Monday, July 12, 2004

Liberals in dire straits outside Lower Mainland

VICTORIA - The Heartland, Region 250, the rest of B.C. - whatever you want to call it, the people there have little use for the Liberal government.
Two polls released last week painted a worrying overall picture for the Liberals, and a positively grim one outside the Lower Mainland.
Ipsos-Reid found the Liberals and NDP virtually tied provincially. The Mustel Group found the NDP had the support of 45 per cent of decided voters; the Liberals only 33 per cent.
But both agreed that outside the Lower Mainland the numbers were much worse for the Liberals. If this lasts, some 30 MLAs risk losing their seats next May.
Ipsos-Reid found the Liberals had the support of 43 per cent of voters in the Lower Mainland, 10 points ahead of the NDP.
But in the rest of the province the New Democrats had the support of 46 per cent of voters, with the Liberals at 28 per cent. More than half the people who supported the Liberals in 2001 have now rejected the party.
A closer look at the polls reveal even deeper problems for the Liberals.
Ipsos-Reid asked people if they thought things in B.C. had grown worse, or better, since the Liberals were elected.
Overall, 42 per cent of people surveyed thought things had grown worse; only 30 per cent though the province had improved under the Liberals.
Outside the Lower Mainland, the negative opinion was much stronger. The people who thought the province had gone downhill since the election outnumber the positives by two-to-one.
Maybe, an optimistic Liberal might say, they're acknowledging the effects of factors like the softwood lumber dispute, but still think the government is doing a good job.
Except the poll also asked people what they thought of Gordon Campbell's performance as premier. Across the entire province, about 60 per cent of people disapproved of Campbell's performance as premier. Outside the Lower Mainland, it was 70 per cent.
And 52 per cent of the public in the regions strongly disapproved of Campbell's performance. Glen Clark's strongly disapprove judgment was 57 per cent as his government collapsed in scandal and incompetence.
We would be badly served by a weather-vane government, chasing popularity through a series of policies based on the latest poll.
But we're also not well-served by a government that feels no need to respond effectively when voters across much of the province are sending a clear message. When 70 per cent of voters think you're doing a bad job as premier and half your supporters have walked away, perhaps they have a point worth considering.
It's hard to see much acknowledgment of that from the Liberals. They brushed off these polls, as they have the others.
That's bad news for a lot of Liberal MLAs.
It's also bad news for the province. If the trend continues, then one clear possibility after the next election is a Liberal government based largely on seats in the Lower Mainland, with a handful of MLAs from the rest of B.C. The rest of the province will have the same sense of political disenfranchisement that many British Columbians felt after the last federal election.
The Liberals believe that disenchanted voters will return to the fold once they start considering the possibility of an NDP government. And they hope an improving economy will also win support.
There's no doubt Carole James will come under much closer scrutiny in the coming months, and will face some tough policy questions.
But it's less clear that the improving economy will make much difference. The situation is already better in many parts of the province, but the Liberals' standing has not improved.
And health, not the economy, was the dominant issue in the Mustel poll. And that's not a Liberal strength.
Politicians like to dismiss polls.
But when the message is this clear, that's will only make things worse. It is saying to those people that their opinion has no value.
Footnote: The emergence of health care as the major issue for British Columbians is bad news for the government. British Columbians are less satisfied with their health services than other Canadians already, and the health authorities are facing another tough year. The five regional health authorities got their budgets from the province last week, with an average 1.6-per-cent funding increase. (Interior Health ot a 1.3-per-cent increase.)

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