Flight of the Right

November 2, 2012

On the September afternoon when NDP premier-in-waiting Adrian Dix is pitching woo to Vancouver’s skittish business leaders at the Vancouver Board of Trade, one of the city’s most prominent developers is a no-show. He already knows he isn’t buying the message.

Instead, Rob Macdonald paces in his nearby office, explaining why he’ll shift his capital elsewhere if Dix is elected on May 14. “He was one of the architects of the policies that ruined this province. That really pisses me off,” Macdonald says. “On every count that’s important, this guy worries people, at least in the business community.”

But Dix will probably be B.C.’s next premier, Macdonald acknowledges. So the developer—he owns Macdonald Development Corporation, a large real estate firm with holdings across North America, and is a major political player and philanthropist in the city—has been shifting investment outside of B.C., mostly into Alberta. “The NDP is getting back in. There’s almost no question about that. So a capital strike in this province—where people stop spending their capital here—that’s what is going on.”

Whether B.C.’s captains of industry will sign on to such a strike is unclear. Logic suggests that global commodity prices, not tax shifts, will determine the province’s economic fate under an NDP government whose modest agenda to date makes them more B.C. Liberals-in-a-hurry than socialist, whatever that word means anymore.

What’s unambiguous is that Macdonald is not alone in his dismay over the fracturing of the centre-right coalition. The downtown business class, which long funded the Social Credit Party and more recently the B.C. Liberals, is upset about the rise of John Cummins’s B.C. Conservatives, whom they believe will—incapable of becoming the new big-tent free-enterprise party—hand power to the New Democrats.

What they’re all trying to figure out: what is to be done? Canaccord founder Peter Brown, who helped bankroll former premieres Bill Bennett and Gordon Campbell, wrote a letter last spring to the B.C. Conservative Party’s executive council, implicitly urging its members to strike a deal with Christy Clark and the Liberals. Brown warned that it is critical that “those who contribute to fragmentation of the centre-right vote come to realize that they are an unintended political ally of the left.”

Macdonald says there’s “zero chance” of Clark and Cummins forging a coalition one of them would lead. One scenario making the rounds, he adds, would be for both to resign, allowing members from both parties to elect a leader at a joint convention. “But it would take one leader to make the first move—and it won’t be Christy,” he says. The other strategy, Macdonald continues, is for a blitzkrieg of negative ads to reduce NDP support below 40 percent. The Conservative leadership then implodes (due to the oddball character of its key activists) and swing voters return to the Liberal fold. “But it’s tough,” Macdonald says, “because there are a lot of people pissed off with some things—whether it’s the HST or BC Rail—and many of them just don’t like Christy.”

Business activists have been speaking to groups around the province about the need to rally around the B.C. Liberals. Jim Shepard, former head of Finning Canada and Canfor who worked for Clark as an advisor, warns that new tax increases or regulation under the NDP could drive business out of B.C., recalling how he shifted Finning’s headquarters from B.C. in 1999 to Edmonton, after a dispute with the NDP government over the environmental standards of a proposed new facility. Philip Hochstein, president of the Independent Construction and Businesses Association, which represents B.C.’s non-union construction sector, ruefully recalls watching Cummins tell the media after a recent B.C. Conservative fundraiser that his party will run close to a full slate of candidates in May. “I was very disappointed to hear that.” He’s been writing articles and talking to business people about how to bring the two parties together. “There has never been one function that I’ve been at where people don’t say, ‘How can we bring them together?’ Not one.

“When you talk politics with the business community, it is the only topic of conversation.”

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