Wednesday, April 13, 2005

James' platform aims to move NDP to middle

VICTORIA - The NDP's platform launch got the party's campaign off to a pretty good start this week, despite one major goof.
The broad thrust was clear. NDP leader Carole James wants to persuade people that she's moved the party to the middle. No more deficits, no tax increases and no turning back the clock to undo Liberal changes.
"My platform is pragmatic and achievable," James said. "It promises what can be done within our ability to pay." It's kind of an 'NDP lite,' compared with the government that ran the province through much of the '90s.
So James pledged to hire 1,500 more teachers, but she also ruled out any new taxes on business. She promised 1,000 new long-term care beds this year, but said an NDP government would still make sure to end the year with a surplus. Teachers would get the right to bargain class size, and to strike, but hospital workers shouldn't expect to get back their jobs, or pay cuts.
And perhaps most importantly, the platform includes a clear explanation of how the NDP will pay for any new spending it does plan.
An NDP government, the platform says, would come up with $32 million for the children and families ministry, and to restore the Children's Commissioner. It would find $40 million more for aid for communities hit with the pine beetle disaster. And it would come up with $103 million to open long-term care beds and cut surgical waiting lists.
The money would be found by reducing the contingency fund, and trimming bits and pieces from government.
But - and politically this is a stumble - most of the money would come from "deferring or cancelling" money for projects the Liberals are funding from their election slush fund.
That probably sounded reasonable in a planning session. The Liberals set aside a $250-million election fund this year - the same budget category was $18 million last year, and will be less than $50 million next year. Surely the public shouldn't be keen on blatant vote-buying?
But $100 million of the money has gone to create two locally directed $50-million economic development funds, one for the Southern Interior and one Vancouver Island and the mid-Coast. The NDP supports those, and has pledged not to touch them.
So far the Liberals have promised another $73 million from the fund. Smithers gets $1.7 million for a rink, Kelowna $6.5 million for a pool, Victoria $19 million for a sports complex, and so on. And another $70 million worth of announcements are planned for the next few days.
Crass vote-buying, perhaps. But the people in Nanaimo probably like the idea of an $8-million contribution to a better arena. They won't be keen on James taking the money away.
Finance Minister Colin Hansen was the designated government guy to dump on the platform. (He is effective.)
He naturally jumped on the threat to promised projects.
And Hansen raised a couple of other themes you can expect to hear from the Liberals through the campaign.
The NDP may promise no new taxes, Hansen reminded, but in government they raised tax rates in B.C. above our neighbours.
And an NDP government would give too much to organized labour, Hansen suggested, tipping the Labour Code in favour of unions and allowing teachers' strikes. (James has promised teachers the right to strike, a strange and empty commitment. No government will allow more than the briefest disruption to schools. It's a sham, and the Liberal proposal to reform bargaining makes sense.)
Still, a good start for James. There are credibility issues, a terrible party record and candidates who may have an entirely different policy view.
But James, after 17 months on the job, got the party to produce a platform that made sense, added up and could attract support from the voters who matter - the people in the middle.
It's not a bad beginning.
Footnote: The Greens got stomped on by the NDP. Adriane Carr had scheduled the party's platform launch, but the NDP put out a release saying their platform would be unveiled at the same time. An accident, said James. The Greens are not convinced.

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