Never let them see you sweat. It’s one of the first things that old veterans tell the rookies in the political dugout just before a big game.
It’s a pity NDP leader Adrian Dix did not have an old vet in his corner last week helping him prep for his big outing at the Union of BC Municipalities convention here in Victoria. The media had him sweating bullets before they allowed him to escape dripping from the scrum that followed his speech to delegates.
The encounter reinforced for me that Dix has taken his status as heir apparent for granted. Apparently, the pollsters have endowed him with a comfort zone he does not merit. And, it suggested that if he is receiving strategic advice from his communications staff then he is ignoring it.
The speech itself, in front of a thousand-plus receptive delegates, was casually slick. It was designed to relax the fearful and inspire the undecided. The clichés of consensus and the sound bites of bipartisanship were like the soft notes of song birds at dawn. The NDP wants to reduce cynicism and work on areas of policy where all parties agree; it serves no purpose to tear people down; B.C. needs a prosperous economy led by the private sector; the NDP must earn your support, not win just because the Liberals are unpopular. It was the soothing music of Loon Lake.
But it was off-stage, surrounded by a less indulgent media pack, that Dix unraveled. Clearly anticipating a soft ride, Dix flew solo with no communications handler to help manage the flow and duration of his time in the media sweatbox. He was also making policy on the fly, which is akin to tightrope-walking without a net.
As usual, Dix was pressed for details about what an NDP government would actually do in power. For example, would he balance the budget as the Liberals have failed to do numerous times over the past 12 years even though they passed balanced budget legislation.
“I would rather have balanced budgets than balanced budget laws,” Dix said. That teaser was like a bucket of chum in shark-infested waters. The scrum became relentlessly focused and the questions zeroed in on the whiff of new policy being drafted as cameras and recorders hummed.
Dix did his damndest to waltz around his headline-grabbing opinion, but was finally obliged to acknowledge that he would repeal the balanced budget legislation. Now he was sweating freely because he had foolishly handed the Liberals a campaign lifeline they desperately need to help them differentiate between their best fiscal intentions and the NDP’s debt-is-good mentality. Even Dix’s finance critic, MLA Bruce Ralston, was caught off-guard.
The gaff transported me back to 1983 when Premier Bill Bennett was attempting to get his Social Credit government re-elected with the NDP’s Dave Barrett mounting a depressingly credible challenge. Mid-campaign, the Socreds were on their heels and Bennett was in bed with a bad cold in the East Kootenays.
Barrett was marching confidently through the West Kootenays when a reporter asked him what he would do about Bennett’s effective, but widely unpopular, government restraint program. Barrett, cocky as ever, fired from the hip. The restraint program would be cancelled when he was elected.
Bennett’s handlers woke up the premier and said: “Get up Mr. Premier, you’ve just won the election.” M