Fletcher: Party Leaders’ political spin contest ends in a tie

The Union of B.C. Municipalities convention is the political event of the year for B.C. party leaders.

The Union of B.C. Municipalities convention is the political event of the year for B.C. party leaders, especially heading into a provincial election.

Up first was NDP leader Adrian Dix, who drew a large crowd of local politicians last week for the traditional early-morning spot that follows a long evening of receptions.

In contrast to his debut last year—a typical litany of political attacks on the B.C. Liberals—Dix declared he would take the high road. And perhaps mindful of Carole James’ downfall after her content-free speech to the 2010 UBCM convention, Dix set out policies.

He told delegates an NDP government would restore local authority over Metro Vancouver transit (no more toothless “mayor’s council”) and mountain resorts (no more jumbo ski resort permits issued over local objections).

Dix would also let communities decide if they want public-private partnerships for large construction projects. (Federal Heritage Minister James Moore later noted that if communities or provinces wish to decline federal funds due to this ideology, they are free to do so.)

Then Dix accused the B.C. Liberals of cutting forest inventory spending by 77 per cent over the last decade, meaning decisions like rebuilding the Burns Lake mill are being made “in the dark” for the first time in a century.

That’s a damning charge, so I checked it against forest ministry budget records. As with all government programs, accounting changes can give a misleading appearance of large cuts or increases from year to year. And indeed forest inventory spending has bounced around during the B.C. Liberal term.

The budget for forest inventory staffing and operation was about $8 million in 2001-02, rising as high as $15 million and falling to a low of $5.1 million in recession-hit 2009-10. The estimate for the current fiscal year is $9.7 million, an increase to try to catch up with the pine beetle disaster.

Crown forest inventory has indeed fallen behind due to rapid shifts caused by unprecedented insect and fire damage. But has spending been slashed as Dix claims? No. It has increased.

Next up was Premier Christy Clark, in full campaign mode. In the Gordon Campbell tradition, she brought the goodies out in her speech to close the convention. More than $200 million has been scraped together to “accelerate” capital projects at schools, hospitals and other facilities across the province.

These projects were already on the books, but they’ve been moved up for obvious political purposes. Or at least the announcements will be moved up.

Four-laning of the last narrow stretches of the Trans-Canada Highway east of Kamloops will continue over 10 years. This is a federal-provincial project that will eventually be finished regardless of who is governing in Victoria or Ottawa.

It includes some of the most staggeringly expensive road building in Canada, in the Kicking Horse Pass—a short section that could require two tunnels and up to 12 more bridges.

Clark also announced a long-range plan to replace the George Massey tunnel under the Fraser River.

It will likely be a bridge, because the tunnel is a bottleneck not only for Highway 99, but also for large ships going up-river. This is another project that will proceed eventually, and there is no specific financial commitment yet.

I haven’t found any outright false claims in Clark’s presentation, just the kind of creative accounting and blacktop politics familiar to B.C. voters.

As always, I’m pleased to hear from people with specific corrections.

For now, call it a tie. Neither speech represents a proud moment for our provincial leadership.