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Media Bites: Five B.C. Myths You Can Blame on the Media

05/13/2013 05:18 EDT | Updated 07/13/2013 05:12 EDT
B.C. Conservatives/CP/Green Party

By this time tomorrow, British Columbians will have begun casting ballots in their province's 40th general election. Despite the historic milestone, the prevailing mood has been resignation, not celebration.

Savvy readers will probably have some vague sense that BC is a lovely place in the midst of a perilous decline, though appreciating its exact dysfunctions can be a bit tricky amid the barnacles of cliches and half-truths that tend to encrust political reporting about the province.

Here are five particularly unhelpful tropes just begging to be tossed in the nearest gluten-free organic compost heap:

Myth #1: BC politics is zany and fun!

A recent piece by Brian Hutchinson in the National Post summarizes British Columbia as a "province known for fruitcake politics." The CBC's Stephen Smart, meanwhile, jokes about the "often wacky world of B.C. politics." Mild variations on this theme inevitably appear within the first paragraph of basically all BC-themed editorials.

Well, I've been living in British Columbia for 28 years and I'm still waiting for the party to start. In fact, it baffles me entirely where this reputation for zaniness even originated.

Back in the 1950s, we used to have a premier named William Andrew Cecil Bennett. His initials spelled "WAC" and clever people sometimes called him "Wacky." That was pretty fun, I guess. Three of our last four elected premiers had to resign as a result of corruption scandals. Was that wacky? Or just sad?

With the exception of noted crazyperson Bill Vander Zalm (who left office 22 years ago) B.C.'s party scene has been more or less dominated by the same sort of moderate, focus-grouped technocrats who run the show everywhere else in this dull country. Our next premier will either be a career politician or a guy who made politics his career. Hold on to your hats!

At the very least, we can safely say that modern-day B.C. lacks a scandal as epic as the Charbonneau Commission, a leader as buffonish as Rob Ford, or a movement as radical and revolutionary as the Wildrose in Alberta. Yet somehow we wound up as Confederation's class clown.

Myth #2. British Columbians care a lot about politics.

In fairness, this is mostly something British Columbians tell themselves, though I've noticed our bragginess has a tendency to rub off on reporters -- particularly out-of-province ones -- who marvel with awe at this "very political" place, with activists and ideologues as majestic and plentiful as the mighty evergreens they're chaining themselves to. But it's easy to get romantic when you're as sheltered from civilization as B.C. is, and it's a testament to isolation that our intense political indifference is so frequently interpreted as the exact opposite.

According to this guy's study, the 2009 B.C. election saw the second-lowest voter turnout (51 per cent) of any Canadian provincial election of the last 40 years, surpassed only by the apathy of one-party Alberta. In the 2011 federal election, we tied with Manitoba for third-worst provincial turnout (55 per cent), and even though that contest actually saw turnout rise in every province, BC's hike was by far the lowest (+0.6 per cent). The 2008 long-form census similarly revealed that British Columbians sit several points below the western Canadian average when it comes to extracurricular involvement in "political organizations." But we did found Greenpeace.

Myth #3. The BC Liberals are not like Canada's other Liberal Parties.

The idea that British Columbia's Liberals are actually "right-of-centre" (to quote the Globe and Mail), or "Liberals in name only," or otherwise aggressively disassociated with the flavor of big-L liberalism practiced elsewhere in Canada is a strategic truism that's more opportunistic than honest.

NDPers love saying it, because portraying the B.C. Liberals as phony baloney impostors makes it easier to pry progressive votes from that small cadre of Vancouverites who vote Liberal in federal elections. The BC Liberals, meanwhile, are perfectly cool playing along if it makes their party appealing to folks who vote Tory in federal races -- which is to say, about 45 per cent of the population.

In metrics beyond marketing, however, the B.C. Liberals' un-Liberalism has never been terribly obvious. Premier Campbell certainly shared Stephane Dion's enthusiasm for a carbon tax, Premier McGuinty's HST-love, Michael Ignatieff's fondness for safe injection sites, and Justin Trudeau's hard-line on abortion. On First Nations, natural resources, and multiculturalism, their approach is even samer.

Notions that the BC Liberals are some exotic homegrown flower, as opposed to a conventional Liberal coalition of progressive-yet-pro-business forces, really says more about the low regard in which federal Liberals are held in this province, and their mysterious profile in a place that rarely elects them.

Myth #4. Tomorrow's vote offers British Columbians a stark choice between two vastly different philosophies.

In his aforementioned CBC editorial, Stephen Smart quips that we BCers have "become used to wild left-right swings." Tim Harper in the Toronto Star sees the obligatory "polarized province."

This is the narrative both parties prefer; an epic clash of communism versus capitalism, or heartless neoliberalism versus compassionate social democracy (it depends who you ask).

And in terms of special interests, things certainly are either/or. B.C.'s leftist public sector unions donate exclusively to the NDP while a more conciliatory corporate sector only backs the Liberals by a margin of 5-to-1.

In practice, however, the actual agendas of both parties vary more by degree than anything else. Premier Clark has hiked taxes on the wealthy and big business; NDP boss Adrian Dix promises to do the same. Dix says he'll do everything in his power to oppose the Northern Gateway pipeline, Clark vows to do almost everything she can to ensure it doesn't get built. Christy wants increased funding for education and healthcare; Adrian thinks they need more cash.

B.C'.s endured two decades of rule under supposed demagogues of right and left alike, yet the final results don't differ much: new taxes, ballooning debt, weak growth, job losses, and chronic mismanagement of crappy public services. The choice is the colour of the screw.

Myth #5. Tomorrow's vote matters.

Naw.

Last week, the National Post profiled a deeply unsettling study by University of Calgary economist Jack Mintz concluding that British Columbia seems likely to "continue its trend toward economic irrelevance compared with the rest of the country" thanks to a chronically unwelcoming business climate perpetuated by both NDP and Liberal government alike.

Mintz' stats were chilling. During the darkest year of NDP nuclear winter, British Columbia's share of overall private sector investment in Canada bottomed out at 11 per cent. Today, a dozen years after a robustly pro-business Liberal administration it's skyrocketed to... 12 per cent.

It's not a hard phenomena to explain. Both of B.C.'s leading parties are basically owned by different factions of the yesterday's news lobby; sclerotic government bureaucrats in the case of the NDP, embattled corporations running declining industries (like forestry and mining, which together comprise a mighty 8 per cent of the provincial GDP) in the case of the Liberals. Reversing BC's eclipse by western Canada's dynamic duo -- Alberta and Saskatchewan -- is a task well beyond the limited imaginations of either the Dippers or Grits, yet come Wednesday morning one of them is going to wind up in charge anyway.

And that, sadly, is no myth.

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