VANCOUVER -- Relentless attack ads work, positive election campaigns don't, and smiling faces resonate with voters. Those are the overriding messages to take away from British Columbia's volatile political landscape in which the supposedly defeated provincial Liberals on Tuesday won a fourth majority government in a row.
Shortly after the polls closed, newspapers, television stations and websites were all writing virtually the same headline: "Stunning comeback victory."
Down more than 20 points when the campaign began, the Liberals and leader Christy Clark steamrollered over NDP Leader Adrian Dix's team, which had promised to embrace positive messaging despite being continually hammered by expensive attack ads designed to promote fear.
By the time the dust was settled, there were 50 Liberals seats compared with 33 for the New Democrats. (One Green candidate, climate change scientist Andrew Weaver, became the first Green elected to a provincial legislature in Canada. In addition, one Independent, Vickie Huntington, was re-elected.)
"Well, that was easy," a jubilant Clark said at her thunderous election party.
And the unexpected lopsided results meant it mattered little that while Clark was defeated in her Vancouver-Point Grey riding by NDP candidate David Eby, Dix was re-elected in Vancouver-Kingsway.
Championing a positive election campaign, Dix was thought by all the pollsters to return the NDP to power for the first time in 12 years. His mantra -- "It's time for a change; one practical step at a time" -- did not engage the electorate and, considering the Liberals' attack ads, fizzled miserably.
And as in the recent Alberta provincial election, so did the pollsters, in unison, fail. The last poll released on Monday had the NDP ahead by a still amazing nine points.
The polls suggested change was clearly, palpably, in the air until the voters sucked the oxygen out of the NDP tent.
It's not supposed to matter any more, but Clark's endlessly attractive and smiling face was more welcoming than Dix's careful and worried and somewhat nerdy expressions.
Throughout it all, the Liberals, which won 44.4 per cent of the popular vote compared with the NDP's 39.5 per cent, said the economy was its No. 1 consideration. Only the Liberals loose coalition of centre-right free enterprisers could keep B.C. humming along efficiently, manage the books and prepare for an uncertain future. The NDP, they said, could not be trusted with the province's finances. Additionally, the so-called socialists would create obstacles to much-needed private-sector growth.
That this message came from the party that had already been in Victoria for the past dozen years, a party that had nearly doubled the provincial debt to about $57 billion, seemed not to matter at all.
For its part, Dix's hope-based campaign, which with its good intentions had the feeling of a warm and fuzzy self-help book, stressed the need to reduce poverty and help the downtrodden. It was positive but ineffective.
While both parties came out against the proposed Enbridge oil pipeline from Alberta to the B.C. coast, it infuriated businesses when Dix said he was also against a Kinder Morgan proposal which would twin an existing oil pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver's harbour. His crime: he had the gall to point out a twinned pipeline would vastly increase oil tanker traffic, thus creating more potential for toxic spills.
It's a fair bet to say the knives will be out for Dix, who has only been party leader for two years. There was an appetite for change and the NDP was seen as the better place to park votes for environmentalists, trade unionists and aboriginals. But to blow a 20-point lead in a 28-day campaign is, for many in the party that has only won three elections in the province's history, simply unforgiveable.
Face-saving announcements notwithstanding, expect powerful left-of-centre interests to angrily ask why the NDP has once again been no match for the Liberals.
Despite her amazing turnaround victory, Clark, who assumed the Liberal leadership two years ago after then premier Gordon Campbell resigned, will not have an easy time in the next four years.
Although both the NDP and the Liberals announced modest tax increases -- for corporations and those earning more than $150,000 a year -- in the campaign, simple mathematics dictate that larger, more unpleasant tax hikes are necessary if the province is to continue enjoying the level of services it is used to.
Government was expected to spend $43.9 billion on various services in 2012-13 and just three ministries were scheduled to consume almost 77 per cent, or $33.5 billion, of the overall budget.
Consider the health budget alone, which one political science professor calls "the elephant in the room." With aging baby boomers and ever-increasing costs for medical procedures, something has to give. More than 41 per cent of total spending, or $17.9 billion, was earmarked for health.
Education was to get the second-largest amount, 26.8 per cent of the total, or $11.7 billion, while social services was allocated nine per cent of the total, or $3.9 billion.
That leaves all other ministries to squabble over the remaining money.
Caught between a large rock and a very hard place, Clark has hitched her wagons, and the province's future, to a potential liquefied natural gas bonanza that would involve massive amounts of LNG being exported to energy-hungry Asia via B.C. ports.
Aggressive development of an LNG industry, she says, will eventually pay off B.C.'s growing debt. Never mind that aboriginals, whose territorial lands LNG pipelines would weave their way through, need to be engaged and treaties need to be signed. Never mind the very expensive LNG infrastructure has yet to be built. Never mind other jurisdictions in the world are also developing their own LNG sectors. Never mind there is not currently enough electricity in B.C. to help fulfil the LNG dream. Never mind LNG production will result in more greenhouse gas emissions.
All of that is for tomorrow. Today, once again, the mantra in post-election B.C., at least according to Clark, is to overwhelm your enemy with negative messages, know where the camera is pointed, and keep smiling, always smiling, even if your face is about to fall off.
Chris Rose is the Winnipeg Free Press West Coast correspondent.