Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Voters think Liberals failing, but don't see alternative
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - The latest major poll was dreadful news for the Liberals, and not all that much better for the NDP.
After two years of the New Era, almost half the voters say things have gotten worse in B.C. under the Liberals, a remarkable assessment given the public's dismay at the NDP's performance. Only one in four British Columbians think things have improved.
That's a brutal assessment, especially given the hope voters showed in handing Gordon Campbell such a huge majority.
The Liberals are still very much in the driver's seat. The poll found support for the party remains strong enough to give them another big majority if an election were held today. The party has the support of 44 per cent of voters, compared with the NDP's 28 per cent and the Greens' 18 per cent.
But look behind those numbers, and there are big potential problems ahead for the Campbell party.
Start with the regional divisions. Outside the Lower Mainland, Liberal support is fading. On Vancouver Island, the Liberals and NDP are effectively tied for public support. In the Interior and North the Liberals are at 34 per cent, NDP at 28 per cent and Greens 23 per cent. That's effectively too close to call.
And outside the Lower Mainland a majority of voters believe the province has deteriorated under the Liberals, while barely one in five voters think they have improved.
Then move to Campbell's key defence - that turning things around takes time, and we'll all have to go through a tough period before things get better.
That's a fair argument, although it's sure not something the Liberals said during the campaign.
But the argument only works if voters think the pain is shared fairly. And they don't.
The poll asked how voters believed life had changed for different groups since the Liberals were elected. And overwhelmingly, those surveyed said the Liberal government had made life better for the rich and big corporations, and made it worse for small business and the rest of us. After two years of Liberal rule, 47 per cent of those surveyed said middle-income British Columbians were worse off, and only 14 per cent thought life had improved for the middle class. But 58 per cent said high-income earners had benefited from the New Era.
That's an especially serious problem for the Liberals because it reinforces the fear or belief that Campbell is governing for the rich and big corporations.
The poll also found that the Liberal support is fragile. Pollsters asked Liberal supporters why they back the party. Half said they approve of the government's policies and actions. Half said they were backing the Liberals because they don't believe there is a reasonable alternative. That means the party's core support is down to about 22 per cent.
The Liberals should be alarmed. Their support - already down sharply from the election - is now based not on the job they are doing, but the lack of an alternative.
But the NDP should be alarmed too. Two years after the election, and voters still don't consider the party as a credible alternative.
It's hard to see that changing before the next election. Joy MacPhail is the only candidate on the horizon for the NDP leadership race this fall. And despite impressive work in the legislature, against huge odds, she remains closely associated in voters' minds with the government they booted out.
The poll paints a bleak picture for both parties. The Liberals are making things worse, and favouring the rich, according to most voters. The NDP still lacks enough credibility to be a serious alternative for most voters. (Though an election today would likely see the party capture 15 to 25 seats; more if the Green support fades.)
The question left is whether the Liberals - perhaps lead by MLAs and cabinet ministers from the regions - are prepared to listen to the message from the voters.
Footnote: The poll asked what the Liberals' greatest accomplishment has been: 54 per cent said "nothing." People were clearer about their biggest disappointment, with 24 per cent picking health care, 15 per cent privatization and 10 per cent education. The poll also showed Campbell faces no challengers. Asked what cabinet minister had been most impressive, the leader was Mike de Jong - with four per cent. Eight out ten had no choice.

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