Saturday, May 22, 2004

Liberals' arrogance could cost them next vote

VICTORIA - If the Liberals take such pride in a business-like approach, how come they haven't learned one of the most basic business lessons?
The Ipsos-Reid poll this week didn't just show the NDP ahead. It found that more than one-third of the people who voted Liberal in 2001 have quit supporting the party.
The Liberals seemed genuinely unperturbed. It's normal for support for a governing party between elections, they said — forgetting that in B.C. it's also normal for the governing party to be defeated when the election comes round. People just haven't recognized that things are better, they say. And anyway, once voters take a harder look at the New Democrats and Carole James they will come back to the Liberals. (Which suggests a campaign slogan along the lines of 'Vote Liberal - The Lesser of Two Evils.')
What's missing is any acknowledgment that the one-third of supporters who have repudiated the party may have some real concerns that need to be addressed. Maybe those 340,000 people have something important to say.
I used to run newspapers. And if one-third of our regular readers had quit buying, I'd have wanted to know why. And how to win them back.
British Columbians are both the customers and shareholders of government. But there's no acknowledgment from the Liberals that their dissatisfaction matters, that anything needs to change, or that mistakes have been made. No one apologizes for broken promises, or acknowledges that many people have not seen the promised improvements in their lives.
Premier Gordon Campbell speaks of a rising optimism, of people beginning to see real benefits.
But one-third of the people who voted Liberal disagree. And even if they're expert in nothing else, you have to concede that they likely know more about their own lives than government.
Their perception is reinforced by the recent BC Progress Board report. The board is an extremely useful Liberal creation that uses objective indicators to rate B.C.'s performance in a number of areas against other provinces.
While there are encouraging signs, progress is slow. B.C.'s economic growth in 2003 was fourth strongest in Canada, up from eighth in 2002. We moved up one place to sixth in employment. Both are positive changes, but not likely to produce the kind of sweeping optimism Mr. Campbell hopes for in the runup to next May's election.
The most critical measurement of Liberal effectiveness is likely business investment. The tax cuts and deregulation efforts were all intended to produce badly needed investment, creating jobs and a stronger, more diversified economy. Again, there are signs of progress. Per capita business investment increased 5.9 per cent last year, the third strongest growth among the provinces. But that wasn't enough to move B.C. out of its sixth place standing.
And the province slid backwards, relative to other provinces, in both productivity and research and development spending.
There are lots of legitimate explanations for the slow progress, from the many external factors buffeting B.C. to the simple reality that economies are difficult to change. And there are some hopeful signs, like the RBC Economic forecast this week that the province would have the best growth in Canada in 2005, at 3.5 per cent.
But the statistics make the Liberals' claim that people across the province are seeing significant change in their lives look delusional. The employment rate, according to the Progress Board, is pretty much the same as it has been for the past decade. That's the reality that people see, despite Liberal news releases touting monthly job growth.
The Liberals are refusing to acknowledge that, just as they are refusing to accept that the huge number of people who no longer support the government may have legitimate reasons. They are unable to admit error, apologize for mistakes, or learn from missteps.
And as a result they raise the spectre of a government defeating itself by refusing to listen to and respect the views of the electorate.

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