Monday, February 23, 2004

Poll shows Liberals face a Heartland massacre

Poll shows Liberals face a Heartland massacre
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Liberal MLAs across the so-called Heartlands are going to be dropping like flies in next May's election unless things change in the next 14 months.
The latest poll results are encouraging for the NDP on a bunch of levels. The New Democrats and Liberals were in a dead heat in the Mustel Group poll. Each has a 40-per-cent share of decided voters.
That's a remarkable recovery from the NDP's richly deserved defeat in 2001. The party has never had this much support in the 13 years Mustel has been releasing poll results. The closest they came was in 1996, when the party hit 39 per cent - and won a majority of seats in the election.
The poll was taken just before the balanced budget was introduced, after a particularly rough patch for the Liberals marked by Gordon Hogg's resignation as children and families minister and police raids on the legislature offices of top Liberal aides.
But the poll isn't a blip. It continues a steady erosion of Liberal support.
The news is especially grim for MLAs from outside the Lower Mainland.
In Greater Vancouver, the Liberals still have a lead, with their support at 44 per cent and the NDP at 37 per cent.
But move outside the big city and voters are deserting the Liberals. In the rest of the province the NDP stands at 43 per cent and the Liberals are at 35 per cent. That means some 30 Liberal MLAs are looking at getting turfed by the voters.
The late and unlamented Heartlands strategy was supposed to improve things. It didn't work.
Publicly, the Liberals are downplaying the significance of the poll. They note - rightly - that mid-term governments tend to be unpopular, and that they have made many tough decisions.
Except this isn't a mid-term government. The election is barely a year away, and it's going to be another tough year. Government cuts are still working through the system; health care faces a major crisis this summer; and more schools are slated to be closed.
Some Liberals are also hoping that NDP support will fade once voters start thinking more seriously about the election and the party's platform becomes more specific. They hope that Carole James' inexperience will also be a factor.
But it would be more useful for the Liberals to look at why so many people have decided that they can no longer support them.
Just before the election, a Mustel poll found 87-per-cent support for the Liberals in the northwest and Interior. Since then six out of every 10 people who supported the party have changed their minds.
When that many of your fellow citizens are disappointed in your government, it's time to pay attention, and act.
Campbell thinks the government is doing a good job and people are just wrong. (As he thinks he's right and the public is wrong on whether the BC Rail sale is a broken promise.)
But next May it's the people who will decide who gets to represent them in the legislature. And based on voter attitudes today, many of those Liberal MLAs elected in 2001 won't be around for a second term.
The lack of support isn't hard to explain. B.C.'s regions have been hit hardest by service cuts, and seen the fewest economic benefits. They see big money - including some Ottawa says was supposed to go to rural infrastructure - being spent on the Lower Mainland and the Olympics.
And the government - despite efforts by some MLAs - has a strongly urban face. Vancouver is well-represented in the power positions at the cabinet table - Campbell, Colin Hansen, Geoff Plant, Christy Clark, Rich Coleman,
Gary Collins.
But it's harder to pick one or two cabinet ministers, with clout, who come to voters' minds quickly as the champions of the rest of the province.
A lot can change. But right now, the Liberals are in big trouble beyond the Lower Mainland.
Footnote: The wild cards in the election are the other parties. In 1996, a strong Reform vote hurt the Liberals. In 2001, Green support cost the NDP seats. According to the latest poll, the Greens have slumped to eight-per-cent support; the various fringe parties on the right have the support of 10 per cent of voters. Bad news for the Liberals.

Campbell has let down his own MLAs
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Sure you should be grumpy about the money wasted in having eight MLAs fly in to Victoria for a pointless five-minute meeting.
But you should be grumpier that Gordon Campbell has broken his promise to give MLAs real power through active committees working on big issues. He used to be horrified that the NDP government didn't let the health and education committees meet. But now things aren't much different.
The health committee had been sidelined for a year when the legislature asked for a report on how to promote a healthier lifestyle, and whether the effort would pay off in savings. (A pretty good topic.) That was in December.
At the end of January, the committee met for 40 minutes and floundered. Their term officially expires March 31. There wasn't enough time to get anything done, they worried, especially on such a huge topic. Everyone went away to think.
And In February, the committee met again - for less than 10 minutes - and threw in the towel. Fuzzy mandate, no money, no time. Let's forget it.
New Democrat Joy MacPhail raised a good question. If the committee had already concluded it couldn't do anything, why waste money having people fly in for a non-meeting? A phone conference or email exchange could have saved taxpayers' money and MLAs time. "It's a waste of money," said MacPhail.
Point taken, said deputy chair Blair Suffredine. The meeting is adjourned.
The wasted money is irritating, but mistakes happen.
What's more irritating is that the committee didn't find some part of its mandate it could attack, some process it could start now that could continue after March 31 when the committee is re-appointed.
What a chance. Decide to look at automotive advertising, with cars racing along twisting highways or skidding across a desert, and how it affects young drivers. Or the relative sports participation rates in several communities, why they differ and whether the active communities have lower health care costs. Or why kids quit minor sports, or why seniors drop out of exercise programs. Just do something.
They aren't slackers, the 13 MLAs on the committee. Chair Susan Brice even said way back in April that she was disappointed the committee hadn't been given any assignment. If they thought they could have accomplished something useful, I expect they still would have gone ahead.
And that's the more serious problem. They didn't think their work would be useful; why else would they bail on the task?
Which leads back to the premier's promise to make legislature committees more effective. It hasn't happened and the direction has been backward since the Liberals' first year.
The aboriginal affairs committee, chaired by John Les, got the job of trying to come up with appropriate referendum questions. Its recommendations, made in November, 2001, were rejected. It hasn't done anything since, even though there is no shortage of issues to examine or MLAs with a keen interest.
The education committee was asked to do a general report in 2001. It has done nothing in the last two years. I've talked to MLAs with keen interest in improving results in rural schools, addressing key issues in the first years of school, developing work skills. Any one of those would be an appropriate issue for the committee to review, and produce recommendations.
And the health committee last met for any real purpose in 2002.
The promise was "a vital role in policy-making" for legislative committees, which would be able to travel the province. The reality is pretty much the status quo.
It's a loss. MLAs - from any party - know a lot about their community and bring commitment and a wide range of life experiences. The kind of committees Campbell promised - but hasn't delivered - would give them the chance to make a valuable contribution to policy development.
Footnote: MLAs point out that they play a strong role in caucus and in government caucus committees on health and other issues. But those meetings are generally secret. Backbenchers deserve a chance to be seen setting policy, and representing their communities. We are at a crisis in democracy in Canada; the premier has failed to follow through on a commitment that would help address the problem.

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