Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Liberals slow to learn from Surrey defeat

VICTORIA - Even if Gordon Campbell doesn't much care what the voters in Surrey Panorama-Ridge think, he could at least fake it.
Some voters who voted NDP, or stayed home, likely thought they were sending a message to the Liberals last week. But it doesn't look like the premier wasn't listening.
One news headline did say that 'Campbell sees lessons in byelection.' Interesting, I thought. What had Campbell taken from the fact that more than one-half the voters who backed the Liberal New Era in 2001 no longer support the party?
Then I read the story, and found the only lessons the premier had learned were that the election campaign would be difficult, and the big unions would be working hard against the Liberals.
Those are both accurate observations. But they are also both about process.
People weren't dragged to the polls by union workers and forced, against their will, to vote NDP. They considered all the candidates and parties, and by a wide margin said they preferred the NDP.
Campbell could have said that he accepted their verdict, and would learn from it. He could have said that he'd be sitting down with his caucus to talk about what the government could do to regain the trust and support of voters. He didn't.
Unions did work hard for NDP candidate Jagrup Brar, and Campbell can be expected to remind voters of the former NDP government's tendency to put the interests of public sector unions ahead of the public interest. (The New Democrats, among other initiatives, set out to force unionization on social service agencies by only allowing increases to cover higher wages if the staff was covered by a collective agreement. No union, no raise.)
But the Liberals and their business allies put a huge effort in as well, supported by taxpayer-paid advertising, government spending announcements and the sales tax cut. Campbell and cabinet ministers worked the riding heavily.
Some Liberals - including Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon, who was heavily involved in the effort - also blamed the loss on the party's failure to win support among IndoCanadian voters. The riding's population is about one-third IndoCanadian, and Liberals say those voters opted overwhelmingly for Brar. (As they voted overwhelmingly for Liberal Gulzmar Cheema in 2001.)
That's likely true, and it's arguable that community loyalty played a role. It's also likely that IndoCanadian voters had a range of reasons for rejecting the Liberal candidate.
Anyway, strip out the IndoCanadian vote entirely, and by my best calculation the Liberals would still have lost the byelection, although by a much narrower margin.
It's tough to take a byelection result and predict the outcome of a provincial election still six months away. But shuffle all the factors, and a good guess is that the byelection signals if the election was held today, the Liberals would end up with around 45 seats, and the NDP around 35.
Bad news for some 30 current Liberal MLAs. They should want the party to sit down and take a look at the Surrey byelection. The party had what it considered a strong contender in Mary Polak, so strong Campbell has already endorsed her as the candidate for next May. It ran a major effort, and threw big resources at the campaign. And lost.
It seems a matter of common sense for the Liberals to reflect on why people who once were supporters weren't prepared to vote for them. The public interest isn't well-served by a government that flips and flaps according to the public whim. But it also isn't served by a government that doesn't care about whether the public thinks it is doing a good job.
It's ironic. One of the complaints disaffected voters would likely offer is that the Liberal government was uncaring, and didn't listen. The response to the byelection defeat will just convince those voters that they were right.
Footnote: The Liberals still did a lot better than the NDP in their last byelection before the 2001 vote. In the 1999 Delta South byelection the New Democrat's human sacrifice attracted 433 votes, less than 2.5 per cent of the total. (Which, from a Liberal perspective, should make the NDP's recovery it all the more alarming.

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