Friday, October 29, 2004

Byelection bad news for Liberals, disaster for Greens

VICTORIA - That was a convincing win for the NDP in Surrey, a blow for the Liberals and a disaster for the Green Party and Adriane Carr.
The Liberal spin is that it's tough for governing parties to win byelections.
True enough. The last victory by a governing party was in 1981. People can safely send a message of dissatisfaction in a byelection, without having to worry about which party will form the government.
But this was a still a sharp slap in the face for the Liberals. The Gordon Campbell party took 60 per cent of the vote in the riding in 2001, while the NDP stumbled home with 20 per cent, results that almost exactly reflected the provincial vote.
Now the Liberals could only win the backing of 33 per cent of voters, while the New Democrats topped 50 per cent.
The defeat comes less than seven months before the provincial vote next May, and after a big effort by the Liberals. They thought they had a strong candidate in Mary Polak, and poured taxpayers' money into pro-government advertising during the campaign. Campbell helped out, and they came up with a flood of spending announcements and even tax cut one week before the vote.
It didn't work. The Liberal challenge is to get beyond denial, and figure out why they have lost the support of more than half the people who voted for them in 2001.
Their first reaction was that voters just wanted to signal their dissatisfaction. In the general election voters they'll have to vote for us, said the Liberals, because the NDP would be worse. It's a complacent, even arrogant, attitude. If people think you're doing a bad job you need to improve.
For New Democrats, the win demonstrates that their dismal record in government is no longer fatal to their hopes. That's good news for leader Carole James, whose main challenge is to show that the party has changed.
The NDP was able to field campaign workers - something that didn't happen in 2001 - and run a winning effort.
The victory is also a big practical boost for the party. The NDP gets a much greater opportunity to press the Liberals in Question Period, and to get the party's views into the public debate. New MLA Jagrup Brar has six months to show up at every elementary school concert and service club lunch in the riding, and raise issues that affect all the Surrey ridings. And generally, the party gets some badly needed hope.
The big losers are Carr and the Green Party.
Carr chose to run herself in the byelection, saying that party leaders have traditionally taken the first chance to seek a seat.
The decision backfired. The Greens captured fewer votes than they did in 2001, finishing with less than nine per cent.
Worse, the byelection left voters with an obvious conclusion. A Green vote, under our current system, will be a wasted vote in almost every riding in the province.
That was fine in 2001, when it was clear the Liberals were going to win a huge majority. Voters could safely go Green, either because they liked their policies or didn't support of the two main parties. In 68 of the 79 ridings the Liberals would have romped home even if every Green voter had decided to back the NDP.
The byelection results show that things will be different this time. The Liberals and New Democrats will be locked in a number of close races, and perhaps even in a battle to form the government.
The only people who will safely be able to vote Green are those in ridings where the races aren't close, and those who don't care whether the Liberals or the NDP form government. That leaves the Greens with bleak prospects.
The results should send a warning to Campbell. People are unhappy with the style and substance of the government. It's a message that needs to acknowledged, not denied.
Footnote: Liberals moved quickly to blame the defeat on the active NDP support by big unions, which did pour workers into the campaign. But the government made a big push as well, and ultimately the defeat reflected the judgment of the 12,000 people who voted.

No comments: