April 25, 2014 6:15 pm

Focus shifting away from urban voters

VICTORIA - With the legislature not in session this past week, Premier Christy Clark paid a visit to the political epicenter of her government.

No, not her hometown of Vancouver. But Kelowna, B.C.’s “City of Premiers.”

 Her visit there was to showcase some modest government spending announcements – funding for an ice skating event, and money for flood protection – but the amount of money wasn’t the key aspect of her trip.

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Instead, the Kelowna visit served as a reminder that there has been a seismic shift in the B.C. Liberal government’s outlook and how that shapes its priorities. The result of the last provincial election forced that shift, and its impact will be significant as long as the B.C. Liberals hold power.

I’ve noted this shift before, and now we are starting to see some examples of how this is playing out, and they’re not just about where the premier chooses to travel.

The breakup of the Agriculture Land Reserve into two zones, for example, is clearly designed to favor the outlying regions of the province, far away from downtown Vancouver. Allowing increased economic activity on land that may have been in the ALR since the days of the 1970s NDP government will no doubt be more popular than not in the Interior and the North.

The relentless focus on building a liquefied natural gas industry and potentially creating tens of thousands of jobs (almost all of them located in the North) speaks to this government looking outside of Vancouver and its suburbs and not at them.

Bill Four, which allows pipelines and transmissions lines to be built inside provincial parks (essentially, allowing a right-of-way through a park to allow economic development outside of that park) is more evidence the B.C. Liberals are less interested in courting urban voters, and more focused on winning support in natural resource-dependent communities.

The cabinet order (subsequently rescinded last week after an outcry from First Nations) to exempt ski resorts and natural gas processing from a provincial environmental assessment review shows how far the government is willing to go to hasten development in the regions, even if it sidesteps environmental protection regulations (although the government argues its own review process is simply duplication of other, existing ones).

It’s not hard to see how and why these policies have been arrived at

First, the B.C. government firmly believes developing the natural resource sector is the key to economic growth for the province in the coming decades.

Secondly, though, is the fact the B.C. Liberals know the key to them remaining in power is to build and retain electoral strength along the Fraser River, and through the Interior and the North. Although the government has four seats in Vancouver, the election cost them two seats in the city. However, it increased its voter strength in the regions and picked up an additional seat from there as well.

Now, less than a quarter of the government caucus represents Vancouver and its northern and eastern suburbs. Power has shifted to the southern suburbs, and the outlying regions, and this is bound to help shape government priorities.

There is also the psychological impact of Clark being defeated in Vancouver-Point Grey. She has said on more than one occasion that losing in that riding made her realize she doesn’t have to worry about the urban green voters that dominate the coffee bars of Kitsilano and UBC. This brings me back to Kelowna, and why that city is poised for benefits less likely to flow Vancouver’s way.

When she was there last week, the idea of a second bridge crossing over Okanagan Lake was part of the conversation. Long viewed as part of a dreamy wish list for Okanagan residents, the project has suddenly taken on a new urgency, as Clark’s government has committed $2 million for study and planning purposes. It may take a decade to actually complete the bridge, but I like the odds of it being completed ahead of, say, a SkyTrain or rapid transit line down the West Broadway corridor to UBC.

That SkyTrain line would travel through two ridings that gave the B.C. Liberals the boot last May. An Okanagan Lake bridge would impact three ridings that are represented by B.C. Liberal cabinet ministers and the premier herself.

Bets, anyone, on which one has a better chance of being done first?

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global B.C.

© Shaw Media, 2014

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