Political parties are a lot like soft drinks: It's easy to stay loyal to one brand long after you've forgotten the original reason why. But when a new, more enticing flavour comes along switching loyalties can be just as easy.
The remarkable thing about the steady decline of the B.C. Liberals is that the party remains stubbornly unable to distinguish a branding problem from a content problem. For several months now, the province's ruling party has been steadily hemorrhaging center-right votes -- a vital competent of the Liberals' electoral coalition -- to the long-dormant provincial Tories. Yet the response from Premier Christy Clark and her supporters has simply been to double-down on superficial right-wing marketing gimmicks while remaining blissfully oblivious to the idea that conservative voters might actually be motivated by anything more substantial.
In a particularly dopey piece in the Globe and Mail this week, Gary Mason commented that "the Premier's efforts to cast her Liberal administration in a bluer hue has had all the subtlety of football's end-zone dance," which is certainly the beleaguered party's preferred narrative at the moment. Yet in terms of actual, real-world sightings of ostentatious conservatism, Mason could only spot two: Clark's recent import of "a top federal Tory strategist as her new chief of staff," and the fact that she recently sat beside Prime Minister Harper at her son's pewee hockey game.
I certainly hope she didn't strain something from all that reaching out.
Back in 2001, when the B.C. Liberals were first elected to power, there was no national Conservative Party to suck up to. The now-departed Gordon Campbell, B.C.'s first Liberal premier in nearly half a century, had to win centre-right votes the old fashioned way: by championing conservative solutions to issues they cared about. To wit, he promised British Columbians lower taxes, a leaner, smaller government, and fewer unaccountable and constitutionally dubious aboriginal treaties. All of these pledges would eventually be broken in truly spectacular fashion mind you, but at least the effort was there.
Today, however, there is increasingly little philosophical daylight between the B.C. Liberals and the opposition NDP they so gleefully deposed. Even in an era where B.C.'s $3 billion-and-counting provincial debt is fast ballooning out of control, Premier Clark's supposedly conservative finance minister, Kevin Falcon, remains too timid to openly call for the spending cuts the province obviously requires.
A goofy "balance-your-own-budget" app on the Libs' website -- a typical example of the party's faux populism -- is clearly biased towards tax hikes, and offers no way for users to cut spending on public sector wages (which alone comprise half the provincial budget), redundant Crown corporations, or useless multi-million dollar nanny state initiatives like HealthyFamilies BC (which offers taxpayers all sorts of useful advice how to give their sandwiches that "extra crunch").
The B.C. Liberals have embraced the cause of big government so firmly it's hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. Through an endless barrage of flyers, pamphlets, websites, billboards, TV commercials, banner ads, custom bus stops, movie trailers, and full page magazine and newspaper spreads, British Columbians are constantly bombarded with government propaganda in virtually every aspect of their daily lives, and the state now funds everything from anti-salt propaganda contests to seniors' aerobics videos.
And this, we are told, is the alternative to NDP-style undisciplined over-spending and over-promising.
Lacking any obvious ideological appeal to the right, Premier Clark has resorted to fearmongering and bullying. An insultingly vacuous site has sprung up blasting Conservative leader John Cummins for nothing in particular, while an increasingly sad parade of Ottawa's most ossified Tory insiders have been recruited to loudly harangue the BC right for its perceived heresy.
Former federal ministers Stockwell Day and Chuck Strahl have been among the most prominent men of yesteryear to warn that the B.C. Liberals are the only thing that stands between their home province and another dark era of NDP rule, though once again, their appeals presume a childlike fear of the "bad guys" is the only thing that gets the right to the voting booth. As opposed to, say, actual faith in a substantially different philosophy of government.
Adrian Dix, the current leader of the B.C. NDP, unquestionably has baggage of his own, but there's something profoundly undemocratic about suggesting he should be disqualified from the premier's office simply by virtue of existing -- especially when virtually no effort has been exerted to explain why his "socialist" ideas are uniquely flawed or dangerous.
A viable two-party system can only exist when voters are given a choice between two clear alternatives, not a mere Coke-versus-Pepsi loyalty test based on brand preferences forged over a decade ago.
Somewhere along the line, the B.C. Liberals forgot this. It may take a term on the opposition bench to jog their memories.