Saturday, July 10, 2004

Polls show fractured B.C., Liberal health care problems

VICTORIA - The Liberals should be spooked by dueling poll results that revealed a destructive urban-regional split and some major political problems.
Ipsos-Reid and the Mustel Group came up with some varying results in the polls released this week. But both found a continuing slide in Liberal support outside the Lower Mainland. Some 30 Liberal MLAs from the rest of B.C. could be at risk, an obvious concern for the party.
But it's also a concern for the province. Last month's federal election left many British Columbians glumly convinced that they're doomed to be perpetual political outsiders. The poll results point toward a potential election result that would create a similar sense of alienation for British Columbians outside Vancouver and its sprawl.
Ipsos Reid found the Liberals had the support of 43 per cent of decided voters in the Lower Mainland, with the NDP at 33 per cent. In the rest of the province, the New Democrats were at 46 per cent, comfortably ahead of the Liberals' 28 per cent. (Mustel identifies a similar regional divide.)
But the seats are in the Lower Mainland, and the poll suggests the possibility of an urban-dominated Liberal government, with a scattering of representatives from the rest of B.C.
That result would just add to the sense of alienation and abandonment already felt by many in resource communities. Ipsos-Reid asked people if they believed the province has improved, or grown worse under the Liberals. Lower Mainland residents were evenly divided. In the rest of the province almost half the population thought things had got worse since the election; only 24 per cent saw improvement.
The Liberals are counting on an improving economy to lift its standing in the polls over the next 10 months. (And on voters growing increasingly wary as they consider the prospect of the NDP actually forming a government.)
But the economy has been strengthening for some time. And neither poll showed any improvement in the Liberals' standing, with Ipsos-Reid reporting the Liberal support unchanged at 37 per cent and Mustel a seven-point drop to 33 per cent.
Voters are even recognizing the strengthening economy. A June Ipsos-Reid poll found 58 per cent of British Columbians believed the economy was in good shape, the highest rate recorded in seven years.
But it's not the critical factor when it comes to assessing politicians' performance. This week's poll found that across the province 42 per cent of British Columbians think the province is in worse shape now than when the Liberals took over; only 30 per cent think things have improved.
Liberals who think an improving economy will solve their problems are running a big risk.
So if it's not the economy, what are people worried about?
More bad news for the Liberals. The Mustel Group tracks the public's view of the most important issue facing British Columbians. Before the 2001 election, health care, government and the economy were all given equal weight by respondents.
But the Mustel poll this week found health care is the overwhelmingly dominant issue. And with Prime Minister Paul Martin saying health care is his new priority, and the premiers pushing for more money, more and more attention paid to the health care system and its current weaknesses in the months ahead.
It's not a good issue for the Liberals. StatsCan surveyed Canadians in 2003 on their satisfaction with the health care services they had received in the last 12 months. British Columbians were the least satisfied in Canada. While satisfaction had risen in most provinces since 2001, it was down sharply in B.C.
Patients aren't likely to see any quick improvement to make them change their minds. The five regional health authorities got their budgets from the province this week, with an average 1.6-per-cent funding increase. (Fraser Health, with the fastest growing population, received a 3.3-per-cent boost). Even with improved spending effectiveness health authorities will struggle to deal with the demands of a growing, aging population.
It will be a challenging year for them - and for the Liberals.
- From the Vancouver Sun

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