Marcella Munro first started getting calls from anxious business owners early in the year. Over the summer, the calls accelerated. Now they’re at a steady drip. “How do you speak New Democrat?” is what they all wanted to know. And Munro, an NDP campaigner hired by the public-affairs company Earnscliffe precisely for her knowledge of that dialect, is one of the people who can tell them.
Munro is just one of a growing stable of consultants with NDP connections who have seen their market value skyrocket in recent months, as B.C. businesses gird their loins for the likely election of an NDP government.
B.C. has fixed election dates every four years, with the next one slated for May. The outcome isn’t certain, but polls have been unencouraging about the possibility of the Liberals winning a fourth term. NDP Leader Adrian Dix, meanwhile, has been careful not to disturb that trendline by saying anything too alarming. So people in the business sector are getting their earthquake-preparedness kits in order.
A select few, those with the most to gain or lose by a shift in provincial policy, are calling lobbyists like Munro to establish some lines of communication to the potential new government. Another faction is going to war, predicting catastrophe. Philip Hochstein of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C., for one, is reminding anyone who will listen that NDP governments raise taxes, enlarge government and generally cause investors to lose confidence.
In between those two groups, the province’s many other businesses and business associations are fretting, gathering information and obsessively tracking everything that Dix and his colleagues say for hints of the future. More than 400 paid to hear Dix speak to the Vancouver Board of Trade in mid-September. Among the messages they heard: the Liberals’ corporate tax cuts will be rolled back to 2008 levels should Dix become premier, and he would pull B.C. out of its equivalency agreement with Ottawa that gives federal regulators sole say over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. But he also said he wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of NDP governments of the 1990s, which tried to do too much too fast. “I think what we need to do today is focus on a few things and do them well,” he said.
Still, many worry that even if Dix is really as moderate as the image he’s scrupulously projecting, he won’t be able to resist the province’s notorious forces of polarization, including a militant labour movement. “In the B.C. context, there is a history that when governments change, the policy changes are more significant and far-reaching than elsewhere,” says Jock Finlayson, vice-president of the Business Council of B.C. The four main anxiety points he hears about: taxation and budgets; changes to labour laws; more environmental regulation; and changes to resource industries’ use of Crown land. But Finlayson is trying to keep the troops calm. “In well-functioning democracies, governments change, so it’s not something people should be apoplectic about.”
This month the Business Council came out with an exhaustive study comparing economic indicators for the province in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. That study doesn’t support some of the wilder stories told during the last NDP reign, that scores of businesses left the province and the economy fell into a crevasse. “Contrary to what some people in the business world think, the 1990s were not that different from the 2000s for top-line economic performance results—GDP and employment growth,” says Finlayson. But a closer analysis, comparing B.C. to Canada on a per-capita basis, shows that the 1990s were worse than the 2000s on a number of fronts. Average income was lower in the ’90s; business investment was stronger in the 2000s. Muddying the narrative further, B.C. did worse in the 1980s, when the Social Credit party was in power, than in the 1990s when the NDP reigned.
But that kind of sober analysis is not likely to prevail in coming months, as businesses are bombarded with messages, from the right, that the NDP will ruin them and, from the left, that the NDP has become business-friendly.
For those who can afford the advice, they can get a Marcella Munro on their side, helping them figure out the players. “There’s been a shift in social democracy” is Munro’s message. “We’re going to look for ways on the tax side that are more fair. Part of our coalition is a lot more environmentalists, so you need to front-load that environmental discussion when you talk to the NDP. But we’re not anti-free market. It’s not going to be radical.”