No New Democrat anywhere in the country can afford to brush off Tuesday’s upset defeat in British Columbia.
That starts with those who toil at Ontario’s Queen’s Park and on Parliament Hill.
Ontario’s Andrea Horwath and Thomas Mulcair really needed British Columbians to lead by example by handing the reins of their province to the NDP.
B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix’s campaign was supposed to provide the template for Horwath and Mulcair’s own bids for government. Once in power, it was hoped that he would showcase the New Democrats’ ability to manage a major provincial economy.
The NDP has yet to win power in any of the four big provinces in this century.
Like his Ontario and federal counterparts, Dix had spent the pre-writ period smoothing the edges of his party and it seemed that it would to pay off.
Few NDP leaders have ever entered an election campaign with as big a lead as Dix had when the B.C. writ was dropped last month.
His strategy borrowed heavily from Jack Layton’s 2011 recipe.
As an aside, it makes matters worse for the New Democrats that the masterminds in charge of the B.C. campaign were the same people who had earned bragging rights by bringing the party to the major role of official Opposition in the House of Commons in the last federal election.
Instead of mapping out a safe path to power for 21st-century New Democrats, Layton’s former chief strategist, Brian Topp, and his acolytes ended up highlighting the daunting roadblocks that stand in their way.
Like Layton in 2011, Dix spent the campaign on the high road. There he was exposed to relentless Liberal attacks on the economic competence of his party.
In the end, even as they had consistently craved change for more than two years, a sufficient number of British Columbians could not find it in themselves to hand over the reins to the NDP.
It does not take a big leap of imagination to think that one could be treated to a replay of the same scenario federally in two years. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have already been practising the same lines on Mulcair that Christy Clark successfully used on Dix. The federal Liberals will also be gunning for the NDP on the economy.
In B.C. on Tuesday, the anti-NDP vote coalesced around Clark. The reverse was not true of the anti-Liberal vote. In that, there is another ominous message for Mulcair. In fact it is the second time in six months that British Columbian voters deliver the same warning to the New Democrats.
In dismissing the notion that the division of the opposition vote could doom their efforts to win power federally, the New Democrats may well be whistling past what stands to become the cemetery of their governing ambitions.
The federal New Democrats got a first taste of the negative impact of federal Green Leader Elizabeth May’s popularity on its prospects when it narrowly hung on to the riding of Victoria in a byelection last fall.
That impact stands to be compounded by the presence on the forefront of world-renowned climate change expert Andrew Weaver. He will be the first Green member to take a seat in the provincial legislature in Victoria.
Mulcair already has to juggle a double challenge in Quebec where both Justin Trudeau and his reinvigorated Liberals and the Bloc Québécois have to be kept at bay. Mulcair’s effort to bind nationalist voters to the NDP in his home province have so far come at a cost to his credibility elsewhere in Canada.
He faces an equally difficult balancing act in B.C. — one that caused Dix much grief over the past month. Early on in the B.C. campaign, the NDP sacrificed precious ground in the larger economic battle against the Liberals when it hardened its anti-pipeline stance to preserve itself from the Greens.
On what can only be a national day of political mourning for the NDP, its brain trust is headed back to the drawing board where a disquietly blank page awaits it.
Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.