VICTORIA - It was pretty a good week for Gordon Campbell.
An Ipsos-Reid poll reported strong support for both the Liberals and Campbell’s leadership, high enough to make another majority a good bet.
And two independent economic forecasts predict a strong economy through the end of next year, a happy circumstance for any party in power.
The Ipsos poll, especially if read along with the Mustel Group poll released last month, shows a big recovery for the Liberals. The party is at popularity levels it hasn’t since the very brief honeymoon after the 2001 election. Campbell has never had such a strong approval rating.
As recently as two years ago, the Liberals trailed in an Ipsos poll. The NDP was at 44 per cent across the province — 46 per cent outside the Lower Mainland. The Liberals were at 37 per cent provincially and 33 per cent outside the Lower Mainland.
Now the Liberals are at 51 per cent provincially, the NDP at 35 per cent. (Greens have the support of 10 per cent of decided voters.) The support cuts across demographic and geographic lines. Even on Vancouver Island, where NDP support has been strong - the New Democrats took nine of 13 seats in 2005 - the Liberals have a comfortable lead. Campbell’s party is even slightly ahead in terms of support from union households across B.C.
The reasons aren’t complex. The government has come up with more money to ease the problems caused by underfunding in health care, education and services for children and families. It has quit acting the bully with its employees, reaching negotiated settlements with more than 50 unions representing some 200,000 workers.
And it has shed some of the arrogance and unwillingness to admit mistakes. Just compare last year’s handling of the Sherry Charlie case with this year’s response to the death of Fanny Albo after she was pushed from a Trail hospital. The government denied and stonewalled on the Charlie case until the pressure became too great. This year, the health deputy minister was dispatched immediately to prepare a public report on Albo’s death.
Add to all that a strong economy and no hot button issues and you’ve got a formula for political success.
Bad news for the NDP. Carole James still gets better ratings than Campbell. (They’re effectively tied, each with about 50-per-cent of approval ratings. But almost 45 per cent disapprove of Campbell’s performance; only 29 per cent give James thumbs down.)
But poll numbers like these, for a government in its fifth year, are grim news for an opposition. There’s not much the NDP can do to swing voters away from the Liberals if they are general satisfied. Their only hope is that the Liberals will drive voters way, as they did during their first term.
That doesn’t look likely right now. The Liberals are taking more care not to anger voters needlessly. Education Minister Shirley Bond’s attacks on teachers during the run-up to last fall’s strike helped build support for the union; this time she’s stayed quiet.
There are hints of the old style, like the decision to turn the auditor general’s position into a partisan appointment.
And Forest Minister Rich Coleman may come to regret his claim that B.C. took the lead in reaching the proposed softwood settlement that is now in so much trouble.
But generally the Liberals aren’t picking fights and are steering clear of risky issues.
On a practical level, it’s good news for an opposition. The Liberals abandoned three bad bills in the face of NDP concerns in the spring session, choosing not to risk losing political points in a confrontation. Oppositions rarely have such impact on legislation.
In terms of electoral success, the news is not so good for the NDP. If the Liberals don’t mess up, there’s little really that the NDP can do to cause a big shift in support.
Footnote: The Campbell government was jolted this week by the resignation of health deputy minister Penny Ballem, one of the most powerful bureaucrats through its first five years. Ballem, the architect and defender of most health care changes, set out her reasons in a letter to Campbell. "As I have advised you, the plans that you and your deputy minister have established for the organization of the Ministry of Health are unsound and reflect a lack of confidence in my leadership on your part." No response from Campbell yet.