Saturday, October 04, 2003

BC Liberals, NDP get warning from Ontario vote
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Both the NDP and the Liberals in B.C. could take a lesson from the Ontario election.
Voters turfed out the Conservative party, choosing to place spending on health, education and infrastructure ahead of tax cuts.
The Ontario Conservatives have been frequently cited as an example of how things should be done by the Campbell Liberals. Mike Harris took power promising a "common sense revolution," which would include big tax cuts and spending reductions.
Eight years later, his party is gone.
There's lots of factors - this is, after all, Canadian politics. Harris was succeeded by Ernie Eves, who was unable to convince voters he was equipped to lead. The Conservatives bungled some critical issues, like power deregulation and privatization.
But the debate over tax cuts, and the kind of society people wanted, was central to the campaign. The Conservatives went to the voters promising more tax cuts - a reduction of corporate tax worth about $550 million, savings for seniors and homeowners and people who send their kids to private schools.
It was a similar message to their promises in the last two elections, based on the same premise - that tax cuts will boost the economy, and that voters' priority is on keeping money in their own wallets.
It didn't work.
That doesn't mean that voters don't like saving money. But the Liberals successfully argued that public spending isn't bad, if it is used to deliver needed services in an effective way.
And they found a receptive audience. For the past couple of years there has been a growing sense in Ontario that the things that residents were once proud of - quality health care, good public schools, parks, clean cities, opportunities for children - were deteriorating. Talk to Ontario residents, or read their papers, and you heard of mounting concern about health care waiting lists. People noted that schools - once well-maintained and a centre of community pride - were now dirty, with scruffy yards and unpainted buildings, because there wasn't enough money.
They simply decided that they were willing to pay taxes to see those services maintained. And they didn't buy the argument that further tax cuts would generate any economic benefits. The Conservatives dropped from 59 seats to 24; the Liberals went from 35 to 72.
It's an important lesson for the BC Liberals.
The Campbell government's focus is firmly on cutting spending. The government needs to cut more than $850 million from this year's programs to meet the goal of a balanced budget by next year. And they are in a tight enough bind that the quality and value of services matters much less than the arbitrary budget deadline.
And that is the kind of government that Ontario voters rejected.
But the BC NDP, as they head toward a leadership convention next month, can also learn from Ontario.
Voters didn't take the NDP seriously or believe that the party had a credible plan for governing. The Ontario New Democrats focused on public ownership of power generation as a key issue. It wasn't enough for voters, who elected only seven MLAs - not enough for official party status in the larger legislature. (Barely a decade ago Ontario had an NDP government. The party's descent to fringe status is quite remarkable.)
The bottom line lesson is that the voters wanted a balanced government. They rejected the tax cuts before people policies of the Conservatives. And they rejected the NDP's record of bad management.
Instead they elected a government that pledged to improve schools and health care and strengthen communities, and promised to do that without major tax increases or deficits. Voters rejected the notion that tax cuts are more important than the quality of services.
The situation is different here. There is no centrist party at this point, just two choices occupying their own far sides of the spectrum.
But parties have a way of emerging, when there's a political vacuum to fill.
Footnote: The Ontario Liberals - like the Campbell government - are committed to a referendum on electoral reform. They received fewer than half the votes, but ended up with 70 per cent of the seats. The Conservatives captured a third of the vote, but elected fewer than one-quarter of the MLAs.

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