VICTORIA - Premier Christy Clark's Liberals return to the legislature Wednesday promising to pass their previously introduced surplus budget and lay the groundwork for a cost-conscious government looking to seize a potential trillion-dollar liquefied natural gas opportunity and slay the debt within 15 years.
Clark, who steered the Liberals to a come-from-behind election win last month, can only take a side seat in the legislature next week because she lost her own in Vancouver-Point Grey and is currently campaigning in a byelection in Westside-Kelowna set for July 10.
New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix leads a demoralized and deflated Opposition caucus into the legislature that is outwardly projecting a brave face and promising to hold the Liberals to account, but inwardly, is in the midst of a soul-searching exercise seeking answers about the election collapse that could prompt a leadership review later this year.
Finance Minister Mike de Jong, who also serves as Liberal house leader, said the Liberals are coming back to the legislature this summer to pass an updated budget which forecast a surplus of $197 million after four consecutive deficits. The Liberals also want to start making good on their election promises, he said.
"Jobs, economy, balanced budget, there's the holy trinity of what we'll be dealing with," said de Jong. "We are setting the foundation for the ability to meet the objectives set out in the (election) platform. The platform and the campaign and the budget itself in February were unique in the sense that they don't include a lot of big-ticket spending items because we knew things were going to be tight."
De Jong suggested the re-jigged budget numbers to be introduced Thursday will be slightly different than last February's tally, but he's not bracing for a 2009 post-election budget debacle. Then, Gordon Campbell's Liberals campaigned on a budget deficit of $495 million, but it turned out to be six times higher and paved the way for the introduction of the ill-fated harmonized sales tax.
"Oh no, we're still on target for a balanced budget with a modest surplus," de Jong said. "There will be no surprises in this budget."
Opposition New Democrat house leader John Horgan said Monday he suspects the Liberals are recalling the legislature for one month in the summer because they want to compress the budget debate rather than engage in a fuller debate in the fall.
He said the Liberals have allotted 120 hours for budget debate when budgets are normally given more than 140 hours.
Prof. James Lawson of the University of Victoria's political science department said even though Clark doesn't have an official seat in the legislature, she arrives in Victoria with a dual mandate — one from British Columbians and one that he calls her internal leadership mandate.
When Clark replaced Campbell as party leader in February 2011, some within the party and outside suggested she didn't have a complete mandate to govern. That changed on May 14.
"Part of her problem in her first round was that she didn't have a strongly supportive caucus," said Lawson. "Now it's almost an internal honeymoon for her. There's not going to be a lot of commentary about her competence or her right to government from within the party. She earned the victory."
Lawson said he foresees Clark and the Liberals regularly reinforcing to the New Democrats that they were elected to implement their election platform.
"I suspect we're going to see things presented as the realization of the Liberal platform, and they will say they have a mandate to implement that platform," he said. "There are some major themes they emphasized: mistrust the NDP, fiscal rectitude, reduce the deficit to zero and then eliminate the debt."
Liberal election promises included revenue sharing talks with resource communities, working with Ontario and Quebec to establish a film industry incentive accord and limiting post-secondary institution fee increases to a maximum of two per cent over the next four years.
There's also the Liberal plan to negotiate a 10-year contract with the province's teachers, freeze personal income tax rates for the next five years, freeze the carbon tax for five years and drop the two-year income tax increase for those earning more than $150,000 a year on Jan. 1, 2016.
The Liberals also focused their campaign on the proposed development of natural gas pipelines in northeast B.C. to ship natural gas to export terminals near the northwest B.C. communities of Kitimat and Prince Rupert. Clark and the Liberals say the plan to ship liquefied natural gas to Asia could result in the creation of more than 100,000 jobs and has the potential to create $1 trillion worth of economic activity for the province.
Last February, Clark announced the creation of a B.C. Prosperity Fund that proposes to use revenues from proposed resource developments to raise $100 million over 30 years, of which debt elimination is the fund's first priority.
Lawson said the Liberal campaign promises to give the New Democrats plenty of fodder to use against the Liberals despite their own internal issues about their election campaign and leadership.
"The danger is always with a new, confident government and with a defeated opposition that's feeling depressed, that a bunch of legislation goes through that isn't well thought out," he said. "They've got to make sure they do their reflection internally at the same time they are doing their job of opposition, which is to keep the government under monitoring."
Horgan said the summer session allows the NDP to start rebuilding for the next election, four years away.
"Clearly people like us as an Opposition party because they keep returning us to that position," he said. "What we have to do to refresh the brand and move from one side of the legislature, we'll have four years to think about that."
Lawson doesn't recommend the New Democrats change their political approach during the legislative session even though some within the party have suggested the decision to run a positive, issues-oriented campaign lacked teeth and was a major reason for their defeat.
"It would be a mistake, for instance, to conclude that because the particular version of a positive campaign didn't work for them, that the solution is to go all medieval on the Liberals henceforth," said Lawson. "To go to the other extreme could turn off voters."
Dix recently shuffled the NDP's shadow cabinet, appointing former leadership candidate and strong debater Mike Farnworth as the party's finance critic. Farnworth is expected to be front-and-centre as the NDP examines the Liberal budget in the coming week.
Former education critic Robin Austin has been appointed the critic for the newly created Liberal natural gas ministry. Austin, who represents northwest B.C.'s Skeena riding, lives in the area where much of the proposed natural gas development could occur.
Dix said Austin will be watching to ensure local residents and the local economy benefits economically and socially from the proposed natural gas developments.
NDP agriculture critic Nicholas Simons said the NDP wants to get back to the legislature to keep watch on the Liberals.
"Right now our focus is on making sure that the people of the province have a strong opposition," he said. "It's part of our political process and I'm sure we're going to be good at it."
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