British Columbia’s Opposition leader says fighting the pandemic produced a unified health front among traditional adversaries, but with the province facing its darkest economic crisis in decades, political battle lines must go beyond working together to flatten the COVID-19 curve.
B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson said just because his party backs the provincial health officer’s pandemic restrictions doesn’t mean the Opposition will co-operate with the NDP when the legislature resumes sitting on June 22.
“We’re all waiting to see what the NDP come up with and it better be good because we have an economy that is flat on its back right now,” Wilkinson said in an interview.
“We have to all wonder about the NDP’s assumptions of revenue given that we know the economy has slowed dramatically on the greatest recession in B.C. history and that more than half a million people have either left the workforce or are unemployed.”
But Wilkinson’s plans to hold the government to account could be met with indifference as political debate remains completely focused on the fight against COVID-19, say political experts.
“In a once-in-a-century crisis of this nature, politics as normal is suspended in the name of public health,” said Prof. David Black, a political communications expert at Victoria’s Royal Roads University.
Pollster Shachi Kurl of the non-profit Angus Reid Institute said recent data shows incumbent governments across Canada are receiving solid approval ratings for their approaches to the pandemic, including B.C.’s Premier John Horgan.
“This is a difficult time for any opposition leader,” Kurl said.
Horgan recently thanked the Liberals and Greens for their co-operation on the pandemic response, but he also said he expects partisanship to return.
“Although I’d like it to continue on as long as possible, I’ll understand if a partisan rock or two are thrown in the weeks ahead,” he added.
Wilkinson said the support for health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has been necessary, but the Liberals want the economy to recover quickly.
They are pressing the minority government to cut the seven per cent provincial sales tax to zero for three months to spur consumer confidence and business investment, Wilkinson said. The government must also target the decimated tourism and small business sectors with tax cuts and investments, he said.
“When the federal Canada Emergency Response Benefit runs out, we will have a society in deep distress,” Wilkinson said. “We’re looking for bold economic decisions and actions from the NDP.”
Black said he expects the Liberals to propose tax reductions and red-tape cuts, but the pandemic is an opportunity for the party to look ahead to the October 2021 election.
“The question I would put to Andrew Wilkinson is, ‘How do you position yourself in that debate about a post-pandemic B.C.?’ ” said Black. “Who are we on the other side of this?”
Kurl said the Angus Reid polling data released June 8 found provincial governments in New Brunswick, B.C., and Newfoundland and Labrador received the highest number of residents approving their responses to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“As long as the personal proximity and concern, both on the health front and the economic front related to COVID-19 continue, it will be difficult for any opposition leader, regardless of what province or where on the ideological spectrum, to pick up a lot of traction,” Kurl said.
Wilkinson said B.C. needs an Opposition totally focused on the province’s economic recovery and not one worrying about the next election.
“Now it’s time for the NDP to show what they can do to get B.C. back to work and the expectations are high, and we will be holding them to account,” he said.
NDP house leader Mike Farnworth said in an interview that co-operation from the Liberals will not prevent Wilkinson and his colleagues from being vocal critics in the legislature.
“I fully expect that there will be vigorous debate, pertinent debate on the legislation that we’ll be bringing forward,” he said.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press
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