Updated with clarification
The pollsters were the biggest losers in the British Columbia provincial election on May 14—but not in the way everyone is talking about.
It’s clear to the Wednesday morning quarterbacks that the big issue in BC was the economy, and voters chose that economy over the environment.
That’s where the pollsters failed and have failed time and time again for the past decade. As long as the pollsters keep asking the stupid question “What’s more important the environment or the economy?” a majority of voters, especially in uncertain times, will choose the economy. Politicians will campaign, as Christy Clark did brilliantly, by promising that there are better economic days ahead, putting the environment far down the priority list.
By the time Canadians and all human beings realize that a viable economy is based on a sustainable environment it may be too late to save either.
The Liberal majority under Christy Clark was a big surprise; the polling data indicated, at first, that there would be a big NDP majority and in the final days that the Adrian Dix and the NDP would sneak into the Legislature still in majority territory.
Instead, Christy Clark, who until (if) she finds a seat, will be running the province as premier from the legislature galleries.
The BC free-enterprise coalition is satisfied, for the moment. The usual cabal of University of Calgary economic pundits are cheering for their sponsors in the oil patch, with the National Post, Globe and Mail and Sunmedia acting as their echo chamber. (Why the eastern media insist on always having Calgary academics write about BC is rather mind boggling. If they want ultra conservative BC point of view, there’s always the Fraser Institute, but even the Fraser Institute is junior to Alberta it seems)
The trouble is that the eastern establishment mainstream media are as out of touch as the pollsters. The Globe and Mail editorial, like most of the eastern media, once again sees British Columbia as nothing more than a junior partner in Confederation, existing to serve the interests of Alberta, with the concerns about our future secondary.
It now falls to Ms. Clark, who was cagey about her position on the Trans Mountain project, to take an objective look at the proposal, let go of her populist, B.C.-first rhetoric, and ensure that her government is an open-minded partner with Alberta in its bid to get its oil to tidewaters for export. Any reviews of the pipeline project must be done quickly and with a deadline.
It’s just plain unmitigated arrogance, but rather typical, to tell a premier who just won a majority in the legislature and the popular vote to “let go of her populist BC-first rhetoric.”
The liquifaction factor
There’s one big problem, a very big problem, with Clark’s promises. She opened her campaign in Kitimat by promising that the liquified natural gas developments will not only slay the deficit but pay down the BC provincial debt in 15 years.
I asked Clark in the media scrum after her announcement how she could make such a prediction when the LNG market is so volatile. She replied that her predictions were based on very conservative estimates. That was spin.
Clark based her election campaign on a promise that not only hopes to foretell the future for the next fifteen years but on liquifaction.
Now liquifaction has two meanings. First is the freezing of natural gas to LNG. Second is the problem that occurs during an earthquake when water saturated ground turns into a liquid, bringing about the collapse of countless buildings with the death and injury that follows.
Clark based her campaign on the hope that the LNG market will not liquify—as in the second meaning.
The LNG market looked so simple two years ago. Buy natural gas at low North American prices, pipeline it to the west coast, load it on tankers and sell it in Asia at the higher natural gas price there which is based on the price of oil. But, wait, the free market doesn’t work that way (sorry free enterprise coalition). Customers in Asia don’t want to pay the full oil-based price for natural gas if they can get it via the US Gulf ports at a cost plus North American price. If the export price of LNG falls, even if the BC projects proceed, the price will be a lot lower than Clark and the energy cheerleaders expect and there will be no new golden age for the BC economy.
Changes in the LNG market are happening at warp speed and it is hard to keep up (And many people in Kitimat are trying to keep up with the daily volatility since the future of the town may depend on LNG). Unfortunately, the dying mainstream media failed to explain, even in the simplest terms, that Christy Clark’s LNG promises might be as empty as a mothballed tanker. This is one case where concentrating on the horse race—and the grossly inaccurate polls—was a blunder, when there should have been reality checks on the LNG promise. The conservative cheerleaders in the media actually didn’t do their readers much good when they failed as reporters to check out the real state of the energy industry or predicted economic catastrophe if there was an NDP victory.
The NDP failure
The NDP campaign under Adrian Dix was not up to its appointed task of explaining the need for both a viable economy and a sustainable environment. Most pundits point to Dix’s mid-campaign switch to opposing the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion as the beginning of the NDP decline.
More telling, for me, was Dix’s failure to explain the proposed two-year moratorium on fracking. There are lots of moratoriums and holds on fracking in North America and around the world. The Canadian media, however, failed miserably (if it even bothered to check) that fracking moratoriums are becoming a standard, although controversial, practice worldwide. A moratorium on fracking today is prudent given the uncertainty over current practices.
Yes, fracking has been used for 50 years but on a much smaller scale. There are two new factors. First is the sheer volume of operations, with no idea what the massive increase in fracking will do to the environment, especially the ground water. Second is the stubborn refusal of companies to release proprietary information on the chemicals they use—the same “public be damned” attitude toward environmental concerns that has got pipeline companies in trouble as well.
Christy Clark and the conservative commentators successfully painted the fracking moratorium as stopping all economic development in the province. Dix and the NDP completely failed to emphasize that their platform was that the party wanted industrial development in the province, but didn’t want to rush into development that will cost the province and its taxpayers down the road. (And taxpayers will eventually have to pay to clean up unfettered development long after the companies that profited have left town, something deficit and debt hawks always conveniently ignore.)
The Orange Coast
As Tyler Noble (formerly with CFTK News and now with the District of Kitimat) pointed out in a Facebook post, the electoral map shows perhaps the real story of the election. The British Columbia coast is entirely NDP orange. The Interior of BC went Liberal. The fight over tankers and pipelines is not going to go away with the result of this election, it’s going to get louder and a lot nastier.
So the University of Calgary pundits, the conservative columnists and editorialists from Calgary to Toronto and the Globe and Mail editorial board will soon have to forget their cheers and go back to complaining about the BC peasants who have to be “educated” about how good pipelines are for the economy.
The pollsters are now trying to find out what went wrong, and beginning to ask how to find out who will actually turn up at the voting booth?
Even with the problems pollsters face with call display refusals, fewer landlines and the possible unreliability of internet panel polling, even with the flawed polling data some things are clear.
The turnout, as currently reported, was 52 per cent. The student vote (an actual vote) went heavily to the NDP and the Greens. Part of the student vote result is traditionally, younger people generally tend to vote “progressive” parties. Young people, increasingly disillusioned by partisan politics, are not turning out to actually vote. With high unemployment among millennials and teenagers, these potential voters want jobs, but they’re also worried about the future of the planet. They’re not turning out to vote because many say they have no one to vote for (despite the appeals of the NDP and the Greens.)
Many older people, both on the left and the right are trapped in an obsolete world view of progressive views versus big business or the dreaded socialism versus free enterprise. Older people, worried about their economic future do vote and are often more small c conservative.
Clark campaigned on that paradigm and she won.
Be careful for what you wish for.
The failure of the economy vs environment question
It may be that by the next federal election in 2015 and by the next BC election in 2017, there might be, it is hoped, a profound change in the political narrative. If the pollsters hadn’t asked that obsolete and stupid question about the environment verus the economy, business versus socialism, they might actually have had some good data in this election.
The times, as Bob Dylan sang, they are a changing. The paradigm is shifting. In just the past few months there are hints of the rise of a growing “green conservative” movement.
Preston Manning, the founder and first leader of the Reform Party is now promoting the “green conservative”
In the United States, green conservatives are adding to the ruptures in the Republican Party. There is even a branch of the Christian Coalition, that is splintering because it too supports the idea of green values because it sees green as supporting family values, helping the poor and the idea of stewardship.
We see lots of green conservatives here in northwest BC among the hunters, fishers and fishing guides and those who work in the industrial sector who like hunting, fishing, hiking and boating. Did they vote for the NDP or the Liberals? Usually the sample size in northwest BC is too small, but drilling down might indicate that there were enough green conservatives who voted for what should now be called the Orange Coast.
If Adrian Dix and the NDP had campaigned effectively with an eye on the green conservatives, there might actually be an NDP majority. If Christy Clark actually keeps her hints of a possible tilt toward green conservatism and moves away from the free enterprise at any cost faction of the Liberals (including that 801 coalition that died at 802), she might actually be in for a long run as BC premier.
If, on the other hand, as the Globe and Mail advocates this morning, if Clark does move, bowing to Alberta’s demands, toward more unfettered development, as environmentalists fear and the aging free entrerprisers would love, the next provincial election will be one to watch, perhaps with the Greens filling a vacuum created by the Liberals and the NDP.
As for the pollsters, there have been two major failures in Canada, the BC and Alberta elections. The pollsters were wrong about the Israeli election as well, which means polling failure is not confined to Canadian politics. It’s time for the pollsters to stand down, go back to the beginning, and take a look at all their practices, including the basic questions they are asking and to wonder if the questions reflect an unconscious bias in favour of the party paying for the poll (good professional pollsters do usually try to avoid open bias question sequences).
If the polling companies don’t change, they too will soon follow the dying mainstream media into oblivion, so neither will be around to see a possible future where the concerns for the environment are a given and the debate is over the real solution to stave off catastrophe.
This post has been updated to clarify that those who I call Conservative cheerleaders failed to be clear about the energy industry, not the overall campaign.