Friday, May 14, 2004

One year to election, and LIberals face a real challenge

VICTORIA - Start counting down - one year from today (Monday) you'll be heading off to elect the next provincial government.
Three years ago most people would have expected it to be an easy Liberal re-election victory. Not so lopsided as 2001, certainly, but still another big majority.
No more. Based on the latest polls the Liberals will face a tough battle and some 30 of the party's 75 MLAs will be out of a job. An NDP victory is no longer out of the question, a stunning turnaround given the party's dismal performance in government and overwhelming rejection three years ago.
The Liberals aren't panicked. They're confident that as the election comes closer voters will look more closely at the NDP and their record.
That's the first big factor to watch as the next year unfolds. NDP leader Carole James has been relatively untested in terms of what her party would do in government.
The former NDP government was widely and accurately seen as incompetent and wasteful, and a particularly poor manager of public sector wage costs. James has to prove that she - and the leading NDP candidates - would do better.
It will mean walking a political tightrope. James has said repeatedly that she "can't turn back the clock" and undo LIberal decisions. But she will have to provide specifics to win trust and votes. Would an NDP government restore the 15-per-cent wage rollback for Hospital Employees' Union members, for example? And if it did, where would the extra $250 million a year come from? One answer will anger public sector union members; the other will anger many other voters.
The Liberals face their own challenges.
With only a year to go, Premier Gordon Campbell points to a long list of New Era campaign promises that have been delivered.
But voters - as the polls indicate - have major doubts, linked to failures in key areas.
Health care is not better under the Liberals than it was under the NDP. The economy has not improved in the way the Liberals promised. Universities and colleges are harder to get into, and cost more. The promised improvements in the children and families ministry have been botched. The tax cut did not deliver the promised returns to government, and this year taxes actually increased for lower and middle-income British Columbians, while going down for the more affluent.
Partly, the Liberals need luck, especially on the economy. (And that should worry them, given that the only luck they have had so far has been bad - think of SARS, softwood, 911, fires, floods.)
Analysts have been upgrading their economic growth estimates for this year, a change that would mean more jobs and better pay.
More importantly, a stronger economy would allow the Liberals to bring in a credible pre-election budget next February that included spending increases for health and education. They could then claim that the sacrifices were begininning to py off.
The Liberals also need to find a way through difficult negotiations with teachers, nurses and doctors in coming months, especially critical after their mishandling of the HEU strike.
And they have to find a way to deal with the Campbell problem. B.C. premiers always trail their party in popularity. But Campbell's approval rating is dismal, with only 29 per cent of British Columbians approving of his performance. (Glen Clark, in his worst days, fell to 19-per-cent approval.)
There are lots of theories about why people believe Campbell is doing a bad job. He's seen as untrustworthy by people who believe he broke critical promises on issues like BC Rail and respecting contracts. And he's blamed for a wide perception that the Liberal government doesn't care about the effects of its policies on ordinary British Columbians.
The Liberal pitch will be based on asking for four more years to complete the job and capture the benefits of the Olympics.
The race is on. And the mere fact that it is a race, and not an easy Liberal walk, is an indication of how many more surprises may lie ahead.
Footnote: For the NDP, a critical issue will be who emerge as candidates. Newcomers may not inspire confidence; veterans of the Clark government will be a reminder of its bleak performance. For the Liberals, a critical issue will be whether the Unity Party is able to capture right-wing votes in close races that would have gone Liberal.

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