Thursday, April 08, 2004

Liberals take aim at Carole James

VICTORIA - The Liberals are getting positively obsessed with Carole James.
Her name came up about 20 times in barely the space of an hour one afternoon before the legislature shut down for Easter, with most of the references from Christy Clark.
And when Labour Minister Graham Bruce did a press release to talk about the latest job numbers, he took the extraordinary step of singling out James as part of a little anti-NDP political spin. Cabinet ministers' news releases are political, of course, but not usually so blatantly partisan. (The job news was good - about 20,000 more people were working in the province in March than were a year ago.)
The Liberals have reason to be rattled. Under James' leadership, the NDP has risen steadily in the polls and is now ahead. Her personal approval rating is much higher than Gordon Campbell's.
But there's a dangerous lack of self-examination in the Liberal response. It's reasonable enough for the Liberals to try and get James to take firmer positions before the election, targets they can then attack.
And it's natural to conclude that when people no longer support you, it's because they just don't understand what you're doing, or don't have a full appreciation how much worse the alternatives are. That's the kind of thinking that leads to tactics like the focus on James.
But it's more important to consider the possibility that people have lost confidence because they don't think you're doing a good job, and think about how you need to change to regain their trust.
The Liberals took after James for her decision not to run in Surrey Panorama. Liberal MLA Gulzmar Cheema has won a federal Liberal nomination; he'll resign his provincial seat when the election is called. James should take the first chance to enter the legislature, Liberals say.
It's not going to happen. James says she can accomplish more this year by travelling around the province than she can in Victoria. She doesn't want to commit to a byelection campaign that could come anytime in the next year, depending on when a federal election is called and when Campbell decides to hold the byelection. And she doesn't want to risk defeat if the Liberals find a star candidate. Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum and Conservative MP Chuck Cadman have both been rumoured as potential Liberal candidates.
And, most importantly, what she has been doing has worked. Why mess with it now?
(The Liberals' claim that it was urgent that a party leader be in the legislature rang a bit hollow anyway. Campbell rarely shows up in the legislature, compared with past premiers. No attendance record is kept - it should be - but my last tally had him missing about 60 per cent of sitting days.)
Voters do have a right to expect more specifics from James and the NDP before the election.
She has opposed offshore oil and expansion of the current types of aquaculture, both important issues for coastal communities. Her position on mining, and balancing the inevitable land use conflicts, is unclear.
And while it is fine to talk about restoring funding to programs like child care for low-income British Columbians, voters are going to want to know where the money will come from. (Though it was striking that a recent Ipsos-Reid poll found that 60 per cent of British Columbians would pay higher property taxes for better municipal services.)
The Liberals risk making two mistakes with this approach.
The emphasis on James - and the rather blatant misrepresentation of her positions at times - is also raising her profile, and indicating just how nervous the Liberals have become.
And it is keeping them from some needed self-examination.
James will need to provide answers.
But she has a year to do that. And it's not likely that the Liberal attacks are going to bump the New Democrats from their election timetable.
Footnote: One of the things James is doing is raising money. The NDP pulled in about $3.4 million last year, up by more than 50 per cent over 2002. The Liberals still raised more, up 20 per cent to $5.5 million. And the Liberals also start with a significant advantage - about $1.5 million on hand for the coming campaign, compared with $150,000 for the NDP. The Greens raised $135,000 last year; Unity $42,000.

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