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Opportunity knocks

Mark Milke proposes a new name for the BC Liberals.
Image of historic Time Magazine cover featuring Premier W.A.C. B

With the BC Liberals searching for a new leader, it’s been suggested they also ponder a new name.

For those not familiar with the history of BC political parties and the BC Liberals specifically, the latter are the latest version of what’s known in a slightly sloppy description as the “centre-right” party in British Columbia.

I note “sloppy” because the notion of “centre” doesn’t make much sense in ideological or policy terms. “Left” and “right” as applied to politics were originally derived from the French Revolution and where representatives sat in the assembly. Those wishing to conserve the existing system were seated on the right; those revolutionaries attempting to (and who soon did) overthrow the Republic were on the left.

That political science introduction aside, back to the BC Liberals.

They are the latest incarnation of a long tradition in BC of a party that represents the free enterprise and freedom principles, policies and beliefs of a good chunk of the electorate, and are thus anti-socialist.

The opportunity-based BC tradition

Between 1952 and 1972, and again between 1975 and 1991, the BC Social Credit Party was the free enterprise coalition. And free enterprise they often were. For example, under Bill Bennett it began one of the world’s first experiments in privatization, bundling up some government-owned resource companies and giving and selling shares in the new entity (the BC Resources Investment Corporation, or BCRIC).

It wasn’t a terrific first start, as the shares were overpriced – but nonetheless, the idea was copied in the UK and many other nations. After decades of postwar nationalization by parties from across the political spectrum, firms that had no business being run by government (airlines, train companies, telephones, and others) were tossed back into the private sector where they belonged.

Canadian examples included Canadian National, Air Canada, and Alberta’s government liquor stores. This allowed markets to expand. For example, in 1993 Alberta had 208 government liquor stores before privatization and just 2,200 products. As of 2020, Alberta had 1,499 private liquor stores and over 28,000 products.

Bill Bennett and the Socreds were also instrumental in getting the provincial budget under control in the early 1980s, the “restraint” program as it was known. That allowed later BC governments to brag about low BC debt.

After 2001, when the BC Liberals entered office, they could claim at least part of that BC tradition and that mantle, early attempts at budget prudence and also deserved tax relief.

The mixed message of the “liberal” brand

The BC Liberals have always had more of an identity crisis than the Social Credit party. Their name came from wacky 1930s monetary theories long since abandoned by both the Alberta and BC versions of the party, but the Socreds had essentially become a classic liberal party (or in more modern parlance, a “small-c conservative” party, just to confuse things even more).

The problem with the modern “liberal” brand is that even as applied to the BC Liberals who in fact pursued some classic liberal ideas such as lower taxes, for example, that many post-1970s liberals abandoned actual liberalism. Pierre Trudeau was a good example: on economics, he aped left-wing, anti-reality policies when his 1972-1974 minority government was propped up by the NDP, and yet beyond when he possessed majority governments (1974 to 1979 and 1980 to 1984).

It was in his majority governments that Trudeau enacted, for example, wage and price controls and also introduced the protectionist, West-wealth-stealing National Energy Program.

The BC Liberal name is thus tied later 20th century liberalism and now early 20th century progressivism, based on the faulty assumption that if enough tax dollars and smart people are put together in the same room, people-friendly policy will result. But that’s always been the arrogance and fatal flaw of central planning.

As of 2021, political parties around the world are crowding the spend-more side on economic issues, including the BC NDP. This is (somewhat) understandable in a pandemic, but eventually, someone will have to offer alternatives for taxpayers. They will need to use the language of what these issues are all about: Opportunity for individuals, families, and entire communities to thrive.

Hence, my proposed rebrand to the BC Opportunity Party.

Resources: Think “opportunity”

Take resources as a prime example. In the context of BC, the present government and others assume that traditional resource sectors can or should die.

Yes, the BC NDP have been friendly to LNG development – and kudos to them. But beyond that, they are dominated by folks who assume oil, forestry, mining, and even fish farming, can disappear without much consequence.

Problem: The resource sector is often what matters outside major urban centres. For example, that sector provides above-average incomes in mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction at $2,130 weekly. That is 87% higher than the weekly average income in manufacturing $(1,138) and 408% higher than the average weekly income in accommodation and food services (at just $419).

Such resource-based incomes are also why that sector increasingly matters to First Nations who partner with energy companies.

A provincial party that continues to remind British Columbians of how much the resource sector matters is, in essence, already an opportunity-based party.

In addition, there are multiple other opportunities for the BC Opportunity Party to address modern issues.

Budget prudence: This is regularly portrayed by the interventionist crowd as “austerity.” The BC Opportunity Party could point out that careful budgeting allows for the opportunity for tax dollars to be properly spent on people, and not ever-higher debt interest payments.

Housing: A BC Opportunity Party could point out that BC might always be more expensive than the rest of the country because of its beautiful and temperate climate. But provincial and municipal governments that overload developers and buyers with taxes and fees are anti-opportunity. They crowd out even people of moderate means from home ownership. Lighter taxes and fees allow for opportunities for families to spend limited dollars elsewhere—say, kids and sports lessons.

Indigenous issues: Ultimately, Indigenous prosperity and flourishing will come from increased participation in the economy. A BC Opportunity Party could point out that endless strangulation of rural resource development is anti-opportunity for the significant rural populations of Indigenous British Columbians.

Insurance: ICBC always assumed the government-civil servant-monopoly troika was somehow preferable to open competition for your insurance dollars. A BC Opportunity Party could (as the BC Liberals already do) make the case that millions of consumers chasing down the best deals for themselves puts downward pressure on rates.

Taxes: At some point, a majority of British Columbians will push back against the notion that ever-more taxes recycled through bureaucracy is somehow a panacea for every problem. That will lead to a demand for relief, better structured taxes, and rates that are fair and not punitive. These are what lead to economic growth—which is another word for opportunity.

Environment: The greatest environmental progress in the last century has occurred not because of diktat. Demands disconnected from physical, technological capabilities help no one. Instead, it ultimately takes an inventor/entrepreneur to figure out a way to reform an existing practice to make it both environmentally-friendly and economical. Which leads to the last bit about opportunity-messaging.

Entrepreneurs: Whether it’s needed technological reforms for the environment, or a new company that create hundreds and even thousands of high-paying jobs, BC needs entrepreneurs. The BC Opportunity Party can shout that from the condo rooftops.

Opportunity matters. And it mostly comes from respecting individuals as always potentially ready to flourish and creatively expand within a free society.

Sure, I grant that the BC Liberals could just stick with the “liberal” name, and try and educate voters as to what classical liberalism actually is. But that presumes they also re-educate their own liberals who take their cue not from actual liberalism but the later overly interventionist variety. Then they also have to persuade small-c conservatives in favour of free enterprise and less intervention on a whole host of issues that they mean it.

That seems quite the task.

Instead, my vote—if I had one—is to rename the BC Liberal Party the BC Opportunity Party. It would remind its members what they should focus on.

Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.