Monday, June 28, 2004

B.C. fares badly in the federal election

VICTORIA -That was a discouraging election.
We didn't matter here in B.C. - again.
We established that Canada effectively has a one-party system.
And while minority governments have their advantages, it's hard to see that this one will benefit B.C., or tackle any hard issues.
It's more disappointing because it looked like we would count this time. That maybe a handful of voters out here could determine Canada's future.
But then before the first results were in from B.C., the Liberals had won their minority government.
It's not just petty regional pride at stake. Parties in power pay the most attention to the regions that will have the greatest impact on their chances of re-election. B.C.'s lack of importance has been demonstrated once again.
A bigger issue, not least for Conservative leader Stephen Harper, is that the election raised real doubts about the fundamental basis for his party.
I crunched the numbers after the 2000 election. Even if the Conservative and Alliance votes had been pooled in every riding, the Liberals still would have won a comfortable majority.
The lesson seemed pretty clear. It's not enough to unite the right. You've also got to attract support from the middle.
And if there was ever at time for that to happen, surely this was it. The polls showed voters were appalled at the sponsorship scandals and Liberal infighting. But instead of increasing its share of the popular vote, the new Conservative party went backwards, perhaps most dramatically in B.C. where the combined Alliance-Conservative vote in B.C. fell from 57 per cent to 36 per cent.
Which raises some very basic questions about why the Conservatives exist, and how they need to change if they wish to be anything more than a perpetual opposition.
There's nothing inherently wrong with minority governments.
But this particular government could be a problem for B.C. A Liberal-NDP minority is the worst outcome for the BC Liberals. (Between David Anderson and Jack Layton the moratorium on offshore oil and gas development is now more firmly in place than Layton's hair.)
It's not just the likely policy swing to the left as a result of the federal coalition. The federal New Democrats - including a much bigger B.C. contingent - know that British Columbians will be voting next May. They are not going to be enthusiastic supporters of any federal measures that make Gordon Campbell's government look good.
And given the federal Liberals' likely focus on Ontario, B.C. issues like softwood lumber will have a hard time grabbing much attention from Ottawa. (How many times did you hear the issue raised during the campaign?)
It's not all gloomy. Minority governments do have to pay attention to voters. The party in power usually has some control over when the next vote comes. But they also know that at any time the opposition parties could force an election. They have to be ready. And on some issues - like urban infrastruture - a minority government could have benefits for B.C.
But the downside of the uncertainty is that we are launched intio a perpetual election campaign. Martin will likely want to wait until the sponsorship scandal has faded before the next election. But we could be heading to the polls next spring - when we also have a provincial election.
Overall, the federal results are likely alarming for the BC Liberals. The federal New Democrats took their share of the B.C. vote from 11 per cent to 27 per cent in this election, largely at the expense of the Conservatives. They emerged as a significant home for protest votes, a role Reform and Alliance had taken over through the '90s. It's an ominous development for the Campbell Liberals, who attacked Layton and his party during the campaign with no apparent impact.
The people have spoken. I just wish we had mattered a little more.
Footnote: A big win for the Green Party. New election finance rules replace big donations with public funding based on th number of votes each party gets. The Greens are in line for more than $1 million a year, a huge amount for the cash-strapped party. Expect a lot of it to be spent in B.C. - a benefit for the provincial Greens and a headache for the NDP.

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