clark, who was also campaigning south of the Fraser River on Monday, criticized Dix for putting the future of British Columbia's children at risk by planning to run what she said will be a $3-billion budget deficit.
Clark made her comments after meeting with construction workers at the site of the South Fraser Perimeter Road, a four-lane route that would connect the Port Mann Bridge to the Golden Ears Bridge. The project is expected to be completed by December.
Clark said the South Fraser Perimeter Road, as well as projects such as the new Port Mann Bridge, the Evergreen Line and the upgrading of the Trans-Canada Highway near Kicking Horse Pass, are examples of the Liberals' willingness to invest in the province's infrastructure and economy.
She said the NDP failed to make such investments when the party was in power in the 1990s.
"A decade of neglect left our province with deteriorating roads and bottlenecks that compromised safety as well as our economic competitiveness," Clark said.
"Travel times in the Lower Mainland increased significantly over the last five years of the NDP government. They promised it all and delivered nothing and instead, money went into a bloated government when it should be going to roads and bridges."
Speaking to the media afterwards, Clark welcomed the endorsement of former Liberal leader-turned New Democrat Gordon Wilson, who said he's "come home" to the Liberal party after 20 years.
Clark said it's likely Wilson's experience in the private sector has hammered home for him the importance of a growing economy in sustaining government services.
Wilson, who is now a consultant and lives in the Sunshine Coast community of Powell River, said in a YouTube video he decided to back the Liberal re-election bid after Dix opposed any expansion of the $5-billion Kinder Morgan oil pipeline across southern British Columbia.
Wilson noted he has worked with both Clark and Dix in the past.
"And I'm here to tell you that Christy Clark will make the better premier."
Wilson said Dix's plan to run deficits, increase the debt and then hike bank, corporate and personal taxes for people earning more than $150,000 to help pay it down won't help the economy.
"He plans a tax assault on B.C. business, but B.C. business is not an ATM for the NDP."
Clark said she is delighted to have Wilson on board, and brushed aside reminders about his politically fickle past.
Polls suggest the gap between the Liberals and the NDP has closed to single-digit levels since the start of the election campaign, when the New Democrats had a double-digit lead.
Dix later spent time campaigning in the Fraser Valley, stopping in Liberal strongholds that the NDP has targeted as potential new seats.
He arrived in Chilliwack in the riding held by former veteran Liberal John Les where he was greeted by dozens of NDP-sign waving and cheering New Democrats. A full-fledged country barbecue was underway in the parking lot.
The smell of burgers on the barbecue mixed with the familiar odour of farm fertilizer that hangs over Chilliwack, but that didn't stop the cheering crowd.
"We've got eight days," said Dix. "My question to you is are we going to do what we need to do in these next eight days to win this election? Are we going to make the case everywhere, in coffee shops, in community centres, in church halls and in our families to ensure that people come out and vote in this election."
In Langley, in the riding held by long-time Liberal cabinet minister Mary Polak, Dix continued to criticize the Liberal campaign, saying he is being hard on the campaign issues, but isn't making personal attacks.
"We know that they have constantly misled people in this campaign," he said. "That's their thing. Our thing is the people I met here today. Seniors who need home support. People on a disability who need skills training to be able to live the lives that they want to live."