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Rob Shaw: Surplus spending not yet moving the needle on crises – or BC NDP’s popularity problem

How much support can $6 billion buy you? It’s a question Premier David Eby must be asking, after shovelling a good chunk of that cash out the door recently in a bonanza of feel-good announcements – yet largely failing to see any resulting
The province recently announced a $479 million contribution to Translink to help the transit organization navigate financial challenges

How much support can $6 billion buy you? 

It’s a question Premier David Eby must be asking, after shovelling a good chunk of that cash out the door recently in a bonanza of feel-good announcements – yet largely failing to see any resulting jump in his approval rating.

The latest poll from Angus Reid this week shows Eby with 48 per cent support of those surveyed. Not bad, but it masks a worrying trend. Those who were undecided in the rolling surveys by the pollster are starting to get off the fence and firm up opinions about the new premier. Unfortunately, they aren’t breaking the NDP’s way.

The number of undecideds dropped 10 percentage points from December to March, according to Angus Reid. Most of those, in the form of seven percentage points, decided they either strongly or moderately disapprove of the premier’s performance.

That’s not the welcome wagon New Democrat strategists were hoping for. They’ve put Eby out front at every announcement, where he dispenses hundreds of millions of dollars a day on virtually every subject imaginable, from public transit to hospitals, schools and more. The goal was a voter introduction to a new premier bearing gifts for everyone – kind of like a British Columbia Santa Claus, if Santa Claus was very tall, did hot yoga and lived in Point Grey.

It doesn’t appear to be quite landing that way.

Which highlights the core question still being widely debated in B.C. political circles: Is this pretty much as good as it gets for the new NDP administration?

Eby is still riding the popularity coat-tails of John Horgan, the most consistently beloved premier in modern history. He’s enjoying a honeymoon period after his 100-day action plan. He’s got an unprecedented amount of surplus cash to throw at the many problems plaguing his government. And his primary opponents, the BC Liberals, are in the middle of a rebranding exercise.

Maybe, as the thinking goes, the NDP would be wiser to go to an early election now, when the governing party’s chances are best.

No way, Eby repeated when asked that very question Wednesday.

“I'm committed to the fixed election date,” he said, referring to Oct. 19, 2024. 

“I'm going to be working, our government is going to be working, every single day for British Columbians on their priorities until that election date. I hope when British Columbians ultimately go to the polls that they see results and that they vote accordingly for the government that's supporting them and acting on their priorities.”

Let's pause here for our usual disclaimer on polls – they mean both nothing and something at the same time. They are an imperfect science, and best viewed in long-term aggregate rather than on a poll-to-poll basis. 

Eby hasn’t been around long enough to build up a long-term foundation of data. Yet polls – both public and internal to the parties – still remain the best tool the NDP has, at the moment, to gauge potential voter reaction to policies and positions. 

Eby was also asked about what the numbers say about his early connection to the public.

“I think as still the relatively new guy, I'm introducing myself to many British Columbians,” he said.

“I understand really clearly what the priorities of British Columbians are around housing, public safety, around building a strong economy that's clean and sustainable going forward and making sure our health-care system works.

“My commitment to them is that I'm going to deliver on those priorities with our whole government. You see our team … supporting people in ways that they can see and feel and touch, making a difference in their lives is the priority for me, and I'm going to keep doing that work every day.”

The spending spree, however, will end on March 31. 

Coincidentally, that’s the same day Horgan resigns, taking at least some of that public goodwill with him. 

There’s a potential recession on the horizon, with some dark financial times to come that could sideswipe the provincial treasury. 

And the crises in health care, public safety and affordability don’t appear to be getting better any time soon.

If the NDP can’t jack up its approval rating during the relatively good times of a historic spending spree, the obvious question is: When can it? It seems clear, things are only going to get harder for the government from here.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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