Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Poll bad for Liberals, worse for democracy

Poll bad for Liberals, worse for democracy
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - The Iatest poll showing the NDP ahead of the Liberals is depressing, no matter which party you support today.
The Ipsos-Reid poll results should be most gloomy for Gordon Campbell and the Liberals. His party, which won the support of almost 60 per cent of B.C. voters only three years ago, has fallen to second place. If an election were held today, 42 per cent of voters would support the NDP, and only 39 per cent the Liberals. Only one-third of voters approve of Campbell's performance on the job.
It's a dazzling collapse, and so far the Liberals seem to be blind to its significance. If you were in charge of an organization, and 60 per cent of the people it served thought you were doing a poor job, you would likely acknowledge their view and change your actions and direction in response to their concerns. That isn't happening.
But that's not what is so depressing.
The truly grim news is that about half the people prepared to vote Liberal, or New Democrat, aren't actually making the choice because they think the party they back will do a good job. Their support is based on their dislike for the other options available.
OK, we're cynical these days. We even have a right to our suspicion of the ability of any party to deliver competent, even-handed government that responds to our concerns.
But these poll results should scare us. Some 1.2 million people will likely vote NDP or LIberal next year. And almost 600,000 of them won't actually have confidence in the party they are supporting. They will just find them less appalling than the other guys. (The Liberals have slightly higher positive support, but not enough to matter.)
Grumpy people have always voted that way, muttering bleakly about all politicians being the same as they marked their ballot. And more people have been simply opting out, staying home on election day.
But half the people who plan to vote now say they will be holding their nose and expecting a government that doesn't represent them, and won't do a good job.
That's dangerous.
Practically, it leads to the kind of big swings we're seeing now. B.C. needs a government that can win continued support from a majority of voters and offer a program that unfolds over a decade. Instead we get governments that are considered disappointments by two-thirds of voters before the first year is out. (That's no exaggeration - take the people who voted for other parties, add the people who voted for the winner just because they were least offensive, and you have a majority of voters already expecting bad things from the new government.)
It's partly our problem, I suppose. We don't acknowledge the difficulty of governing, and we cling too desperately to the idea that some new government can make everything right.
But political parties - Liberals and New Democrats - have to demonstrate that they recognize a responsibility to deliver the kind of government that voters want. When 60 per cent of voters think you are doing a bad job, you have an obligation to respond. That doesn't mean that politicians need abandon principle and flutter in the political winds. They do need to acknowledge an obligation to respect the views of the public.
Give Campbell credit. He's taken the biggest step of any political leader in North America by setting up a Citizens' Assembly to reform the way we elect politicians, with their recommendation to go to a referendum at the same time as the next election in May 2005. The assembly is now entering the most important part of its work, and deserves our support and attention.
But that's not enough given the current political crisis.
The political parties - all of them - have to accept responsibility for the growing and dangerous gap between government and the governed.
Footnote: The poll results are bad news for Lower Mainland MLAs. The Liberals' lead has vanished in the Greater Vancouver area with the two parties tied at 41-per-cent support. The wild card may be Chris Delaney and the Unity Party, at six per cent in the region. Unity growth could be fatal to Liberal candidates in close battles.

Harper stands a real chance - if he finds the centre

By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - You've got to hand it to Stephen Harper.
He helped merge the Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance, a move that actually resembled a take-over.
He put together a national leadership campaign that managed to capture significant support in Ontario, the nut the right must crack if it's to be a national party.
And he's managed to emerge as the leader of the new party as it is about to face a tired, scandal-plagued Liberal government in an election.
For Harper, that last fact is the most significant.
Uniting the right isn't enough in Canada. Take all the Conservative and Alliance votes in the last election and put them in one pool, and the Liberals would still have won enough seats to form the government. 'The right' in Canada - admittedly a vague enough concept - isn't big enough to win a national election in normal times. Track the polling on all the most important issues, and Canadians come down solidly in the centre. We support spending on public health care, and taxes to pay for it; oppose two-tier medical care; believe that effective markets require strong government regulation; and value personal freedom on issues of conscience like gay marriage and abortion.
If Harper simply tries to impose the old Alliance-Reform policies on the new party it will remain on the edge of success.
That's especially true if voters get any hint that Harper and the party are ideologues, people who are not prepared to temper their own beliefs with a healthy respect for the views of other Canadians.
Harper has shown every sign of avoiding that error, carefully reaching out to the Conservative faction in the new party. "We need the Red Tory vision of important national insitutions and sustainable social programs because the Conservative party will never leave the vulnerable behind," Harper said in his victory speech, a clear attempt to reassure the mainstream that he's not an extremist.
It worked within the new party. Harper won the victory with 55-per-cent support. He took every B.C. riding, and three-quarters of Ontario's ridings, and even did better in Quebec than expected. (Atlantic Canadians were less supportive, apparently still miffed about Harper's earlier comments that the region has a culture of defeat. Truth is apparently not a sufficient defence.)
Harper and BC NDP leader Carole James should be comparing notes, because both face the same challenge. They each have a constituency - he on the right, she on the left - that is not in itself large enough to elect a government. They each have the challenge of convincing other voters that they can form an inclusive government, one that is prepared to moderate its policies to win broad support.
It shouldn't be that difficult. The parties' core supporters should recognize that ideological purity will mean perpetual opposition status. It's not necessary to abandon all principle; it is necessary to recognize that compromise is essential.
But there was a certain contrariness in the old Alliance crew, an innate mistrust of power that led them to get nervous whenever the party became too successful.
Harper isn't seen as the warmest of politicians - he's a proudly dull economist.
That may be an asset. Canadians see an out-of-control federal government, and may welcome the idea of a quiet, competent leader to put things right.
You don't have to want to go out and hang out with a political leader; you just need to think he'll reflect your view of the world and provide competent leadership.
That's Harper's real challenge, and it's a significant one.
But given where the Conservatives and Alliance stood a year ago, compared with where they are today, he's already made massive progress.
And he's getting enormous help from Paul Martin, who has been unable to convince Canadians that the Liberals have not been terribly tainted by corruption, scandals and arrogance.
Footnote: Martin is left with a difficult choice. If he calls a vote this spring, then he is vulnerable to charges that he's trying to race to the public before the sponsorship scandal is complete. But if he waits until the fall, Harper has valuable time to organize a national campaign.

Random notes: Brenzinger, BC Rail follies and cursing premiers
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Random notes from the front.

The Liberals' response to the angry departure of Surrey MLA Elayne Brenzinger has left them looking sleazy.
You can expect them to be angry with Brenzinger, who left with all barrels blazing. Gordon Campbell showed " a complete and utter disregard for the opinions of caucus and its elected members, instead pressing ahead with his own secretive mandate," she wrote in her goodbye note. "Mr. Campbell's administrative style has proven itself to be chaotic, haphazard and destructive to B.C."
Any party is going to respond to that kind of criticism. The Liberals said that Brenzinger was a lightweight, and had never complained before about feeling shut out.
The public will get to judge who is most right, and the best indication will likely be Brenzinger's own performance as the legislature resumes sitting, and the issues she chooses to raise. (That didn't go well on her first day back this week.)
But the Liberals stepped boldly into the muck in responding to Brenzinger's barbs..
They offered the juicy news that she had been suspended from caucus for two weeks in December, for allegedly grabbing a staffer by the throat.
That tidbit came from caucus whip Kevin Krueger, apparently offered as a demonstration of the bad character of the MLA. Instead it raised as many questions about the general character of the Liberals.
Brenzinger's suspension was kept secret in December. Her constituents never knew that they had lost their representation within the party.
And they weren't alone. Krueger said other MLAs had also received secret suspensions for offences. But he wouldn't say who, or for how long, or what they had done to get in the premier's bad books.
It looks sleazy. MLAs have apparently done things as bad or worse than Brenzinger, and lost their right to participate in debates in caucus. But their constituents were never told, because those kinds of things must be kept secret, say the Liberals.
The need for secrecy doesn't apply when in it's in the Liberals' interests to smear someone.

The premier comes off badly in the Brenzinger affair as well. He told reporters that he didn't know she was unhappy. But Campbell did confirm that he swore at her in caucus, adding that he was just kidding around.
Most competent managers have learned that it's not just kidding around when the boss decides to swear at one member of the organization publicly. He may think it's all in good fun, but at least some of the 70 MLAs sitting in the caucus room, likely wondering if they would be next next, wouldn't be so sure.

And then there's the latest nasty fallout from the police raids on the legislature.
The government has been trying to sell another chunk of BC Rail, the short line that serves Robert Bank port south of Vancouver. Three companies are bidding, and the the deal could be worth more than $50 million.
But the Liberals had to scrub the whole thing after police warned them that confidential information about the line could have been leaked to one or more of the companies trying to buy the line.
Bad news for the Liberals, who have tried to downplay the raids' significance. But the corruption allegations have now cost taxpayers' money and stalled the government.
And they've sent a message to business that B.C. remains a wacky and risky place. The companies spent time and money preparing their bids. As of today, that's wasted capital.

Surrey MLA Gulzar Cheema is going after a federal Liberal nomination. If he gets it, he'll have to resign, paving the way for an interesting byelection. NDP leader Carole James will have to decide if she could win in Surrey, and whether her time would be best spent in the legislature.
The Liberals should be worried that Unity's Chris Delaney will run and establish a profile for Unity as a right-wing alternative. That would be Campbell's worst nightmare in the 2005 campaign.

Footnote: Several MLAs wrote letters disputing my column noting that backbenchers were serving their constituents - and themselves - badly by not raising real concerns in Question Period. Here's Brenzinger on the process: "The questions are given to us. We're told who's going to say it, at what time. We practice in caucus what the question is. The minister knows the question and answers it. I just thought: 'This isn't democracy.' I can't get up and ask the hard questions of my riding."