Friday, June 30, 2006

NDP shuffle puts focus on health, community safety

VICTORIA - Carole James was due to shuffle MLAs in and out of critics' jobs about now anyway.
But her caucus shake-up will still be looked at in the context of the NDP's poor performance in two recent polls, which showed Gordon Campbell and his party both with their highest ratings in almost five years. The Liberals ' popularity has increased since last year's election; the New Democrats' support has fallen.
There are a lot of factors, starting with the Liberals' rebirth as a kinder, gentler government. And the election is still three years away. But James has to respond to the polls, if only to keep critics within the party happy. The changes send the message that she recognizes the need for change.
The shuffle was due anyway. The current critics were all appointed just after the election last year; most were unknown quantities with no legislative experience. (James made her choices after asking the MLAs to do written reports on their areas of interest, why they believed they were qualified to tackle those issues and the goals that should be set.)
Some shone, some struggled. It takes a special skill set to be an effective critic. It's not enough to be an expert on the ministry that you're responsible for. You have to build a network of sources around the province. You need to be a sharp questioner in budget debate and quick and confident enough to pin down well-prepared ministers in Question Period.
And then you have to be able to make the most of media attention when it comes.
James' most significant change was to shift Adrian Dix from children and families critic to health.
Dix was an extraordinarily effective critic. There are two goals for a critic, or there should be. Critics certainly want to score points for their side and make the other guys look bad. But they also have a chance to produce meaningful improvements in the way government works. Dix's efforts highlighted the Liberals' failures in the children's ministry. They also produced Ted Hughes' review of the ministry, creation of an independent advocate for children and a total overhaul of ministry management.
By moving him to health James confirms that's going to be an NDP priority. There's still major dissatisfaction with the problem points in the system and the lack of accountability. Health Minister George Abbott is in for a much tougher time.
MIke Farnworth, the NDP's House Leader, moves from economic development critic to public safety and solicitor general. Farnworth's move signals an interest in making crime and safety a bigger issue in the next year.
Twelve of the 32 critics stayed put, including Cariboo North's Bob Simpson, a highly effective forestry critic.
Some MLAs got promotions. North Island’s Claire Trevena went from income assistance to child care and early childhood development while Esquimalt MLA Maurine Karagianis takes over children and family development.
And some choices just seem puzzling. Sunshine Coast Nicholas Simons takes over human rights, multiculturalism and immigration. The issues are hugely important to Vancouver's minority communities; Raj Chouhan of Burnaby had the job until the shuffle.
The shuffle should give the NDP a sharper focus on a couple of priority issues.
But no matter who the critics are, the New Democrats have a problem. It's difficult to score political points off a government that's working hard at being liked by voters. If the government avoids unpopular decisions, responds quickly to problems and abandons plans if the outcry gets too loud, then the opposition is in trouble. The Liberals - despite some backsliding - show signs of having learned that lesson.
The NDP has actually been an effective opposition in many areas. The Liberals abandoned three spring session bills in the face of their criticism, an extraordinary action from a majority government. The legislature has been general civil and productive.
But that's not enough to win voters' support, especially if things are generally going well.
Footnote: Shane Simpson of Vancouver-Hastings stays in environment, an area that should be critical for the NDP. The Greens were at 10 per cent in the Ipsos poll. Both parties are eying those votes. But high-profile moves like protecting much of the Great Bear Rainforest have played well with environmentalists, and left the NDP with a tougher job.


Anonymous said...

Paul's right about Farnworth's move indicating a focus on crime. I think it also signals a shift towards a more law-and-order, harper-esque approach as this is what Farnworth represents.

Anonymous said...

Dix has a job cut out for him as health critic for sure. The present health system wanders all over the place. A GP will send you to a specialist( about 8 months wait) Oops wrong specialist( 3 more months for another kind of specialist) some tests( another month and the report takes another month as well.
Why don't you consider paying for a MRI as the wait list is around , (you guessed it, 6 or 8 months) CAT scans, only another 3 months.

End result is. Hey we arn't going to operate. You should get a cortisone injection, and keep using those rather expensive prescriptions. Sounds simple but no way, this is BC. In Victoria only two people do the needle bit. Wait times, around 8 months. It's easier to get one of them to operate than stick a needle in your side.
Can I transfer the needle deal to the lower mainland? Hey we don't do that, if you go there you have to shop around for someone who does that work. Of course all the paperwork will have to go over as well. What a pain in the behind besides whatever else is hurting. I can now see why folks end up doing a Penner and hit the private guys. operation within three weeks.
all the while Minister Abbott crows about the amount of money spent, best system in Canada, and when he is on a roll, best in the world. If this is the best God help everyone else