Monday, November 08, 2004

Liberals test out new nice-guy image for Campbell

VICTORIA - It's like the Grinch headed off to the magical land of the $1-million starter home, and suddenly turned into a cross between Santa Claus and Mother Teresa.
Gordon Campbell and the Liberals have just wrapped up their pre-election convention in Whistler, a party and high-tech pep rally for about 1,000 of the faithful.
The big theme was the emergence of the new kinder, gentler Campbell, who after three years of cutting spending and attacking government is now ready to write some cheques and get a little activist.
It's easy to proclaim yourself changed, and hard to get people to believe you.
Campbell signaled the new focus with an announcement that British Columbians who qualify for disability benefits would get an extra $70 a month, the first increase in a decade.
It's a welcome and overdue change. The current disability benefit for a single person, unable to work, provides up to $325 a month for housing and $460 a month for everything else. It's a tough, often demeaning life. (By way of comparison, a minimum wage job provides a 40-per-cent higher income.)
Still, the Liberals have made the positive change. And during their three years the number of people on disability has increased by more than 20 per cent, in part because of willingness to acknowledge individual need.
But then there was the big disability review. The Liberals wasted more $4 million - and created a huge amount of fear and uncertainty - on a review that established that 98 per cent of disability claimants were fully entitled. (A review may have been a good idea, but could have been accomplished simply with a random audit of files.)
It wasn't just the disabled who got some good news. Campbell used the convention to promise free hearing, sight and dental tests for every B.C. child before Grade 1. It's a good measure, although only if help is available when problems are detected.
Schools will be made earthquake-safe within the next decade, and junk food banned within the next four years, the premier promised.
Along with the kinder stuff came a little emphasis on law and order, notably plans to seize peoples' stuff if they can't prove they didn't buy it with the proceeds of crime and to do something about grow ops.
And, naturally, the convention featured some NDP-big union bashing along the way.
The Liberals are in a position to spend some money. The economy in much of the province has improved significantly in the last year, and the government is expecting a surplus of more than $1 billion this year, increasing in the next two.
But there are a couple of question marks around the image remake.
The first is that the government has always been in a position to improve disability benefits, or ensure all children get a good start in school. A tax cut of 24 per cent, instead of 25 per cent, for example, would have fully funded the disability benefit increase.
The bigger problem is that Campbell is saying trust me, and he's already broken trust on some big issues. Halt the expansion of gambling, he said. Instead, they've tripled the number of slot machines. No sale of BC Rail. No ripping up of contracts. No taxpayer-paid political advertisements. All broken promises.
Which makes it hard for the premier to ask for trust.
Conventions are mostly about getting the troops pumped up, and the Liberals put a lot of effort into that, with seven giant video screens around the hall and slick production values.
That meant, unfortunately, that there's a lot of useful self-scrutiny. It was considered impolite to raise the Surrey-Panorama Ridge byelection defeat, for example. Campbell alluded to the loss briefly, blaming the loss on union-financed ads promoting the NDP. That's insulting to the voters in the riding, and shuts off legitimate discussion of how the Liberals could do a better job of delivering the government that voters expect.
Footnote: The Liberals - already unpopular with women voters - voted down a policy resolution that said that since the party believes in fairness and equity, it should encourage measures to get more women into senior positions in government. Delegates also slapped the northwest by refusing to offer token support for the Kermode bear as the Olympic mascot.

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