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Liberals cautious on fall election

Speculation abounds that Premier Christy Clark is itching to call an election this fall, but I can't help but think the chances of that vote actually occurring are diminishing.

Speculation abounds that Premier Christy Clark is itching to call an election this fall, but I can't help but think the chances of that vote actually occurring are diminishing.

The delay in getting the results of the HST referendum alone may be enough to push the election date to the spring or the fall of 2012. The results may not be known until early September, and it's hard to imagine Clark calling an election until she knows the fate of the HST.

That means a mid-September call at the earliest. But how wise is it to go to the voters after a controversial tax is either voted down or narrowly accepted?

I haven't met anyone who thinks the HST will pass by a large margin. Even the most optimistic pro-HST folks seem to think a 55-45 per cent split is the best-case scenario.

If that turns out to be the result, it translates to almost half the electorate probably being upset that a tax they opposed will indeed be imposed on them - not exactly the kind of public mood a premier would want to test with an election call..

And recent polls hardly suggest the B.C. Liberals enjoy a comfortable margin of support among voters over the NDP. No issue has emerged that gives Clarks a decided edge over NDP leader Adrian Dix.

In fact, Dix has played it fairly safe since taking the helm of the NDP. He has made no rash promises, and he has toned down his negative image.

If anything, Dix has been measured in his criticism and has offered at least one thoughtful proposal that could significantly reduce the amount of money spent on prescription drugs.

In short, Dix has provided few openings for Clark to exploit. Her party is bent on portraying Dix as some sort of grim leftist, but so far he's making it difficult for them to accomplish that.

If any leader has stumbled a bit recently, it is Clark. Her recent musings about Senate reform seemed poorly thought out and politically naïve (expecting Ontario and Quebec to give up senate seats so B.C. can increase its share seems like something out of left field).

Her chance encounter with former Olympics boss John Furlong led him to being appointed co-commissioner of the review of the Stanley Cup riot. My colleague, Rod Mickleburgh of the Globe and Mail, has pointed out that Furlong's appointment is at least curious because of the harsh criticism of Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson he delivered in his book, Patriot Hearts.

Clark also toned down her initially aggressive attack on the rioters, saying now she wants to go after only the "core" element of the mob.

These events lend credence to the impression that Clark is making up policy on the back of a napkin. The "families first" agenda seems stalled and any momentum she had coming out of her party's leadership race seems to have disappeared. Nevertheless, Clark has her party on election footing. Candidates are being recruited as is campaign staff, and MLAs are being asked if they intend to run again.

Energy Minister Rich Coleman is in charge of election readiness, and rumours abound that he personally is not in favour of a fall election. One of Clark's chief challenges when she became party leader was to maintain party unity. Publicly, she seems to be doing well on that front but behind the scenes it may be a different story.

But the arguments for an early election are still there: the B.C. Liberals don't want to give the B.C. Conservatives much time to become organized, and the NDP may face the same problems as the Liberals when it comes to election readiness.

So Clark is indeed trying to keep her election window open. The problem is that the window is shrinking rapidly, and she may ultimately find it shut too tight to enable her and her party to squeeze through it any time soon.

Keith Baldrey is chief political correspondent for Global BC.